How Hockenheim affects the F1 driver market

With the summer break just around the corner, the German Grand Prix was always going to be a key race for those drivers chasing new contracts for 2020. And when the rain came down on race day, the crazy conditions allowed some to shine and left others dreadfully exposed.

Pierre Gasly

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Already under pressure just to keep his Red Bull seat for the rest of this year, Pierre Gasly’s German Grand Prix was a nightmare he just didn’t need. After starting the weekend with a chassis-wrecking shunt in FP2, Gasly then spent most of the race once again mired in the midfield pack, before retiring in ignominious fashion after rear-ending (ironically, some might say) Alex Albon’s Toro Rosso.

With his teammate again excelling across the weekend to take Red Bull’s second victory of the season, Hockenheim might just be the final nail in the coffin for Gasly.

Daniil Kvyat

Peter Fox, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Gasly’s error-strewn weekend was bad enough by itself, without Daniil Kvyat putting in arguably the drive of his career to steal an unlikely third place for Toro Rosso.

Helmut Marko was quick after the race to say Kvyat’s podium didn’t guarantee him Gasly’s seat for the rest of the year—after all, a podium wasn’t enough to keep Kvyat himself in that seat back in 2016. But even if Red Bull don’t give him another chance at the senior team, Kvyat’s Hockenheim performance will have certainly raised his stock ahead of a potential midfield reshuffle.

Valtteri Bottas

LAT Images / Mercedes AMG

Toto Wolff said at the start of the German Grand Prix weekend that Valtteri Bottas needed “two solid performances in Hockenheim and Budapest” to be sure of a contract extension for 2020.

Judging by Wolff’s table-banging and audible cry of “Damn it, Valtteri!” as Bottas spun into the wall on lap 56, the Finn’s chances of keeping his seat from Esteban Ocon have been considerably reduced. Add to that his lacklustre early race pace and qualifying defeat by both Max Verstappen and an unwell Lewis Hamilton, and this becomes a very costly weekend for Bottas’s future.

Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen

Haas F1 Media

Gunther Steiner was visibly furious with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen after they hit each other late on at Hockenheim, just one race after taking each other out on the first lap at Silverstone.

A driver change now looks like a certainty, though whether Steiner and Gene Haas have enough patience left to wait until 2020 is still up for debate. If not, Ferrari simulator driver Pascal Wehrlein is thought to be the most likely to slot into one of the cars after the summer break.

Wehrlein and Hartley named as Ferrari simulator drivers

Former F1 drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Brendon Hartley have been named as Ferrari’s new simulator drivers alongside Davide Rigon and Antonio Fuoco.

Brendon Hartley raced for Toro Rosso in the last four races of 2017 and for the whole of 2018 before being unceremoniously dropped from their line-up. In 2019, alongside his role in the Ferrari simulator, he will once again make up part of Porsche’s factory driver program, with a potential return to the World Endurance Championship – where he won the LMP1 title in 2015 and 2017 – on the cards.

Wehrlein last competed in F1 in 2017 for the Sauber team, and now races for Mahindra in Formula E. Rumours had linked him with Ferrari ever since it was announced that the ties between himself and Mercedes had been cut in September of last year.

Pascal Wehrlein (D), Sauber F1 Team.
Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace.

As mentioned, the pair will join Davide Rigon and Antonio Fuoco at the Scuderia. Rigon has worked in the Ferrari simulator since 2014, whilst Fuoco has long been a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy and took part in F2 last year.

Speaking of the signings, team principal Mattia Binotto said, “Our team has taken on four undoubtedly talented drivers, who possess innate feeling, with a strong  understanding of race cars and tracks. These are exactly the qualities required in the skillful role of driving in a simulator, one of the vital pieces of equipment in the Formula 1 of today.”

 

[Featured image: Peter Fox/Getty Images]

Analysis: Wehrlein’s future in jeopardy as Sauber exit nears

Bounced between backmarker teams, overlooked in the midfield, Pascal Wehrlein has not had the easiest progression in his F1 career. But, if recent reports about the Sauber team are to be believed, the German could already be about to drop off the grid entirely in this year’s round of contract negotiations.

