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Sauber to fast-track Russian teenager into F1

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Russian teenager Sergey Sirotkin could become Formula One's youngest ever driver next season as part of a financial lifeline keeping the Swiss Sauber team in the sport.

Cash-strapped Sauber announced on Monday a partnership with three Russian entities, including the National Institute of Aviation Technologies which is headed by the 17-year-old driver's father Oleg.

The other two are the Investment Cooperation International Fund and the State Fund of Development of the North-West Russian Federation.

Sauber said in a statement that a development programme would be set up for Sirotkin "to prepare him as a racing driver for the team in 2014".

If that plan comes to fruition - and it depends on the granting of a super-license and him being deemed ready to take the step - Sirotkin would be far younger than Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari was when he made his race debut in 2009 aged 19 years and 125 days.

The teenager, who turns 18 in August, is currently competing in the Formula Renault 3.5 series.

Sauber said the partnership would also include "activities for the promotion of the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix in Sochi in 2014 and attracting the talented young Russian generation towards motorsport.

"This extensive co-operation will showcase Russian innovation at the pinnacle of motorsport. At the same time, the Sauber F1 Team will have a solid foundation to increase its competitiveness on a long-term basis," it added.

Sauber's current race drivers are experienced German Nico Hulkenberg, who is expected to move on, and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, whose path has been smoothed by the backing of important Mexican sponsors.

FINANCIAL HOLE

The Swiss-based team - once owned by BMW - have been seeking a new partner to get them out of a financial hole, with founder Peter Sauber recognizing delays in paying some suppliers.

"The situation is serious. It is one of the most difficult situations since I've been in motorsport," he told Blick newspaper at the weekend.

Sauber, who also have a Russian connection through a partnership with Premier League soccer club Chelsea owned by billionaire Roman Abramovich, said details of the new deal would be revealed at a later stage.

Formula One has wooed Russia for more than a decade with limited success although the country's involvement is now growing steadily.

Minardi, the defunct team that is now Toro Rosso, trumpeted a deal with Gazprom back in 2002 and carried the gas giant's branding on their cars for a while, but there was little evidence of any money actually coming through to the perennial tail-enders.

Vitaly Petrov became the first Russian F1 driver with Renault in 2010 and brought some personal backing to that team and then Caterham, who now employ his ex-manager as their commercial director.

Ferrari have Moscow-based internet security provider Kaspersky Lab as an official sponsor while the most high profile Russian involvement so far was the takeover by sportscar maker Marussia of the British-based Virgin Racing team.

Marussia, who have the smallest budget of any team, have attracted several Russian sponsors but have yet to score a point and are also fighting for funding.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Davis)

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