So, we wait with bated breath to see whether or not Renault will announce next week that Kevin Magnussen is to join Jolyon Palmer in the rebadged Enstone F1 operation, formerly known as Lotus F1. The team did announce some months ago that Pastor Maldonado would be staying on, but the delamination of Venezuela, where today a prominent opposition leader has been calling for a referendum or constitutional reform in order to oust President Nicolas Maduro, means that Pastor is struggling to get money from the national oil company PDVSA, which cannot afford an F1 sponsorship at a time when the country’s economy is falling apart.
We’ll not mention at this point the arrival, yesterday, in Baku of representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who are in well-oiled Azerbaijan for a fact-finding mission to examine the state of the country, which recently had to impose capital controls amid a crumbling currency and street demonstrations. It is anticipated that the government will ask the Fund for $3 billion in financial aid and is also understood to be looking for another $1 billion in loans from the World Bank. One wonders what these economic types would think if they heard how much money was being paid to host a Formula 1 race in Baku in June, but let’s gloss over that, shall we, because in some places, such awkward questions are best left unasked.
The Magnussen decision is quite significant in that it will likely dictate who’ll end up at Manor Racing. As I understand it, the team as been waiting for a decision from KMag, while he has been waiting for the Enstone situation to clear up. Magnussen has some support from Danish sponsors, but it is not believed to be much more than $7 million, although the currency in such rumours is always a little unclear these days. If it is Euros then it is not very different to $7 million, but if it is £7 million that translates to $10 million. Anyway, the moles of Banbury say that if KMag is out of the picture, decisions can start to be taken. There are, so they say, three drivers with the money that the team wants and none of them is Pascal Wehrlein.
One must presume that the three on the list are, in no particular order: Alex Rossi, Will Stevens and Rio Haryanto. I guess it is possible that if Maldonado has got himself into a Size 12-gluteus maximus interface situation at Renault, he might also emerge as a late runner in the contest. It all seems rather odd. Toto Wolff of Mercedes Benz is a BIG fan of Wehrlein, an unusual youngster with a German father and a mother from the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. The thing that is odd is that in recent years big companies in F1 have taken to making decisions a long time in advance. It is the smartest thing to do and there is no need to wait. I would not be att surprised if Toto is not thinking years ahead of everyone else, with Wehrlein a key element in his plans. Lewis Hamilton has a three-year contract extension that will keep him at Brackley until the end of 2018. I am hearing that Wehrlein already has an F1 contract for 2017 and, if I was a gambler, I would suggest that, logically, this is with Williams F1, the primary Mercedes customer, which will reach the end of this year with Felipe Massa being 35 and Valtteri Bottas 27. The Finn is one of several drivers who have been linked to Ferrari in 2017, but could stay at Williams, but one must be prepared. Massa’s future is less clear. He is popular in the team, he is still pretty quick and he attracts money in South America, although the Brazilian economy right now is hardly stellar. The country is the ninth biggest economy in the world, but his contracted by 3.7 percent last year and the World Bank is forecasting another decline of 2.5 percent this year. Team Willy has long had a tradition of getting cheap drivers and turning them into champions, rather than paying top dollar for the big name F1 stars: one thinks back to Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, DC, Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson, Juan Pablo Montoya and more recently Mark Webber, Nicos Rosberg and Hulkenberg and Bottas.
The team has got Alex Lynn lurking in the shadows, but if offered a good driver, the team has always been willing to make exceptions. Staying sweet with Mercedes is the best possible strategy for Williams at the moment, until the glorious day when another manufacturer comes along and the team can get back to the business of winning.
It is safe to assume that Wehrlein could be placed at Williams in 2017, in order to learn how to be star before stepping into Rosberg’s boots at Mercedes. But that begs the question: would it not be best for Pascal to begin his F1 training this season? In which case, would he not be a better choice at Manor? Obviously Manor is not a charity organisation, but it is not stupid to keep Mercedes happy.
Personally, I would see a Rossi-Wehrlein combo as being the most logical – if Magnussen is not available. Rossi may open the way to the US market…