During ‘normal’ Formula 1 years the driver market would be largely settled by mid-October. But 2020 F1-style is far from ‘normal’, having started in July and currently being two-thirds through.2021 F1 season have therefore emerged later in the year than might be expected. But, if anything, it’s all the wilder for it, with claims Nico Hulkenberg is front-runner to partner Max Verstappen at Red Bull and Sergio Perez linked to replacing George Russell at Williams.
Could they get any wilder? Sure: Pierre Gasly has also been tipped to oust Esteban Ocon at Renault, while Mick Schumacher’s F1 debut is rumoured to happen not with Alfa Romeo, as widely predicted, but Haas.
As always, most of the suppositions are unlikely to come to pass although some solid reasoning usually lies behind them. The trick is to filter the feasible from the fanciful by examining the various contributory factors that gave rise to conjecture in the first place. Such factors are seldom obvious, and never was this better evidenced than by Carlos Sainz Jnr’s shock mid-season move to Renault in 2017.
That arose because Toro Rosso wanted out of its Renault engine deal to go with Honda, with their well-rated driver’s services demanded as (part) pay-off. With Gasly’s stock sky-high in France after his shock Monza win – the first for a Frenchman since 1996 – it would be no surprise to learn he is on Renault’s wish list, particularly as the team is rebranding to its performance sub-brand Alpine for 2021.
Would Red Bull willingly release Gasly? The answer may lie in the same commodity as lay at the root of the Sainz exchange: Engines. With Honda exiting at the end of 2021, Red Bull is searching for engines for its both teams, and Gasly could form part of the arrangement. If he moves, expect an engine deal to follow; if not, a more complex deal, with or without Renault, is likely.
Ocon? In September 2019 Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff confirmed the team, which mentored Esteban, has a drawback option after 2022, so he could be benched for another year (as in 2019) or ‘loaned’ to engine customer Williams as replacement for Nicolas Latifi, who is unlikely to stay at Williams after the recent change of ownership. With Hamilton still yet to sign on the line for 2021 and beyond, having Ocon on standby makes a lot of sense for Mercedes.
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What of suggestions that Sergio Perez could replace George Russell (or Latifi)? As incoming owner Dorilton Capital obviously aims to balance the books sooner rather than later, having a proven and funded driver is clearly attractive. Given teams have two primary revenue streams – prize money (via points) and sponsorship – a driver able to supply both is an obvious target.
That said, Red Bull needs much the same: a driver able to keep Verstappen on his toes, and if he adds to team coffers, so much the better. Folk scoff at Red Bull ‘needing’ money, but it’s easy to overlook that every cent spent on F1 by Red Bull effectively comes out of the back pocket of proprietor Dietrich Mateschitz, who is no dunce when it comes to marketing.
Based on their records, Hulkenberg and Perez are able to deliver similar results but the former has no funding to speak off. Do the maths: same points, but one brings, say, $15 million, whereas the other costs $5m – a swing of $20m. Who to go for? As always with highly successful businesses the mantra is cost-effectiveness.
But the choice may not be that simple. The Red Bull drink is based on a Thai family-owned recipe provided to Mateschitz under agreement. There are imperatives to keep the Thai faction sweet, and perceptions among the media are that the team’s comments about Thai driver Albon are more indulgent than they were towards Gasly under similar circumstances a year ago. Thus, there may be no change.
Formula 2 championship leader Mick Schumacher is widely tipped to make his F1 debut next year with one of the Ferrari customer teams – but which? The explanation for this begins with Haas.
Team principal Guenther Steiner is known to have met with Dmitry Mazepin, Russian chemicals oligarch and father of F2 race-winner Nikita, in Sochi. According to Russian sources the main talk was of placing a Russian with the team: Either (but not both) Mazepin or Ferrari Driver Academy member Robert Shwartzman.
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That would leave a second seat vacant as Haas is believed unlikely to retain its current line-up of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. Asked by RaceFans whether Haas could race with two rookies in 2021, Steiner said: “Anything is possible.”
While the popular money is on Schumacher going to Alfa Romeo – a view intensified by his planned practice outing for them at the Nurburgring, which was cancelled due to the weather – internal sources at the Sauber-run team have advised that Ferrari is more likely to place the son of their legendary world champion with Haas. (This would be the reverse of Schumacher’s FDA predecessor Charles Leclerc, who made his first practice outings for Haas before arriving in F1 with Sauber.)
Why so? Due to commercial pressures resulting from Ferrari’s currently poor performance, which is unlikely to improve in the short to medium term. Haas receives non-listed parts, powertrains and other components from Ferrari, and has a wind tunnel usage deal with the Scuderia, all of which are up for renewal – initially this year, but delayed to the end of 2022 due to Covid-19 and the resultant roll-over of the current sporting and technical regulations.
Haas has very little in the way of own facilities, having listed parts produced by Dallara. This makes it ripe for plucking by a team seeking a satellite-type arrangement – to wit Renault, which admits to being open to such an arrangement. Haas’s business model perfectly fits the bill, and while there may be disruptions, the team has over a year to prepare – forget not that originally it needed over a year to gear up.
Therefore, says our source, Ferrari are likely to offer Schumacher to Haas to keep them sweet by providing a ‘name’ to use for sponsorship purposes, thereby boosting Haas’s coffers and indirectly reducing the contract cost. It makes sense: Haas with Schumacher, boosted by Mazepin roubles, could provide the stability the team is seeking.
While some or even most of these scenarios may come to pass, the flipside could as easily apply: Williams retains its driver line-up, Albon stays put and Haas take in one rookie and retain one of their old hands (or Perez/Hulkenberg).
The point, though, is that each of the scenarios outlined above has solid political or commercial foundations, which is why any of them could occur if the stars align for a particular driver. If not, at last three worthy candidates for F1 seats will sit out 2021, which surely proves that F1 desperately needs 12 teams, not its current 10.
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