Making sense of silly season and the 2015 driver market
The summer break in Formula 1 gives a chance for the teams, drivers and personnel to enjoy a bit of time off and refresh ahead of the final eight races of the season.
We’re just sixteen weeks away from the last race in Abu Dhabi, after which we’ll be saying a warm goodbye to the 2014 season. If the first eleven rounds are anything to go by, it’ll be a classic finalé (even with double points) and should go down as a season to remember.
However, the break does give a chance for the kindling of silly season to ignite. This is the time of year when drivers are linked to seats here, there and everywhere. Frankly, it’s car crash stuff: you don’t want to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off it.
Let’s try and make some sense of it all: the contract queries; the get-out clauses; possible retirements; junior programmes – you name it, 2014’s silly season has it all.
2015’s Confirmed Drivers
First up, let’s take a look at the drivers who are confirmed for next season (or at least those who have a contract).
Mercedes AMG Petronas
Red Bull Racing
Williams Martini Racing
Lotus F1 Team
Silly season is so silly that we’re actually speculating what may happen for 2016, with contracts expiring for Hamilton and Vettel at the end of next season. However, it would be surprising to see either leave their safe havens despite what Helmut Marko may say.
For the confirmed drivers, it’s not as black and white as it may seem. Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas are all thought to be possible movers even though they have a firm deal.
Alonso’s predicament at Ferrari has been one of the biggest stories in F1 for the past three or four years. Every time he gets asked about a possible move away, he laughs it off, saying that he always gets asked this question. No matter how many times he says that he will see out his F1 career at Maranello, until he is back at the front of the field, question marks will linger.
A return to McLaren is thought likely by a number of leading paddock figures, and he is thought to have a get-out clause in his contract if Ferrari finishes outside of the top three in the constructors’ championship. The Italian marque currently sits P3, but the second half of the calendar should play to Williams’ strengths.
However, German publication Bild is reporting today that he has signed a three-year contract extension to take him to the end of the 2019 season, doubling his wage to €35m per year. Nothing confirmed, but interesting eh?
The other Ferrari seat is also up for debate. Kimi Raikkonen does have a contract for next season, but has already said that he will most probably walk away from F1 once his deal is up. His performances in 2014 have been poor at the best of times, so could both parties agree to cut their losses and part company now? It’s unlikely, but another question to ponder. If Alonso did leave, would Ferrari jilt Raikkonen and go for an all-new line-up in 2015?
This is a new and rather interesting one. Bottas has been the breakout star of the 2014 season, scoring three podium finishes and leading Williams’ charge. He does have a contract for 2015, but McLaren is rumoured to be sniffing at the Finn as a possible replacement for Jenson Button. It wouldn’t be in Williams’ gameplan to lose Bottas, although a driver such as Felipe Nasr could be a back-up option if the Finn was to be lured away.
In an interview with Claire Williams in Germany, I asked whether Williams could confirm its driver line-up for 2015 following a report saying that Massa and Bottas had been rubbed-stamped. Claire said otherwise, sitting on the fence to say that the team was yet to make its announcement for 2015.
2015’s Sure Bets
These are the drivers that are likely to fill the following seats, although it must be stressed that nothing has been confirmed.
It’s been a great season for Force India, with the team scoring 98 points and fighting with Ferrari and McLaren in the constructors’ championship. Perez and Hulkenberg have done a great job, and in an interview with Vijay Mallya in Hungary, he confirmed to me that he plans to retain both drivers for 2015 and has an option on both.
Of course, Hulkenberg would most probably be at the top of Ferrari’s wish list if Alonso did walk away, so for Force India, the threat comes from above. Put these as “likely”, with Checo perhaps more of a certainty that Nico.
He may only have six points to his name, but Daniil Kvyat has made a superb start to his Formula 1 career, giving Jean-Eric Vergne more than a run for his money. With better luck, the Russian would most probably have a bigger points haul to his name. Alas, he’ll have to make do with lavish praise from Franz Tost and Christian Horner for the time being.
We’ll get to the second seat later. It’s not as cut-and-dry as it appeared to be a week ago, though.
2015’s Question Marks
Quite a long list of question marks for next season…
Let’s start where we left off: Toro Rosso. Now, the expected move for 2015 is for the team to drop Jean-Eric Vergne after three seasons and replace him with likely Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr. After all, it’s been the ‘Red Bull way’ to jilt drivers that aren’t anything special. JEV has shown signs of brilliance, with the Hungarian GP being one of his most notable performances yet.
Really, this comes down to how Red Bull wants to develop Toro Rosso. The team must no longer be about nurturing Red Bull’s future drivers – they’ve got two that are clearly in for the long haul. Would Sainz really do a better job than Vergne?
However, a thin report emerged this week suggesting that the team could make a sensational swoop for FIA F3 driver Max Verstappen and give him an F1 debut at 17. It’s unlikely and a bit crazy, but if any team would do it, it’s a Red Bull-backed one.
This is the key to the driver market for next season. Kevin Magnussen could be put in the “sure bet” column considering his good start to the year and how liked he is at McLaren (unlike Perez in 2013), but it’s still not entirely clear.
