The Belgian Grand Prix unusually served as the platform for Scuderia Ferrari to announce an unchanged line-up for the 2018 Formula 1 season. The news is set to kickstart a run of team and driver announcements in what is officially termed the sport’s ‘silly season’.
Who exactly is going where in 2018? MotorsportM8 gives its view on the current situation and paddock speculation…
Mercedes AMG Petronas
With a three-year contract extension signed in 2015, Lewis Hamilton is locked in to the Silver Arrows until the end of 2018. The Englishman openly admitted that Sebastian Vettel’s own three-year extension with Ferrari will keep him out of Maranello for the foreseeable future, should he ever consider a change of scenery.
Teammate Valtteri Bottas joined on a one-year deal, but with two wins to-date and him proving a potential championship challenger in his own right, he is in the pound seats to be given a contract extension. Mercedes also has protégé drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon on its books if push came to shove.
Ferrari hinted it would announce its 2018 driver line-up at its home race at Monza. Instead it jumped the gun shortly after the summer break by re-signing Kimi Räikkönen to another one-year contract extension, despite an unimpressive (and occasionally unlucky) 2017 campaign by the Finn.
A clear number-two in his twilight years, his re-signing clearly met Sebastian Vettel’s demands and the four-time World Champion signed on the dotted line for a further three years.
Driver stability will help Ferrari, but it has left open the question of what will happen to Ferrari’s academy drivers Antonio Giovinazzi and (particularly) runaway Formula 2 championship leader Charles Leclerc.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Racing has both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen locked down on multi-year deals, meaning it should field an unchanged driver pairing next year.
There are reportedly no performance clauses that could trigger an early exit for either driver this year – despite Verstappen’s abundant frustrations with the reliability of his car – and equally there are no real seats that could give either driver a more competitive outlook.
In the highly unlikely event that either of its current drivers leaves, Red Bull has Carlos Sainz Jr. as a back-up, with the Spaniard considered one of the grid’s true untapped talents.
Sahara Force India F1 Team
Before Belgium, Force India’s management indicated it had every intention of keeping an unchanged line-up of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon. After the pair conspired to collide two times during the race at Spa-Francorchamps, the team might seriously be hedging its bets.
Pérez brings plenty of Mexican cash and Ocon’s presence is a sweetener for cheaper engines from Mercedes, but the relationship between the pair has deteriorated to the point that the team has threatened to sideline its stars if they can’t stop crashing into each other.
Renault is actively pursuing both drivers, but each has damaged their reputations in the paddock. Should Pascal Wehrlein be forced out of Sauber as is expected (see below), his Mercedes connections place him as an outside chance to redeem his Formula 1 career.
Williams Martini Racing
Williams’ situation is equally fluid. On the surface it seems logical to keep an unchanged driver line-up of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll next year. Stroll comes with buckets of cash and has improved considerably over his half-season to-date, even if he is no world-beater.
Massa reversed his retirement decision in the off-season has repeatedly proved there’s still life in the old dog yet.
Reserve driver Paul di Resta was a solid last-minute ‘super sub’ at Hungary, but there are also stories suggesting Williams has approached Fernando Alonso and Sergio Pérez as potential replacements for the Brazilian veteran.
The mercurial Alonso is a proven star beset with histrionics, while Pérez comes with experience and Mexican cash. The decision Williams takes will indicate its seriousness about reversing its seemingly inexorable slide down the grid.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Some ill-tempered remarks from Carlos Sainz Jr suggested that he thought it “unlikely” he would remain with the Faenza team for a fourth season, and his comments were quickly admonished by his Red Bull paymasters. Within 48 hours, the Spaniard was once again singing Toro Rosso’s praises, even though – for the moment – his path to graduating into Red Bull’s senior team is blocked.
Renault is reportedly on the verge of confirming Sainz, with his rumoured $8 million contract buy-out set to be funded by McLaren so it can get its hands on Renault’s engines while kicking Honda into touch with Toro Rosso.
Sainz’s teammate Daniil Kvyat has had an appalling season and on merit alone should not be retained, but both Red Bull and the Russian – who is the sole flag-bearer for an important market in F1 – seem keen for the marriage to continue. Last year’s GP2 Series champion Pierre Gasly waits impatiently in the wings and is next in line to be called up if and when Sainz’s move is confirmed.
If Honda land up at Toro Rosso as expected, then expect them to push for their Japanese protégé Nobuhara Matsushita to be given a berth, provided he can qualify for an F1 Superlicense.
Haas F1 Team
The American team has perhaps learned its lesson from inexplicably dithering over Esteban Gutiérrez last year by signing contract extensions early for both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. The pairing – not always well-liked by their peers on the grid – has proven solid and reliable for the American outfit, scoring points in its sophomore year in the sport. In the coming years there will be pressure for the team to become more American by fielding a driver carrying the ‘stars and stripes’, so expect it to elevate Connecticut native and Formula 2 part-timer Santino Ferrucci to a more active reserve driver role in 2018.
What’s certain is that Nico Hülkenberg will stay on in 2018, but the identity of his teammate is the biggest story in the ‘silly season’.
Barring a miraculous turnaround in the remaining races, Jolyon Palmer looks as good as gone.
Robert Kubica impressed massively in his comeback tests for the team, but Renault is staying understandably coy on the Polish driver’s prospects of a full-time return to F1.
Renault looks most likely to land Carlos Sainz Jr. (see Scuderia Toro Rosso, above), but has also made serious approaches to Esteban Ocon, who is also on offer at a ridiculous price tag by Force India in order for his contract to be bought out. Ocon’s teammate Sergio Pérez is an outside, but less popular, option as well.
Cheaper but less guaranteed are Renault’s reserve drivers who’ve all had success in Formula 2: Oliver Rowland, Nicholas Latifi and Sergey Sirotkin.
Renault aside, the other major talking point in the 2018 driver market is Fernando Alonso’s future. That would seem to entirely depend on whether McLaren can end its disastrous three-year second marriage with Honda and switch to Renault.
Irrespective of what McLaren is able to negotiate, Alonso has no open seats to canvas at race-winning teams with the doors firmly closed at Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing. A rumoured consideration of moving to Williams makes little sense, but Andretti Autosports has a full-time IndyCar Series seat ready and waiting – running a Honda engine that is seemingly more reliable and powerful than what’s in the back of his MCL32.
Almost lost in the drama is Stoffel Vandoorne, who will stay in 2018 on a multi-year deal, regardless of what motor is in the back of the car. Jenson Button is under contract but shows no desire to make a full-time return.
If by some bizarre twist of fate Honda and McLaren remain together and Alonso goes, keep an eye out for Nobuhara Matsushita to be drafted in.
Sauber F1 Team
Sauber’s sudden deal with Honda was abandoned almost as quickly as it was signed, and a strengthened commitment to Ferrari will have major ramifications for its 2018 driver line-up.
The Swiss team’s Swedish owners are hell-bent on keeping Marcus Ericsson in the car for a third season even though he hasn’t been a match for the better-rated Pascal Wehrlein this year.
With Ferrari power remaining, the Mercedes-backed Wehrlein looks almost certain to be forced out and will probably return to DTM racing. That opens to the door for Ferrari protégé and Formula 2’s dominant title leader Charles Leclerc to graduate to F1 and showcase his suitability to move into Ferrari’s main team when Kimi Räikkönen finally decides to hang up the keys.
Images via LAT Images, McLaren Honda, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Red Bull Racing, Renault Sport F1, Sahara Force India F1 Team, Scuderia Ferrari, Scuderia Toro Rosso
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