Esteban Gutierrez scored his maiden Formula 1 points at the Japanese Grand Prix. It wasn’t a fluke, as the Mexican has been transforming from an anonymous midfield runner into a genuine points contender.
Formula 1 points are like buses for Esteban Gutiérrez. After waiting 15 races for one, six turn up at once.
It would be remiss to suggest that Gutiérrez is now primed to develop into a championship contender, but his recent form is proving that he isn’t the hopeless pay driver that some wish to depict.
Sauber has a striking history of nurturing young drivers, but there was a preliminary consensus that the team had thrown Gutiérrez in at the deep end a tad prematurely. His results in GP2 were good, but not outstanding, and his transition into Formula 1 proved troublesome.
Accidents in Australia, China and Bahrain cemented the view that Gutiérrez was out of his depth, further emphasised by memories of his needless accidents in his GP2 campaign in 2012. He was never troubling team-mate Nico Hülkenberg and rarely had a shot at the top 10.
But treatment of Gutiérrez was symptomatic of the short-termism that has enveloped sport courtesy of constant scrutiny. A driver can no longer drop the car in practice without the accident being replayed from several angles on multiple occasions; if it happens to a rookie, it emphasises the impression that they can’t cut it in Formula 1. The fact that Gutiérrez was seen as a direct replacement for fan-favourite Kamui Kobayashi (although Sauber’s Mexican continuity suggests otherwise) only fuelled the vitriol.
Rookies are woefully underprepared in Formula 1 due to the testing restrictions and anyone predicting that Gutiérrez would initially have the measure of Hülkenberg was foolish. Gutiérrez had around 12 days of testing (including the 2013 pre-season tests) prior to his Formula 1 debut but even that quantity is not hugely significant.
Gutiérrez was further inhibited by a Sauber that was all at sea. Hülkenberg – whose talent is not in doubt – was occasionally scraping into the points but the car was nowhere near the giant-killer from 2012.
Gutiérrez enjoyed a positive performance in Spain – where strategy allowed him to lead the race and set fastest lap – but it was during the middle of the season where both Gutiérrez and Sauber’s form took an upswing in fortune. Aided by the revised Pirelli tyres and his own confidence, Gutiérrez demonstrated improved pace in Hungary and Belgium, albeit circumstance prevented the Mexican from troubling the points.
Even back in Belgium, he appeared more confident, telling F1Zone.net that he felt more confident after the summer break.
“I think that I’ve lived a lot of experiences at the beginning of the season,” he said. “This helped me to develop my confidence.”
“It is something I want to achieve as soon as possible,” he said regarding that elusive first point. “I also cannot panic or make a drastic change. Everything has to come together and I have to be very well aware of that and not start making mistakes. The last few races have been very strong on my side, okay the qualifying there have been a few issues with car set-up and also some failures on the car that didn’t help, but on the race I’ve been quite strong and this is where my confidence has come from.”
Monza, however, emphasised a main issue for Gutiérrez in 2013. He was less than a tenth of a second behind Hülkenberg in final practice, but that gap grew to half a second in Q1. Hülkenberg had the confidence and experience to find the extra grip that the track and tyres were offering; Gutiérrez did not. Gutiérrez was knocked out in Q1 while Hülkenberg went on to qualify in third and finish the race in fifth.
But Gutiérrez finally made the breakthrough, at the challenging Marina Bay circuit of all places. He progressed through to the top 10 shootout at Hülkenberg’s expense and eventually came home just 13 seconds shy of his team-mate. Korea was another positive event as both drivers made Q3, with Gutiérrez surging ahead at the start. Sadly it was Gutiérrez who was one of the primary victims of Felipe Massa’s faux pas and the Sauber driver took evasive action, dropping him down to 14th place.
The first points could have come in Singapore, should have come in Korea but finally worked their way into Gutiérrez’s pocket in Japan. He was still beaten by Hülkenberg, but he developed the confidence to attack Massa – albeit unsuccessfully – and defended well against Nico Rosberg across the final laps.
The weight has been lifted from his back and the transition from anonymous midfield runner to credible points contender is well advanced. It would be careless to suggest that Gutiérrez has not been helped by Sauber’s progress and there will be more errors and disappointing moments, but the young Mexican is proving he has the ability to battle among the best.
His progress will also help Sauber in the Constructors’ championship as every position gained will aid the team’s financial status and standing within the sport. Hülkenberg will remain their main focus, but Gutiérrez is aptly placed to provide support and try and secure double points finishes for Sauber. Barring an improbable reversal of fortunes, Sauber has the measure of Toro Rosso. Force India sit 17 points ahead of Sauber and in the last four races, the Swiss team has taken 38 points. Force India, just the one. McLaren is 38 points ahead of Sauber, but while the Woking based team should be out of reach, Sauber has a trump card in the form of Hülkenberg and Interlagos.
But whatever happens for Sauber in the Constructors’ championship, the team is showing that their faith in Gutiérrez is not misguided.