Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Sergio Perez, Esteban Gutierrez and More
Sergio Perez enjoyed his most productive Formula One season to date in 2015.
After a scruffy start, perhaps borne of frustration as he and team-mate Nico Hulkenberg waited around for Force India's B-specification car, the Mexican emerged as one of the most consistent performers on the grid, claiming a number of solid results and a podium finish in the Russian Grand Prix.
Those points were crucial to the team's fifth-place finish in the constructors' championship, and Perez has challenged Force India to take the next step in 2016.
If Perez has another strong campaign, he may put himself in contention to partner four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari from 2017.
But it seems the most successful team in the history of F1 have their eye on another Mexican driver.
Ferrari played an integral role in Esteban Gutierrez's return to the grid with Haas for 2016, and the American team's owner has revealed the Prancing Horse will be evaluating the former Sauber driver throughout the year.
After their 2015 season exceeded all expectations, Ferrari will enter 2016 hoping to topple the all-conquering Mercedes team, with Niki Lauda expecting the opening three races to decide the course of the campaign.
Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button will also be eager to influence the destiny of the title next season, but a championship challenge is likely to be out of McLaren-Honda's reach.
But Eric Boullier, the team's racing director, is certain McLaren will enjoy a more fruitful campaign in 2016.
Closing this week's roundup is Monisha Kaltenborn, who fears the emergence of Haas and Manor-Mercedes will leave Sauber facing a fight to score points.
Sergio Perez Backs Force India to Fight for 4th in 2016
Sergio Perez is confident Force India can fight for a top-four spot in the 2016 constructors' standings after claiming their best-ever finish of fifth in 2015.
Having made a slow start to 2015 due to "cash-flow issues," as deputy team boss Bob Fernley told Sky Sports' Pete Gill, Force India emerged as one of the most consistent outfits on the grid in the latter stages of the season.
Nico Hulkenberg's sixth-place results in Japan and Brazil were among the highlights, but it was Perez's run of nine points finishes in the final 12 races—including a podium appearance in Russia—that allowed the team to secure fifth with a round to spare.
After the Interlagos race, Fernley told Motorsport.com's Adam Cooper that Force India should challenge fellow Mercedes customers Williams in 2016.
And while Perez has urged the Silverstone-based outfit to be wary of the threats posed by the recovering Renault and McLaren-Honda teams, he believes his team principal is not unrealistic to suggest Force India can challenge the likes of Williams and four-time world champions Red Bull Racing.
Perez told Autosport's Ian Parkes:
Finishing off the season the way we did provides us with a much stronger platform for next year.
We're expecting other teams to move up. You don't know what will happen with Lotus/Renault, McLaren-Honda, those kind of teams, but we expect them to be up there fighting us.
There is a lot of hope we can do better than fifth next season.
I understand to move up to fourth is a big ask. but we have to be aiming for Red Bull and Williams.
But I believe in the team and believe it can be a fantastic season next year.
Perez was arguably the most improved driver in 2015, and the Mexican has spoken of his satisfaction after what he regards as his "best season so far," telling the same source how the "consistency" he has shown has been even "more important" than his results.
Ferrari to Monitor Esteban Gutierrez at Haas in 2016
Esteban Gutierrez will be closely monitored by Ferrari as he makes his return to the Formula One grid at the new Haas team in 2016, it has been revealed.
After leaving Sauber at the end of 2014, the Mexican joined Ferrari in a reserve-driver role for 2015, when he attended a number of grands prix in the team's colours.
Given the Prancing Horse's close technical partnership with Haas, his status as a Ferrari-affiliated driver made him an automatic contender for a seat with the American outfit, who confirmed Gutierrez as Romain Grosjean's team-mate over the Mexican Grand Prix weekend.
Grosjean's switch from the established Lotus outfit to an all-new team has been regarded as the Frenchman's first step toward a future Ferrari drive, but team owner Gene Haas has claimed it is Gutierrez who is catching the eye of the Scuderia.
He told Autosport's Ian Parkes:
Ferrari is like a top-notch university, and if you go to that university then you have good credentials.
If anything, most of it is the fact Ferrari said, "Here's a driver you should consider and we would like to have him in your car."
Ferrari was interested in Esteban driving. Part of it is they would like to try him out so that they can evaluate him for a Ferrari drive down the road.
I don't know what Ferrari's personal point of view is, but my point of view would be is they put talent in cars that they think have a potential to be their future drivers.
As reported by BBC Sport's Andrew Benson in June, Ferrari were put under "pressure from their Mexican sponsors" to promote Gutierrez to race alongside Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion, in 2016 before deciding to retain Kimi Raikkonen.
Niki Lauda Expects Opening 3 Races to Be Crucial in Mercedes-Ferrari Battle
Niki Lauda, the non-executive chairman of the title-winning Mercedes team, believes the first three races of 2016 will be crucial to determining the state of play between the Silver Arrows and Ferrari.
