As Formula 1 heads for its last grand prix before the summer sojourn, the driver market, traditionally known as the ‘silly season’, is gradually switching from bubbling under to full heat. Expect a number of announcements to be made between now and the Belgian Grand Prix, the first event after the break.Lewis Hamilton, current ‘wingman’ Valtteri Bottas and third driver Esteban Ocon, who has been promised a full-time drive in 2020.
Hamilton’s contract will keep him at Mercedes until the end of the 2020 F1 season. But Bottas needs to up his game substantially under pressure and not commit errors such as the one on Sunday in Germany, or his qualifying spin in Canada, which in turn scuppered his team’s strategic plans.
The look of sheer frustration – or was it unbridled anger – on Toto ‘Alfred Neubauer’ Wolff’s face when Bottas tipped his ‘White Arrows’ out of a potential second place and into the barriers on Sunday said it all: Enough is enough! Wonder what Bottas thought when he saw the outburst on replay?
This brings Racing Point into play: While Lance Stroll’s seat seems safe – he is, after all the son of Lawrence, head of the consortium that owns the team – the question is how to fill the second seat. Retain Sergio Perez, or take a punt on whichever of the two Mercedes driver is not kept?
The most likely scenario is that Perez will be stay with the Silverstone-based team for a seventh straight year, for not only is he recognised as leader of the midfield pack, but also brings strong backing from Mexico. True, the team no longer needs funded drivers, but a fast driver with money is better than one without one or both these attributes.
Plus, ‘Checo’ is a solid mentor for the boss’s son, something the combative Ocon is unlikely to be. When team principal Otmar Szafnauer was asked by Sky in Germany whether the team would be retaining both drivers for next season, he answered “I hope so”. True, the US-Romanian he is not the final arbiter, but he surely has input into the process, particularly where the overall boss agrees.
Where else could Ocon be accommodated, if not at Mercedes? Renault, as team-mate to Daniel Ricciardo, who is due to stay on next year? Possibly, but what happens to Nico Hulkenberg under those circumstances? The word in Hockenheim is he now intends staying not only in F1, but with the yellow team.
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But of course that may not be his decision: Sunday’s excursion into the barriers cost the team a potential podium, which did not go down well in Paris or Enstone. That said, an air of mistrust prevails between Wolff and Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul after the latter (allegedly) reneged on a deal to stick Ocon in a car this year when it became apparent Ricciardo was willing to take a punt on his team.
“[Regarding] Nico’s contract, the initial term is coming to an end at the end of this year, but there is some mechanism of options,” Abiteboul explained last month in Paul Ricard. “So, it’s maybe that we continue our journey with Nico. Frankly, Nico has delivered for the team.”
“But also we need to look at the options, like everyone is doing, like I’m sure Nico is doing… things are open for him and for us, but there is also an option in place so that we can possibly continue our journey together.”
Hulkenberg could switch to Red Bull as replacement for the lacklustre Pierre Gasly, but a number of Formula E teams are said to be after Lanky Nick, and while the most obvious outfit – Porsche, for whom he won Le Mans in 2015 – seems out of bounds, who knows what may eventuate between now and the start of the 2019/20 electric season, scheduled to start a week before this year F1’s finale?
Given that the only other Mercedes-powered team is Williams – which already has Mercedes junior George Russell in one car – the chances are slender that Ocon will be seconded to the Grove outfit. For obvious reasons, neither Bottas or Hulkenberg have much appetite to return to their former team. The word from Ocon’s camp is that three teams have expressed interest, so who to add to Mercedes and Renault?
Haas? One wonders how much longer team owner Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner will tolerate their drivers serially crashing into each other. Founder team member Romain Grosjean’s recurring mistakes make him a candidate to be dropped despite being a ferociously fast qualifier (and strong racer) on his day, with Kevin Magnussen retained.
But would Wolff be prepared to farm out his star youngster to a team aligned with and powered by rivals Ferrari?
“There is interest [in] Esteban among other teams,” said Wolff on Friday in Hockenheim. “We need to carefully make a decision for ourselves and with the other interested parties, not only for our own benefit but also for Esteban’s benefit.” Strikingly, he added no caveats, as is usually his wont.
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What about Grosjean’s future should such a move come to pass? Grosjean has long expressed interest in endurance racing, more particularly Le Mans. After being shown the door following his F1 debut in 2009 he raced a Ford GT at the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours and won two rounds of that year’s FIA GT1 Championship.
As things now stand a possible scenario is that Bottas heads to Haas, or Renault with Hulkenberg in the other cockpit, leaving Ocon to slot into Mercedes alongside Hamilton. But that ispredicated upon the current star acquiescing to a young, ambitious charger across the garage, particularly one with a reputation for clashing with team mates. Not what the five-times champion needs at this stage of his career.
Plus, the combination would surely stretch Wolff’s management skills even beyond that trying year in 2016 when Nico Rosberg wrested the title from Hamilton. But that is, after all, what the Austrian is (exceedingly well) paid for. Still, it won’t be an easy pairing and Hamilton, who considers Bottas a comfortable team mate, may apply every trick in the book to block such a move.
