The key to next year’s Driver market

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July 31, 2017 5:40 pm

When Nico Rosberg announced his shock retirement at the end of last year, it was too late to have any significant impact on the driver market as everyone’s contracts had been concluded. Despite half the grid throwing themselves up at Mercedes’s gate, the feasibility factor played a big part in deciding the next driver. After a prolonged two horse race between Valtteri Bottas and Pascal Wehrlein, the latter’s single year experience in Manor was deemed inadequate to be thrown into the sharp end of the grid and so the Finn’s name was finally approved while Wehrlein moved to Sauber where he continues to impress and rake up experience.

So while the conundrum at Mercedes trundled, it was a foregone conclusion that Rosberg’s retirement had actually turned the ‘silly circus’ on its head for 2018. And so as we approach the half way mark of the season, the smolders of the driver market is waking up from its slumber and the whole puzzle is waiting for that one piece to fall in place before others follow suit.

And for 2018 that piece of the puzzle is against all contemporary opinion, not Sebastian Vettel but rather his team mate Kimi Raikkonen.

Kimi has been holding the so called key now for more than a couple of years now as every year since 2014 the speculation as to when the Finn would retire assumes a pivotal position in the driver market but each year the team red doles out a one year contract to him.

This year too the speculation has been riper than ever with potential candidates lined up to take his place but once again if rumours are to be believed then the Italian team is ready to dole out another one year contract to him. So it rests on Kimi whether he’ll continue or not and perhaps Monaco’s snubbing and Hungary’s tactics will influence his mind because only if Kimi steps aside will the driver market take shape.

Ferrari

Ferrari continues to be woven around the German for in him they see their next Michael Schumacher and Vettel too has been vocal since day one to emulate his idol in red. Hence despite the whole Mercedes rumors, the chances that he’ll jump ship are as far fetched as the gap between Mercedes and McLaren on track. With Ferrari snapping right at the heels of Mercedes it makes the decision even tougher and Vettel in doing so would risk his personal legacy. And the fact that Hamilton is contracted until the end of 2019 makes it impossible for Vettel to come to Mercedes.

On the other Ferrari, Perez and Grosjean are in top spot to replace the 2007 World Champion, while the Mexican is the crowd favourite given his consistency and ability to deliver solid results but in Grosjean they’ll have a driver who’ll settle in the role of a No. 2 driver more easily than Perez.

Mercedes

Toto Wolff may harbour the dream of enticing Vettel to Mercedes to make what would arguably be the best German team – German driver bond for the Silver Arrows brand but with Hamilton driving the other Mercedes till 2018, that’s unlikely and maybe this is what prompted Christian Horner to tell the world that maybe the Austrian is trying to convince the German to convince the Italians for a one year deal while the Scuderia are said to be adamant on a three year deal and are reportedly ready to shell out 140 million dollars for the German.

The other Finn i.e. Valtteri Bottas has grown from race to race and as Wolff admitted that signing him is a no brainer, I believe that’s where Bottas would end up with a shiny new multi year deal.

Force India

While Ocon is having a multi year deal, Perez’s deal expires this year. The Mexican has made no secret of his ambition to drive for Ferrari and if he does move to Ferrari then it’ll be interesting to see who drives the pink car next year but chances are it’s going to be Pascal Wehrlein as the young Mercedes protege has shown that he has the talent it takes after scoring points with backmarkers 2 years in a row and a head on with the other Mercedes protege would make up an interesting battle to look forward to.

Sauber

With the engine deal recently sorted out as Sauber decided to stick with Ferrari with the latest 2018 spec and a multi-year deal on top of it, driver change at Sauber is in most probability a certainty for next year. With Ericsson the de facto owner of Sauber given his links with Longbow Finance, its Pascal Wehrlein whose seat is under threat and in case of no seats opening up anywhere on the grid, the Mercedes protege’s career could be in the doldrums despite performing so brilliantly.

Replacing him could be Ferrari’s juniors Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc with the latter on a record

spree in F2 right now and is deemed to be the next big thing in racing. Giovinazzi will face competition for the Sauber seat and his crashes in China and during a couple of FP1 duties has dented his reputation with only his Australian Grand Prix performance and Italian nationality going on in his favour and the simulator work he is putting in at Maranello.