Sauber F1 Team

When Sauber confirmed a multi-year extension of its Ferrari engine partnership at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the media wasted no time in speculating what that new agreement could mean for the team’s 2018 driver lineup. And not without good cause, either: Sauber’s new team principal Fred Vasseur confirmed that drivers “will be part of the discussions [with Ferrari]”, whilst Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne called Sauber “a place to lay the foundations of the Scuderia Ferrari of tomorrow”.

As suggestions go, they don’t get more ominous than that for Pascal Wehrlein. The German may have scored all of Sauber’s 2017 points so far and be leading a 7-2 qualifying battle against his teammate, but there’s no denying that this renewed Ferrari alliance puts Wehrlein right to the back of the queue for a Sauber seat next year. It’s not just that Ferrari has two protégés ready for F1 debuts in Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc—with Sauber set to receive contemporary Ferrari engines again, the last thing the Scuderia wants is for one of those engines to be powering a Mercedes employee.

That will leave Mercedes with a tough job over the summer, as it tries to find Wehrlein his third new cockpit in as many F1 seasons. But on a grid where opportunities are fast diminishing, could another setback now spell the end of Wehrlein’s still-fledging F1 career?

Sauber F1 Team

The problem Wehrlein faces with this year’s market is that all his potential avenues seem to be closing off before he’s even had a chance to explore them. Force India would have usually seemed like a natural berth for a castaway Mercedes junior, but (unless Kimi Räikkönen rejects his inbound Ferrari extension), the Silverstone team has no need to seek a replacement for Sergio Pérez or Esteban Ocon. And, let it not be forgotten, Force India has already turned down Wehrlein’s services once before, on the grounds of his reputed attitude problem.

There may at least be a vacancy advertised at Mercedes’ other customer team Williams, should Felipe Massa’s deal not be renewed for another year. But here again, Mercedes will be pitching Wehrlein to a team that has already said no before; in part due to Wehrlein’s inexperience, but also because Williams’ title sponsor Martini requires at least one driver over the age of 25 for promotional events (Wehrlein is only 22).

That leaves Wehrlein with precious few options for 2018. One—and perhaps his only within the F1 paddock—would be to return to where he started, on the bench as Mercedes’ third driver. Other reports have suggested the German might spend the year back in DTM, leading the Mercedes team’s final outing in the series, or perhaps laying the groundwork for Mercedes-Benz’ next venture by joining the Venturi Formula E team.

But whatever solution Wehrlein’s management finds, his prospects beyond next year look grim, as being frozen out from the 2018 market could make it that much harder to come back in 2019.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas

When Wehrlein made his F1 debut last year, he almost certainly would have had one eye on the driver market for 2019, when both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg came to the end of their Mercedes contracts. After finding his feet at Manor and then spending one or two seasons impressing in the midfield with Williams or Force India, Wehrlein would have come through the ranks as the perfect candidate to lead the Silver Arrows’ next lineup.

But that plan took several blows at the end of 2016, when first the Manor team folded and then Rosberg announced his shock retirement, and Wehrlein, instead of ascending to the fore, was moved sideways into Sauber. Now, with just one year until Hamilton potentially vacates the lead Mercedes cockpit, Wehrlein is facing a step back off the grid altogether.

A year on the sidelines could be all it takes for Wehrlein to drop off the radar entirely, right when he needs to be on Mercedes’ mind the most. Should Hamilton indeed leave an opening at the Silver Arrows for 2019, Wehrlein’s time out of the F1 spotlight will surely shuffle him down the list of priorities behind Daniel Ricciardo (the Australian’s contract expires next year with Hamilton’s) and Esteban Ocon, who already looks to have leapfrogged Wehrlein in the Mercedes line of succession.

And, regardless of Wehrlein’s talent behind the wheel, being passed over by the same teams for three seasons in a row will leave a sizeable dent in the young German’s reputation—indeed, in a sport as ruthless as Formula One, it could prove to be a death blow.

Sauber F1 Team