The bigger question is concerning Jenson Button’s future. For some reason, he is refusing to even think about his future for the time being, saying that no questions need to be asked or answered. Reading between the lines, it’s him asking himself whether he wants to retire or not.
Following the death of his father, John, over the winter, Button’s motivation and passion for racing has been questioned. At Silverstone, the spark appeared to be there as JB came oh-so-close to a podium finish on the same weekend that the British Grand Prix turned pink for papa.
Whilst Button is considering his options, McLaren must consider its own. With Honda power arriving next year, a ‘big name’ is being craved – whether that’s an Alonso or a Bottas or even a Grosjean (who we’ll get to later) remains to be seen. Frankly, Button’s stock in Japan is so high that losing him could be a blow for the new-found partnership.
With Pastor Maldonado and PDVSA unsurprisingly confirmed for another season, the attention now turns to Romain Grosjean. As the driver who has led Lotus’ charge so far this season, surely his place with the team would be secure?
Maybe not. Grosjean’s major backers are Renault and Total, but for 2015, the team is widely expected to switch to Mercedes power, and logically – to avoid McLaren’s Mobil 1 predicament from this season – this would also result in a move to Petronas fuel. Therefore, Grosjean’s place would appear to be at risk.
However, Maldonado’s millions may not be so taboo in this case. If the PDVSA backing is enough, Grosjean may no longer have to be a ‘pay driver’ in the original sense. Then again, no F1 team ever says “we’ve got enough money”…
So why not McLaren? Grosjean has really established himself as a shining star in Formula 1, and Eric Boullier is the man who has played a huge part in his career. If he is set to escape the pay driver moniker, might McLaren take a punt on him? Can the team really afford to take punts?
Gee, this really is a stickler, and has been ever since the beginning of the season. Five drivers are fighting for just two seats at the Swiss team, and it is difficult to predict which will be the winning pair.
Currently, we’ve got Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil in at Hinwil. Both have backing, but neither has really done a great deal to merit another season. The C33 car is a pig, no doubt, and for Gutierrez, it’s a shame as it is the second year in a row he has tried to perform with a sub-standard car. However, with a Mexican Grand Prix on the horizon, he may be worth retaining for a third season. The kid is quick; he just needs the car to prove it.
Sutil, on the other hand, seems to be nearing the end of a flailing career. He has struggled once again in 2014, and with Giedo van der Garde waiting in the wings, the Dutchman may be the logical replacement. Giedo has impressed during practice for Sauber during his run-outs this season, meaning that he may be the right pick.
However, Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin is in line to step up in the future, be it next season or otherwise. When speaking to Monisha Kaltenborn at the British Grand Prix, it was clear that he is the leading light for the team (although one would guess that isn’t due to his driving ability). Russian investment in Sauber is pushing for this to happen, but it may not be the time just yet.
Finally, we have Simona de Silvestro. The former IndyCar driver has impressed during her preliminary tests for the team, and has earned an FIA superlicense needed to race in F1. The focus for Sauber is getting her into F1, but it does not necessarily appear to be with them directly. Again, it’s a ‘wait and see’ case.
Marussia is a little bit more simplistic, given that it is doing well in 2014 with Bianchi and Max Chilton. It will be the same line-up once again in 2015 barring a move up the grid for the Frenchman.
If he were to move, a driver such as Jolyon Palmer might be an option. The GP2 championship leader has said that he is in talks with some teams over a seat for 2015, and Marussia would be a logical option. Ferrari may be keen on junior driver Raffaele Marciello moving up to Marussia in the future, but despite showing signs of pace, he hasn’t enjoyed a wholly successful debut season in GP2. An FP1 run-out with the Anglo-Russian team is on the horizon, though.
Nothing has been confirmed at Marussia just yet, though, hence why this is in the ‘question mark’ section.
Caterham… or otherwise
This is probably the most enigmatic part of silly season, making speculating very tricky and frankly pointless.
We know that Colin Kolles has a slot on the 2015 grid with a Romanian outfit, Forza Rossa. We also know that he has recently brokered the sale of Caterham. If two and two do make four, one would expect the team to rebrand as Forza Rossa for 2015, even though Kolles has insisted the two projects remain separate.
Basically, these seats are available to the highest bidder. Carlos Sainz Jr. has been linked to the seat before next year, so maybe Red Bull would look to make this a ‘fifth’ seat on the grid.
Otherwise, it’s very open. Marcus Ericsson could get another season despite a rather quiet debut season, and drivers such as Jolyon Palmer may be interested in the seat, even if it seems to be a bit of a poison chalice.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.
Luke Smith is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Richland F1. Having started the website in March 2012, he has gone on to become one of the youngest members of the Formula 1 paddock after joining American broadcaster NBC Sports at the beginning of the 2013 season. Luke now works as the network's lead F1 writer, supporting the TV coverage on nbcsports.com. Luke's work has also been featured on NBC News, Yahoo! Sports, The Times, The Independent and Forbes, and he has also appeared on CNBC's TV series "One Second in F1 Racing".