The 2016 silly season on the face of it has turned out to be some what of a damp squib. With Mercedes, Ferrari, & Red Bull locking down their drivers early on change at the front of the field has been ruled out
Back in May this year I made a few predictions around changes. As the F1 circus returns from a well deserved summer break, outstanding driver agreements will feature highly on many teams ‘to do’ lists. Based on the current driver market I’ve revisited my silly season predictions. It’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below or through twitter (@jonnywilde)
Mercedes AMG Petronas:
As predicted Nico Rosberg’s contract with the team has been renewed. This comes despite a number of incidents between Nico & Lewis on track. Rosberg now has a contract with Mercedes until 2018. This sees his agreement fall in line with Hamilton’s contract. If nothing else, salary demands of Lewis and Nico by 2018 are likely to necessitate a change in line up. With this in mind Mercedes are priming Wehrlein and Ocon as future works drivers.
Many expected the Scuderia to replace Kimi Räikkönen in 2017, I suggested Sergio Perez would be the ideal candidate to take on the role, but with a strong first half of the year Ferrari have elected to maintain the Vettel, Räikkönen line up for a 3rd season. Kimi’s life away from the track appears to be having a positive effect on his performance as a driver and as a Ferrari brand ambassador. With changes in the Ferrari management team, driver stability for 2017 and perhaps beyond could be a good thing.
Red Bull Racing
At the time of writing my original silly season article, I commented Verstappen was a shoe in for the second seat with Red Bull Racing alongside Daniel Ricciardo. I also suggested it could happen before the end of the year. I did not expect it happen so quickly. Nor did I expect Max to win a race in 2016! (did anyone?) Both Daniel and Max are now locked down at Red Bull Racing until at least 2018. Putting the Red Bull Racing Junior Driver Development programme on hold.
Williams Martini Racing
2016 has been tough for Williams. The team have fallen behind in the development race, possibly / hopefully due to an early switch in focus to 2017. With engine performance convergence emerging, budget shortfalls in comparison to the top 3 have been felt more than in recent seasons. It seems to be widely expected that 2016 will be Felipe Massa’s last year in F1, with this in mind Botta’s performances haven’t been strong enough. I suggested in the previous article that Kyvat and Bottas’ would be a formidable line up for the team. I now see this as less likely. I struggle to buy into the Button return narrative, but can imagine sponsors would be more than happy to see him re-join the team. That being said if Williams adopt a bold strategy they could look towards development driver Alex Lynn, and replace Bottas with Jenson. If they require funding alongside a driver, Perez could be attractive, although this would be nothing more than a lateral move for the Mexican.
Jenson Button is out of contact at the end of this season. Fernando Alonso is contracted until the end of 2017. The team have Stoffel Vandoorne waiting in the wings. I expected Jenson to leave the team at the end of the season, If the 2017 Mclaren Honda is not in a championship contending position I also see Alonso finally calling time on his F1 career. Stoffel will step up into a race seat with the team for 2017, but who will he race along side? Whilst the original Mclaren Perez relationship did not end well in 2013. Sergio brings substantial backing and has consistently over delivered for Force India. Could he be an outside bet for a seat with Mclaren? The team has the manufacturer backing Perez’s sees as a must to contend for future championships. With the top team drives locked down, Honda or Renault are his next best bet.
Sarhara Force India
Vijay Mallya has gone on record to state both drivers will be retained for 2017. I do not see this happening. As mentioned above I believe Sergio will move on to pastures new. To me the same logic applies to Hülkenberg. Neither driver is going to contend for championships with Force India. Neither driver is getting any younger. I believe Hülkenberg will move away from F1 towards WEC in 2017. This leaves Force India will a huge budget and talent shortfall. The team may look towards Mercedes and taking on a development driver in the form of Pascal Wehrlein for 2017, who on circuits with which he has prior knowledge has looked very impressive at Manor this season. The team could overcome the budget shortfall and maintain the Mexican links with the team through promoting Alfonso Celis or picking up Esteban Gutiérrez after his tough return to the sport with Haas. Equally, the team have Russian driver Nikita Mazepin on their books, he brings backing in the form of Uralchem and whilst a little hot tempered has performed strongly in junior series.
2016 was always a holding / building year for the team. They inherited a driver partnership with Jolyon Palmer and to be honest, he has looked a little out of his depth at times this season. I don’t expect the team to retain him. Renault are keen to re-establish the French connection with the team. Assuming Ocon performs well at Manor in the second half of this season I expect him to move over the Renault for 2017. Renault will be keen for the French man to sever his links to Mercedes moving forward and will likely be prepared to pay for the privilege. The other seat at Renault, to me, is between Kevin Magnesun and Sergio Perez. The team know KMag, and know what he can do with the car, but in Perez they have a driver capable of over achieving and a driver with significant backing and a huge fan base. Perez and Ocon would be a strong line up for a team rebuilding and looking to challenge for future championships.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
I expect the driver line up of Sainz and Kyvat to go unchanged into 2017. Sainz was confirmed earlier in the season, his role is secure. With Kyvat the story is a little different, he has struggled since returning to the team from Red Bull Racing. His ultimate pace and skill are not in question. The team must work with him to rebuild his self confidence. STR has historically been the home of junior Red Bull drivers. Pierre Gasly would be the logical driver to make the step up to the team in 2017, but I personally see Red Bull placing him else where, possibly with Manor. STR in order to grow should no longer be seen as a proving ground for future Red Bull Racing drivers and with the current line up at RBR locked down until 2018, STR have an opportunity to operate as their own entity.
The Haas F1 Team
After an incredible start in F1, Haas have settled in a midfield team. I expect 2017 will be a huge challenge for the team. With major regulations changes and the team no longer having such unregulated support from Ferrari I expect them to be battling at the very rear of the field. Grosjean appears to have very few options away from the team, that being said a return to Renault should not be ruled out. For Haas to bring F1 to America they would do very well to sign Indy 500 winner Alex Rossi for 2017 alongside Grojean. I expect Esteban Gutiérrez to move on.
The Sauber F1 Team
With the future of the team secure through Longbow Finances. The Swiss based team can look towards rebuilding themselves. Security in reality has come a little too late to kick start a 2017 challenge into anything more than a return to consistent points finishes, but this is a great place to start. Stories continue to swirl around Marcus Ericsson’s backers being behind the Longbow Finance investment into the team. My personal take is that even if this is true I do not believe the backing is linked to Ericsson maintaining a drive with the team. Investments are made with an expectation of return not simply to pay for a drive. That being said I hope the team will maintain their current line up into 2017. Stability during a period of rebuilding is key, and it should not be forgotten both Nasr and Ericsson are more than capable of turning in strong performances.
The Manor Racing team have a history of announcing driver partnerships very late on into the year. Rio Haryanto’s mid season demotion to reserve driver demonstrate the continued reliance on drivers with backing. I expect the team will be keen to maintain a development driver relationship to a larger team, be that with Pascal Wehrlein and Mercedes or Gasly and Red Bull Racing (despite the Mercedes power unit agreement) The second seat at Manor, I believe will be taken by Jordan King. He has performed admirably in GP2 this season with Racing Engineering and brings a healthy budget to his seat. It should not be forgotten his father supported the team in their re-emergence from bankruptcy.
Spa, Monza and Singapore have a history of being a circuit in which driver announcements are made, expect significant news in the coming weeks.