Although Mercedes won 16 of a possible 19 races for the second successive season in 2015, the team were frequently challenged by Ferrari, who recovered from a winless 2014 by claiming three victories with Sebastian Vettel.
The strength of Ferrari's performances has led to suggestions the Prancing Horse could threaten Mercedes' dominance in 2016, with team principal Maurizio Arrivabene telling Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble his side "must be in front" of Mercedes next season.
But while Lauda has admitted Ferrari have much scope for development, he is confident Mercedes can maintain their advantage in 2016.
And the three-time world champion has predicted the opening three grands prix in Australia, Bahrain and China will shape the entire campaign, telling Gazetta dello Sport (h/t F1i.com):
Ferrari can develop its chassis, it aerodynamics and also its power unit more easily than us.
We were very strong in preparing the hybrid engine at the outset with all it’s implications. But at this point our margin for improvement has reduced.
That said we have more experience with hybrid than the others and we know where to intervene to hold onto the margin we had right up to the last race (of 2015).
I think the first three races of 2016 will tell us how the whole 2016 season is going to go.
Lauda competed in Ferrari colours for four seasons between 1974 and '77 and believes the team—without a world championship of any kind since 2008—are almost back to their best.
He added: "Ferrari is Ferrari again; you can see it in the way they have gained ground from year to year.
"Vettel has given us something to think about; he’s been quick, he’s won, his hunger has grown. They are already on the right track to make more progress."
McLaren-Honda Can See Light at the End of the Tunnel
Eric Boullier, the McLaren-Honda racing director, believes the team are now over the worst of their troubles as their preparations for the 2016 season continue.
Although McLaren and Honda formed one of the most successful chassis-engine partnerships in the 1980s and 1990s, the power of dreams became the stuff of nightmares in 2015 as the MP4-30 registered just six points finishes in 19 races.
The team finished second bottom in the constructors' standings as Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso—who have three world titles between them—finished 16th and 17th in the drivers' championships, but Boullier remains optimistic for a turnaround.
According to Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, McLaren's 2016 chassis—which will be the first to be fully designed by former Red Bull technical guru Peter Prodromou—has shown "encouraging figures" in the wind tunnel.
And Honda's power unit, which was exposed as underpowered, unreliable and inefficient in 2015, is "expected to deliver a significant step forward."
While Boullier admits McLaren may not be in a position to challenge the all-conquering Mercedes outfit in 2016, the Frenchman—who has again defended his team's switch to Honda power—believes the team are on course to enjoy a much stronger season, telling Noble:
If you want to beat Mercedes you need to be better than them. They have brilliant engineers, brilliant mechanics, a brilliant car, a brilliant engine, and brilliant drivers. It is tough to beat them.
We have the same I think: we have the best mechanics, the best engineers, and the best drivers—but still not the best car and still not the best engine. So we need to work on these last two ones.
We had to change the philosophy of McLaren itself to bring back the performance on track. But we also had to change engine partner, because you cannot beat the world champion if you are a customer—it is impossible.
The path to go with another engine manufacturer to be a works team was absolutely the way to go. The commitment Honda showed us, the facilities they have in Japan, clearly, you cannot ignore that. This is exactly what we are looking for.
It is true that the marriage came a little bit earlier [than was ideal], but we had to do it and jump off of the cliff anyway.
So, yes we have had to take huge pain, and it has been very painful, but I believe from next year already we will be much more competitive. And then you are back to the real race on track.
Per the same source, Boullier claimed the maturing relationship between McLaren and Honda should ensure "everything is going to be better," but he was reluctant to pinpoint any "specific results" the team are targeting in 2016.
Sauber Expect Haas and Manor to Challenge for Points in 2016
Monisha Kaltenborn, the Sauber team principal, believes the Swiss outfit will face a challenge to score regular points in 2016 due to the increased level of competitiveness toward the rear of the grid.
Having failed to score a single point in 2014, Sauber recovered well to finish eighth in the 2015 standings, with Felipe Nasr finishing as high as fifth in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The team, however, were unable to keep up in the development race and Nasr recently told Autosport's Lawrence Barretto how new technical director Mark Smith had encouraged Sauber to experiment with a "more aggressive" design concept for 2016.
But with perennial backmarkers Manor, who have scored just two points in six seasons, running with Mercedes power units next season, and with the new Haas team receiving technical support from Ferrari, Kaltenborn fears Sauber may have to rely on others hitting trouble to score points next year.
She told Motorsport.com's Jamie Klein:
You should never underestimate anyone—we saw last year, that one race where things go wrong, look where you end up.
We have with Manor coming with a new tie-up [with Mercedes]. We have a new team [Haas] coming, which we learn from media has had extensive co-operation with another team [Ferrari].
So, it is going to be very tough to score a point. I think you really will have to do that on your own, because a lot will have to go wrong [further up the field] if you’re just there [at the end] to get the point.
Kaltenborn has paid tribute to Smith, telling the same source how his vast experience has brought leadership and a "clear vision" to a team with financial "limitations."