2018 Driver market storm has taken shape

February 5, 2017 10:36 am

Just 5 days after clinching the title, Nico Rosberg said ‘Enough of the Lewis Hamilton bullshit, there’s more to life than just going around in circles’ and went out the door.

Mercedes went into overdrive and every driver on the grid threw himself up at the Brixworth factory gate. Mercedes asked Red Bull for Carlos Sainz but Christian Horner and Helmut Marko broke into hysteric laughter which gave Mercedes the impression that the answer was no. They went to Renault to ask for Hulkenberg but the french said ‘nope, au revoir’.

While the fans clamored for Alonso or Vettel, the German quietly sidelined himself and Alonso in an address to the Honda employees, he said: “I’m not done with the GP2 engine rant”.

The race for the most coveted seat on the grid narrowed down to Pascal and Bottas. While the young German may have been air-fisting every time drivers fell down from the Mercedes wish list, but as weeks went by the Finn’s case became increasingly stronger.

However, amidst all the waiting, rumors started surfacing that the German marque has set its sight on luring Vettel away from the Italian stable in 2018.

While everyone backed this claim, I was not convinced. Why would Mercedes go through so much trouble just for one year? They gave Williams a 50% discount on the engines, waived Paddy Lowe’s gardening leave, financed Massa’s return and would be paying a handsome salary to the Finn. Why go through so much trouble in getting a driver only to show him the door at the end of the year? And it’s Bottas we’re talking about, the guy’s unflappable, fast and consistent. He is the real deal and given he’s 27 and at the sweet spot to commit to for a long deal.

But when the dust settled after the Finn’s confirmation, the pundits’ prediction gained more weight when it was made clear that Bottas’s deal was only for one year and when prodded as to why, Toto’s reply seemed conveniently ripped off from Barney Stinson’s playbook, ‘we want to keep our options open’.

But the more I think about it now, the more plausible Mercedes decision seems. Rosberg’s departure is going to have a domino effect on the 2018 driver market irrespective of what happens at Mercedes.

Massa is only set to drive for one year and in 2018 one seat is set to open up at Williams. Bottas, even if he’s shown the way out of Mercedes has an option to return back to Williams or a Ferrari drive may finally beckon after coming oh so close for 2016.

Ferrari has a bigger reason to worry about if Sebastian Vettel leaves for Kimi as he is not getting any younger, isn’t he.

Vettel is a free agent at the end of 2017 and a tantalising option. There have been some remarkable utterances coming out of Maranello regarding the driver Ferrari wanted to build its team around. In 2016, Vettel was told he must “earn his place” at Ferrari by team principal Maurizio Arrivabene.

When speaking to Italian media at the team’s annual pre-Christmas briefing, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said his current race drivers were “under scrutiny”. He added Vettel must “drive with composure, be more calm, less agitated” if he wants to remain on board.

It is a strange tactic from Ferrari. Vettel grew increasingly frustrated as the car fell off the pace last season. Now, at least publicly, he is being told to pick up the pace. With Ferrari seemingly in a mess and showing little sign of threatening Mercedes for the world championship, perhaps the prospect of Vettel being available for 2018 is more realistic than I first thought.

And Vettel’s departure will open a can of worms for Ferrari because it’ll have to retain the Finn irrespective of his performance level or go for an all new line up in 2018. This would mean wonderful news for hopefuls like Sergio Perez and Grosjean who both have credible links to the Ferrari drive. Their respective departures would create further turbulence in the midfield. If the Haas man gets the nod then hot young prospects like Giovanazzi and Fuoco could end up racing for the American-Italian alliance.

Similar is the case with Alonso, whose decision to move to Mercedes should the call come or bow out of the sport would once again result in a frenetic amongst the current establishment. McLaren may have the Button deal to cope with exactly this kind of situation but given that this setting was Ron Dennis’s brainchild, who now finds himself out of the team and Mansour Ojjeh at the helm now, Button’s return looks increasingly bleak. With a young and inexperienced Vandoorne at the other end of the garage, McLaren would definitely go for an experienced driver on the grid which means vacancies elsewhere.

Red Bull avoided a major catastrophe by moving Max Verstappen to the Senior team as daddy Verstappen had been lobbying hard to move the child prodigy into a race winning team as fast he can. However, Red Bull in the process broke Carlos Sainz’s heart it seems. Although the Spaniard is keeping his head low and committed to Toro Rosso for 2017 but with almost zero chances of an opening at the Senior team, Sainz is set to move to pastures anew in 2018.

Renault failed to get him last year, but for 2018 Jr. would definitely be on Renault’s target meaning Jolyon Palmer’s seat is at threat since Hulkenberg is their star driver and locked in for a couple of years.

Amongst all this chaos it is very easy to forget about Pascal Wehrlien. The young German has by far the most tumultuous season of anyone. He entered F1 as a Mercedes protege and is already a DTM champion and took the bar even higher by scoring the backmarker Manor’s only point in the season. However, fellow Merc protege Ocon’s arrival changed little on track but off it became his headache and ultimately it cost him the Force India seat. However, after Rosberg announced his exit there appeared to be a silver lining in the Force India snub as Pascal became the prime candidate to replace the retiring World Champion. But, this never came to fruition and Pascal is set to see this year out at Sauber.

But it’s not the end of the world for him, rather far from it, this opens a ton of avenues in the upcoming years. Come On lets be realistic, he only had 1 year of experience in F1 and to be thrown into the mix driving for potentially a Championship fight would have been way too risky for the youngster, especially partnering Hamilton.

In Sauber, he has the opportunity to further hone his driving without the level of expectations that would have come with the Mercedes seat. Although Sauber faced a very difficult season last year but for Pascal, it’s still progress and moving up the ranks compared to Manor. Sauber could actually turn out to be next year’s dark horse after having resolved their finances by having a new owner in July last year after which the team spent its time recruiting big names in the management and engineering department. It’s only weakness is the 2016 Ferrari engine it would be using for 2017, but it’ll have reliability on its side. And with rumors of Sauber switching to Merc power in 2018, it’s not a bad prospectus for the now 22-year-old who would be only in his 3rd season in 2018. Alternatively, a Williams or Force India drive could open up as well courtesy the Mercedes power plant powering the two teams.

Formula 1 has generally struggled with engaging the fans during the winter season break as teams get on to work on next years cars and drivers head to home to relax with their families. This year, however, Rosberg’s sudden retirement and speculation regarding the man who’ll replace him meant everyone associated with the sport was kept awake. And if you think the silly season was entertaining then just wait for the next round to begin for it is going to be haywire.

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