Twelve months ago it seemed any driver with a hope of getting into a world championship-contending Mercedes would have to wait until at least 2019.
Then in a stunning turn of events Rosberg beat Hamilton to the 2016 title and promptly retired. Mercedes grabbed Valtteri Bottas to take his place for this year.
With big hitters like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso out of contract at the end of this season, the pressure has been on Bottas to deliver and secure his place at the team for 2018.
With the season now past its halfway point, Bottas looks in a great position to hold onto his dream promotion. This is at least as much to do with his strong performances since the beginning of the year as circumstances outside his control.
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Just one year for Vettel
Vettel, who was rumoured to have spoken to Mercedes about a 2018 seat, is now tipped to extend his Ferrari deal by at least one year. In F1 contract terms this is him damning them with faint praise.
Ferrari are used to having their pick of the best drivers and locking them down on multiple-year deals. By letting his original contract with Ferrari run its course and only offering a one-year extension on his services, Vettel stands to give himself the whip hand in the negotiations. And he would be the obvious choice for Mercedes in 2019 if either Hamilton or Bottas are not retained.
Mercedes’ Toto Wolff has indicated he would not bring Alonso into the team. If Vettel takes another year at Ferrari and Bottas gets another year at Mercedes, that will leave both available 12 months down the line.
This appears to be the way things are heading. Wolff has said Bottas is “clearly our favourite” for the 2018 seat. But he also hinted it will be just another one-year deal.
“Valtteri is doing a good job but I have been here for a while and I don’t think you should be rushed into a driver decision,” said Wolff. “The market becomes pretty interesting in 2019 and onwards and you just need to plan ahead what’s happening.”
Besides Vettel, Wolff may want to keep his options open in case one of the Red Bull drivers become available. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are contracted for at least another year, but performances clauses may offer them the opportunity to move on after that.
Raikkonen likely to stay
That accounts for five of the six seats at the ‘big three’ teams. The sixth is occupied by Kimi Raikkonen, whom Ferrari have hinted will also get another year.
Last year Ferrari put the matter of Raikkonen’s 2017 contract to rest early on when he was having a decent season. This year has not begun as well but his qualifying pace has improved and he demonstrated his value to Vettel’s championship hopes in Monaco and Hungary, whether he wanted to or not.
In its recent history Ferrari has shied away from hiring anyone who wasn’t a proven race winner. That leaves them with few options even if they wanted to replace Raikkonen.
Romain Grosjean clearly craves the opportunity, but it’s hard to make a case for him on the strength of his patchy form at Haas. Sergio Perez is again proving himself a star of the midfield. But would Ferrari recall the junior driver they lost to McLaren in 2013?
Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of keeping Raikkonen is that failing to keep him would risk denting his motivation in the second half of this year, just when they need him to protect Vettel from the threat of Mercedes.
The signs point to a static scenario among the ‘big three’ teams for 2018. But Rosberg’s shock move last year reminded us to take nothing for granted on the driver market.
Over to you
Do you expect the top three teams to keep the same drivers next year?
Have your say in the comments.
View the current list of 2018 F1 drivers and teams
2018 F1 season
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- McLaren Racing losses rise after Honda split
- Ricciardo: Baku “s***show” was Red Bull’s fault
- “Drive to Survive Episode 1: All to Play For” reviewed
- F1’s television and social media audiences rose last year