All the while rumours that Max Verstappen will wear Ferrari red rather Red Bull blue next season refuse to evaporate. This is despite him scoring two superb wins in four weeks for his current team, powered by a Honda engine that just two years ago was the laughing stock of the grid. Ferrari’s win tally this year? Nil.
Whatever the motivation, there is clearly a long-term, strategic plan. Verstappen’s handlers – his wily father Jos and shrewd manager Raymond Vermeulen – seem determined to steer the youngster, still only 21 despite his seven wins, towards Maranello. Does Jos see Max emulating the achievements of his friend (and former Benetton team-mate) Michael Schumacher in effectively ‘saving’ the Scuderia?
Whatever, in Hockenheim the word in the paddock was that negotiations between Red Bull and Ferrari were continuing apace, with the end-game being the straight swap between him and Sebastian Vettel. Then, of course, came the race, where Vettel scored second from the back after an aborted qualifying, and Verstappen took arguably his best career victory. Why would either wish to go the other way after that?
Still, Red Bull’s future is far from secure until F1’s post-2021 landscape is fully mapped, and restoring Ferrari to title-winning stature would surely cement Verstappen amongst F1’s greats as it did Schumacher – something not achieved by Sebastian’s despite scoring four titles on the bounce with Red Bull – but it is likely to be a long-term project, as it was with Schumacher.
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Thus, the sooner they start, the sooner the Verstappens will achieve their objective. Will the swap happen? Better than 50/50, say sources familiar with the details.
What about the rest of Red Bull’s line-up, for the likeable Pierre Gasly seems to be in last-chance saloon, particularly as regards the main team. Importing an established replacement could, though, create problems for the drinks company, though it could make a case for rewarding Daniil Kvyat or Alex Albon for their strong performances with Toro Rosso to date.
“We have two really good drivers,” said Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost in Germany even before Kvyat landed on the podium. “Daniil Kvyat we knew from the past that he is fast, he is also matured now and he is showing a very, very good performance. Alex Albon, for me, is the positive surprise of the young drivers, together with [Lando] Norris.”
The talk is that one or other – likely the former – will be promoted, and Gasly relegated or even dumped, as was Kvyat two and three seasons ago respectively. In that case, who to employ given that Red Bull’s junior programme is currently light on talent ready for the gig? Don’t bet against Sebastién Buemi being recalled from Formula E / WEC, for the world champion in both disciplines triples as Red Bull’s simulator driver.
The situation elsewhere seems more settled. McLaren have already confirmed Carlos Sainz Jnr and Norris for another year, giving further proof the methodical incoming team boss Andreas Seidl has both feet firmly under the desk. Alfa Romeo is likely to continue as is, primarily as Kimi Raikkonen has another year to run on his current deal and is delivering on Sundays, while no there is no Ferrari junior on the horizon to trouble Antonio Giovinazzi.
Which leaves Williams. George Russell has proven he deserves to be on the grid even if has been unable to showcase his full skill set due to a recalcitrant Williams. However Robert Kubica’s showing has seemingly confirmed what many in the paddock feared: that his ultimate talent has withered over time, whether due to his injuries or the long absence from top-level racing they forced upon him.
While the point scored by Kubica in Germany provides a feel-good factor, it’s an inescapable fact that it came courtesy of two exclusions of cars ahead of him in a chaotic race that saw numerous more fancied drivers retire. The problem facing Williams is that it needs a funded a driver in at least one seat, and with Kubica unlikely to continue, who to slot in?
Nicolas Latifi, that’s who. The Canadian is well-funded by Daddy’s bank: father Michael of Sofina Food fame recently dropped £200m in Woking in exchange for 10 per cent of McLaren. Latifi has upped his level in F2 this year, winning two feature races to currently lay second in the championship. An F1 move is possible next year providing he amasses sufficient points towards his superlicence.
Then there are other F2 drivers to consider, either for full-time seats or as third/development drivers: championship leader Nyck de Vries is one such candidate, but the Dutchman was dropped by McLaren last year and is busy rebuilding his credentials by, for example, doing simulator duty for Mercedes.
Renault’s Guanyu Zhou is currently F2’s top rookie, so could be up for third driver role coupled with FP1 outings in 2020 with the French squad, as could Jack Aitken, – currently fifth in the F2 title hunt, one place ahead of Zhou.
Equally, Super Formula/Super GT champion Naoki Yamamoto could be in the frame for similar duties at one of the Red Bull teams. Any gigs are, though, likely to be with Toro Rosso given his Japanese/Honda connections, although there remain some lingering doubts as to whether he ready for F1. Time will tell.
Although F1 personnel are officially out of office for two weeks in three during the break between the Hungarian and Belgian grands prix, team lawyers traditionally sort contracts during that time – witness last year, when Ricciardo signed for Renault and Sainz for McLaren, with other vacancies being hurriedly filled thereafter.
Thus, do not be overly surprised if elements of the driver market firm up this weekend, with one or two announcements (or confirmations) being a distinct possibility. Given that it is all change for F1 in 2021 this ‘silly season’ may prove to be not so silly after all.
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