McLaren

With all the focus currently on sorting the engine issue, on the driver front for Fernando all the top teams have closed their doors and it seems that Fernando has shifted his focus from chasing a third world title to the triple crown and recently saying that this year’s Indy outing was the only happy memory of 2017 perhaps a full-time switch to Indy for next year could be on the cards but at the same time he’s only concerned with the Indy 500 and the power he now wields at McLaren means he can simply make it a condition that to extend his stay, McLaren needs to back his Indy 500 outing like this year.

But the name that he has carved for himself in Indy means he does not need McLaren’s support as plenty of top Indy teams have offered him a seat. So Fernando needs to decide how long he will dabble at F1 and waste what are his prime years and pass on a full time stint in WEC which is necessary for his Triple Crown dream and would require greater involvement from him.

So if Fernando does calls it quits, who’d replace him? McLaren-Honda are still in the development phase and as such require an experienced driver. Button is contracted to drive in place of Fernando, a deal etched with exactly the above said situation in mind, but Jenson Button has fallen out of love with F1 and quite vocally so and hence it’ll be interesting to see whether he can be forced to drive all year long.

If not Button then who? perhaps McLaren could look into the Formula E pool of drivers but with the current F1 cars a different beast altogether, they’ll be wise to stick to within those within the sport and Carlos Sainz Jr would be an obvious choice, whether McLaren is something the Spaniard would choose or not is a different story.

Another long shot could be Grosjean who if rebuffed by Ferrari could go to McLaren for a multi year better-paid contract than what Haas can offer and build the already improving McLaren-Honda who could be in the midfield by as early as next year.

 

Renault

Nico Hulkenberg is on a multi year deal and given that he’s currently punching above the car’s weight he is Renault’s number 1 driver right now.

Palmer, on the other hand, has failed to make a case for himself having been shaded completely by his team-mate and his seat is under threat from, what could be F1’s biggest comeback story since Kimi, Robert Kubica.

The Pole has consistently been building up his comeback into single-seaters after his horrible accident at the end of 2011. After seeing genuine pace from him in test after test, Renault has taken the decision to handing him the ultimate test in 2017 cars at the post Hungarian GP test. If he’s able to cope up with the new Formula there’s no reason why he couldn’t be on the grid for next year.

Another option on Renault’s list is Carlos Sainz Jr. and Renault has clearly shown interest in him since last year. With no seat at the Red Bull team, Carlos is getting frustrated and rightly so and has clearly said to the press that he won’t do a 4th year in Toro Rosso and after his current team bosses were done taking a jibe at him, their tones have shifted indicating that he’s available for the right price.

 

Haas

While Gene Haas has conveyed his wish that he wants the current pairing in 2018 again, Grosjean would definitely jump at the Ferrari opportunity if it comes his way or maybe if he’s snubbed, he could very well walk away from the team.

The opening could be a boon for Giovinazzi or Leclerc or even Wehrlein if Mercedes reaches a deal with the deal in a similar fashion it did with Sauber and with Haas not extremely happy given that despite the close Ferrari alliance, the team is still finding itself in the lower rungs of the midfield and therefore deny the Ferrari juniors and go for the experienced Pascal Wehrlein.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso is in a precarious situation with its drivers as on one hand it has Sainz who does not want to stay there but is a powerhouse performer while on the other hand, it has Kvyat who is more than happy to extend his stay and salvage his career but the Russian is raking up penalty points faster than a squirrel raking up the nuts.

To make matters more dire, Red Bull has Pierre Gasly waiting on the sidelines, having won GP2 and currently is asked by Red Bull to compete in Super Formula so as to not waste his one year. So Toro Rosso is maybe waiting for the whole Sainz saga to clear up before deciding who the incoming Frenchman would replace and it explains why despite Horner dropping the hint that Kvyat will be signed on for 2018, no confirmation has come up as of now.

So in end its Kimi and Alonso who, independent of each other, hold the key to whether the domino effect would be felt in the whole driver market or not.

Muktesh Swamy

A Petrol Head, Traveller, Writer and Philosopher. Who do you wanna meet?

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