I know it’s only the start of May, but the rumours about who will drive where next year have already begun, probably because there are going to be some big seats up for grabs – at least in theory. The rumblings concern Ferrari, Williams and McLaren, with a change also likely at Red Bull Racing.
Despite the best efforts of Bernie Ecclestone, F1 is becoming more corporate and so advanced planning is much more the order of the day, so some decisions may already have been made and are being kept secret, to keep the current drivers motivated. Certainly this has happened in the past but we shall see.
The strongest rumour is that Max Verstappen will be replacing Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull, having proved his worth, as the Russian previously did, at Scuderia Toro Rosso. Kvyat has done a very decent job, but Red Bull recognises that Max Verstappen is a bit special and have him under contract for one more year. It does not look like there will be a seat at Mercedes just yet, and Ferrari seems to be looking for status quo, so Verstappen’s only sensible choice is to move to Red Bull to continue his apprenticeship, hoping no doubt that the team gets a more competitive power unit.
Ferrari’s choices are interesting. The team wants a stable situation with drivers and so keeping Kimi Raikkonen has some logic. It really depends on whether the team thinks that Sebastian Vettel is susceptible to pressure. It is usually best in a top team not to have drivers being too comfortable because they then tend not to deliver their very best. One can argue the Ferrari could use a young charger to energise the place, because Kimi these days rarely looks like a man who will win races, while Vettel generally looks better. Ferrari has some interesting options available: notably (in no particular order) Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean. Ricciardo is a race winner and so would probably be seen as the best bet, but Vettel and Ricciardo were team-mates at Red Bull in 2014 and you may recall Sebastian had a bad year and finished fifth in the World Championship, while Ricciardo finished third. Some might think that this was because Seb was demotivated with the engine situation at the time, and there are even some who claim that he deliberately under performed because he wanted to get out of his contract, which was possible only if he failed to finish above a certain position (fourth) in the Drivers’ Championship. They say that Ricciardo is contracted to Red Bull for next year, but I suspect that his contract is similar to that of Vettel and uses lock-in clauses that keep him there only if he achieves certain things. So maybe Kvyat needs just to watch and wait and see what happens with Ricciardo.
Much speculation will surround Williams because both drivers are out of contract at the end of the year. There is speculation that Williams might go for Jenson Button, which is a nice idea, but not the decision of a winning team. Williams would normally replace its drivers from within, but that will probably depend on how Alex Lynn does in GP2 and in the Williams simulator. Paul di Resta is there too, but he’s 30 and has been and gone from F1. Still, experience is valuable. The other man to watch for, I think, is Pascal Wehrlein, a Mercedes man who needs front-running experience if he is to one day step into the shoes of Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg.
All of this assumes that one or both Williams drivers will depart and that is by no means certain. Felipe Massa is 35 but still doing well enough to be ahead of Bottas in the championship. Bottas is still only 26 and is ready to start winning if he has the right car. The question is: how is he going to get one? The most likely answer is that he came close to a Ferrari deal last year and might still have some chances there.
McLaren would be mad not to take Stoffel Vandoorne and if it comes to choosing whether to drop Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso, the choice would seem to be pretty clear. Most of the other drives in F1 these days are money-related, but one can imagine Renault being keen to get a big name, or to build up Kevin Magnussen’s career. Renault’s decision to use Sergey Sirotkin as a test driver (along with various others) indicates that the team is not as flush with cash as the factory status suggests. I should think that Romain Grosjean is still a good possibility there as he is popular with Total. Having said that Romain may still want to snuggle up with Ferrari and Fiat. I think there’s a strong possibility that Haas and Alfa Romeo might get together at some point and so a little patience might be useful if Ferrari doesn’t want him right now.
Scuderia Toro Rosso would presumably take on Pierre Gasly to replace Verstappen.