Four races into the 2016 Formula One season seems as good a time as any to kick off 2017 silly season. For the purpose of this piece I’ve elected to focus only on driver line up. Talk of power unit supply, and other partnerships will be addressed later in the season.
Starting with the seemingly inevitable 2016 Constructor’s Champions Mercedes AMG Petronas. Lewis Hamilton renewed his commitment to the team midway through 2015, despite growing frustrations around reliability through his 2016 campaign, it is highly unlikely he will be leave the team anytime soon. Nico Rosberg on the other hand is in a very different situation with his contract expiring at the end of the 2016 season. Winning the opening four races of the year is likely to have strengthened Nico’s hand at the negotiating table, but team management have expressed concern around team mate harmony in the past. Should the Lewis Nico partnership boil over in the same way it has in the past two seasons, champion elect or otherwise Nico may be forced to look elsewhere for his 2017 seat. That being said such a situation is extremely improbable, I would expect an announcement of Nico Rosberg’s contract extension around the Monaco Grand Prix.
Scuderia Ferrari find themselves in an interesting position. The team are rebuilding with a clear objective of Sebastian Vettel becoming the team’s next world champion. He is under contract for another two seasons and has himself spoken of a desire to emulate the success of Michael Schumacher with the team. That leaves the second seat with the team, Kimi Räikkönen plays the part of number two driver admirably. He is consistent but lacks the ultimate pace seen earlier in his career. With Sebastian and Kimi the team have had a harmonious partnership, but is Kimi sufficiently motivated enough to continue? I think not. This leaves the second seat with the team open for 2017, many pundits believe the team will make a bid for Max Verstappen, I see this as highly unlikely, he represents a threat to the Vettel era the team are trying to create. A more plausible move for the team would be to look toward a more known quantity, I see Sergio Perez as a strong candidate for the seat. As a former Ferrari Academy driver he is known to the team and he is strongly tied to the Slim family, sponsors the team through the telecommunications giant Telcel.
Red Bull Racing will more than likely become the home of Max Verstappen in 2017, many believe the deal is already in place, and that it is the knowledge of this deal has seen Daniil Kvyat find himself at the centre of a few too many incidents this season. It is understood that Daniel Ricciardo is under contract for the 2017 season, his contract may include similar performance related clauses that facilitated Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari for 2015, but Ricciardo is likely to have fewer top line seats available to him. Sebastian is unlikely to support a proposal for him to join him at the Scuderia having been sounded beaten by the Australian in 2014. I expect Daniel to stay put in 2017.
Williams Martini Racing have a problem. In 2014 they made struck gold in moving to the Mercedes Power Unit, returning the team to a top four position in the constructor’s championship. Unfortunately for them, something is still lacking. In Massa and Bottas they have two highly capable drivers, but seemingly drivers that lack a level of aggression to push for an out and out win. The line up seems too comfortable in itself. After a career spanning 14 seasons I believe 2016 will be Felipe Massa’s final year in Formula One. His retirement opens up an attractive seat on the grid. There has been talk of Button returning to the team where he made his name, but to me this seems unlikely, replacing experience with experience is short sighted. I believe Frank Williams has his eye on Daniil Kvyat. His aggression, almost desperation to perform may be just the thing to reawaken the drive in Valtteri Bottas. Together they may finally get Williams back to the top step.
Moving to Renault Sport F1. I predict this driver line up could be in place long before the 2017 season. When Renault Sport F1 took ownership of the Lotus F1 team at the end of 2015 they inherited a driver line up of Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer. The turbulent nature of the Venezuelan economy soon bought an end to the financial support Maldonado was expected to bring to the team, allowing Renault to bring in Kevin Magnussen, a driver I expect to be with the team for a number of years. Jolyon Palmer’s position with the team looks far less secure. The team have been publically critical of his performances in the opening races of the season, and with Renault ownership comes an expectation of a French driver joining the line up. Esteban Ocon, currently on loan to Renault from Mercedes is highly likely be the driver to relieve Palmer of his duties in the near future. In Ocon, Renault Sport F1 have a possible future world champion, with all the plaudits Max Verstappen has received since breaking on to the F1 grid, it has been quietly forgotten that Ocon actually beat Verstappen in their F3 season together.
Mclaren Honda have three drivers and two seats for 2017. The Honda partnership is showing signs of coming together, Fernando Alonso is believed to be in a three-year deal with team which would take him through 2017, he has restated his commitment to the team on numerous occasions. Jenson Button has been planning his retirement for the past two seasons, 2016 looks likely to be the season he gets to implement these plans. With a point scoring debut n Bahrain earlier this year Stoffel Vandoorne is almost certain to take replace the Brit. Only unexpected availability of either Mercedes driver could change the teams plans.
Force India – The Benetton team of the modern era, not the championship winning Benetton, but the 1996-2000 Benetton, capable of the odd shock result but never genuinely considered as a threat. I expect to see a complete overhaul of the Force India’s driver line up for 2017. Nico Hülkenberg having tasted victory at Le Mans with Porsche must be asking himself if he is happy to finish 7th in a Force India week in week out, or would be prefer to mount a championship challenge in the World Endurance Championship, I expect the lure will become too great in 2017. As commented earlier I expect to see Perez join Ferrari next season, leaving two open seats. Force India have spent years developing a strong Mexican sponsorship portfolio, and are giving Alfonso Celis as much time as is possible in the car this year to prove he has what it takes to stake a claim for a drive. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely he’s make the grade at least in 2017. The continued instability around majority shareholder and team principle Vijay Mallya hangs over the team like a cloud, which could push out driver line up decisions well into the back end of 2016. I expect the team will be looking for a line up with financial backing, If Celis does not make the grade perhaps the Banco do Brasil backed Felipe Nasr would be a contender for a seat, alongside a Mercedes supported Pascal Wehrlein, who had been touted for to replace Hülkenberg in 2016.
Scuderia Toro Rosso have developed quite the ruthless reputation when it comes to driver retention. The team represent the penultimate step on the Red Bull young driver development program, with Max Verstappen almost certainly heading to the top team for 2017, that leaves Carlos Sainz. Whilst performances indicate he is capable of beating Max, history suggests that it is unlikely he will be retained for a 3rd season. I predict a fresh line up for the team with Pierre Gasly stepping up from GP2 and Sérgio Sette Câmara making a leap from F3 to the big leagues (super license points dispensation pending)
With huge technical regulation changes heading to the sport in 2017, the long-term benefits of the Haas F1 Team, Scuderia Ferrari relationship may well be short lived. The team will be looking for stability in the race team. Taking this into consideration I expect to see both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez to stay on board for a second season.
Decisions around seats with Manor Racing and the Sauber F1 team are likely to be decided based on financial backing or support a driver can bring to a team. It would be foolish to predict where the money will be come the end of the 2016 season. That said, the FIA mandated payment structure for 2017 power unit supply is going to apply a lot of pressure to small teams at the very beginning of the year. Teams will be seeking cash rich partners to front the bill, the size of a driver’s wallet could prove move valuable than ever for these teams in 2017.