If we take recent news stories on face value, it appears that Alguersuari has rejected a race drive with HRT in favour of pursuing a test driver role with a bigger team. This doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons. A F1 race drive is a way to keep racing and keep yourself in the picture, albeit at the back of the grid. We have seen many drivers use small teams as their launching pad to bigger and greater things. Both Alonso and Webber started their careers with Minardi who were, at the time, the absolute back markers. Still, Alonso’s performances in particular were so impressive that Schumacher stood up and took notice. At a time when everyone believed that Juan Pablo Montoya was going to be the next big thing in F1, Schumacher had already identified Alonso as his key future opponent.
An F1 race drive, in effect, gives you exposure to exactly the type of people who you want to see you: team managers, engineers and other drivers. Even at the back of the grid, opportunities for Alguersuari to make a difference in 2012 will surely arise. Just see what happened in 2011: Kovalainen used his Lotus drive to significantly increase his name and reputation within the sport, whereas Ricciardo put a decent showing against Liuzzi, who is a known quantity, and got himself a Toro Rosso for 2012. Of course it works the other way too, as Liuzzi is considered by almost everybody as a nearly man, whereas Trulli’s career has pretty much ended. Other drivers such as Di Grassi and D’ Ambrosio rightly fell off the radar.
A test driver, in the current environment of testing restrictions, does not get the chance to do any meaningful mileage or get any sort of exposure. Unless you are a Friday test driver, being a test driver nowadays is all about PR activities and putting in the hours in the simulator at the factory. It’s a thankless job, whichever way you look at it. Alguersuari’s chances of landing a Friday test role are limited. Sauber reserves that for drivers generally associated with Ferrari, which Jaime isn’t. Force India usually test on Fridays with drivers they plan on racing at some point in the future. Williams will be running Bottas and Renault have a pool of driver talent to pick from to fill in on Friday mornings, if they see fit. Toro Rosso is obviously not an option. So that leaves him with Lotus and the big 4.
A test drive with any of the big 4 teams will simply mean that he will be sidelined for the entire season and only called upon for minor PR events or at the end of the year for the Abu Dhabi test, at best. I cannot understand why Alguersuari would want such a job, at this point in his career, when what he needs the most is competition mileage and honing his skills.
The only option that makes some sense is Caterham. They apparently seem ready to take the leap to the midfield, and have been keen on running various drivers on Friday mornings. Furthermore, Trulli’s career should be over anytime soon, so Alguersuari could find himself propelled into a race seat long before the end of the season. It remains to be seen whether Lotus rate young Jaime and if they want to give him this chance. One should not forget that there are better drivers in the market at this moment, such as Barrichello and Sutil. Petrov and Senna may or may not be better drivers, but they certainly have larger pockets.
All things considered, turning down the HRT drive (if rumours are correct) is a strange decision, and it will only be justified if he ends up in a Caterham Friday testing role. Sometimes taking a step back is also useful. Look at Romain Grosjean; he was too unprepared when he joined Renault in 2009, and was shown the exit unceremoniously. A couple of years later and with a GP2 title under his belt, he rightfully reclaimed the right to give it another go.
I think for Jaime it would be a good decision to do a couple of GP2 seasons and return in either 2013 or 2014, when the drivers’ market will be (arguably) more open.