2020 F1 driver market preview

Now that the 2019 F1 Championship is nearing its summer break, the traditional driver market rumours have started coming in thick and fast. To help sort the bluff from the believable, we’ve identified five key hotspots in this year’s silly season.

Esteban Ocon

Mercedes AMG

Esteban Ocon is expected to be the driver market’s dominant figure this year. Although his chances of a 2020 Mercedes drive have been slashed by Valtteri Bottas’ run of improved form, there is no shortage of teams to which the Frenchman has been linked.

If Mercedes were to release Ocon as they did Pascal Wehrlein last year, then he could prove the keystone for the midfield shuffle. Renault and Haas especially are known to be interested in a free Ocon, and both teams have drivers out of contract.

Sebastian Vettel

Ferrari Media

Although Sebastian Vettel has a contract with Ferrari for 2020, his distance from the title, infamous disagreements with the stewards and the rise of Charles Leclerc have all left him openly questioning whether F1 is still the place he wants to be.

At the moment Vettel is still expected to at least see out his contract rather than walk away early. But if he does call time on his F1 career this season, the most likely candidate to take his seat is thought to be Bottas or Daniel Ricciardo.

Nico Hülkenberg

Renault Sport Media

Nico Hülkenberg might have scored more than half of Renault’s total points since he joined them in 2017, but that hasn’t stopped team reportedly eyeing up Ocon for his seat next year.

If Hülkenberg were to lose his Renault drive, his only alternative on the 2020 grid would be a sideways move to Haas, Racing Point or Alfa Romeo. However, after nine seasons mired in the midfield he may decide to take his considerable talent to a more competitive series—Formula E, perhaps, or returning to Le Mans with Aston Martin’s hypercar entry.

Romain Grosjean

Haas F1 Media

Romain Grosjean is another driver under pressure from Ocon, with one wild silly season story claiming Haas were even trying to swap the two Frenchmen around for this weekend’s German Grand Prix.

But while that particular rumour has come to nothing, it is true that Grosjean is facing a lot of competition for his seat—not just from Ocon, but also Hülkenberg, Sergio Pérez and now-Ferrari development driver Wehrlein. Whether Grosjean remains on the F1 grid at all next year remains to be seen, with his best option likely swapping seats with Pérez and joining Racing Point.

Nicholas Latifi

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

There isn’t much space for new young drivers on the 2020 grid, but Formula 2 frontrunner Nicholas Latifi already has his feet under the table with a Williams reserve role. If Williams and Robert Kubica decide to part company at the end of a frustrating year for both parties, Latifi is next in line to replace the Pole.

Latifi has also been linked with Racing Point, forming an all-Canadian lineup with Lance Stroll should Pérez move on to Haas. However, Ocon is a much more likely alternative at present, given his fruitful past relationship with the team and his friendship with Stroll.

Barcelona test: Latifi pleased with “smooth” Force India debut

Force India’s new development driver Nicholas Latifi has said he is pleased with his first on-track outing for the team at the Barcelona in-season test, after completing a programme of 107 laps and finishing fifth fastest.

This was Latifi’s second experience of F1 testing, having performed a similar role for Renault last year, and his first with Force India after missing a scheduled pre-season testing day due to illness.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

“It was a very good first day on track with the team and I finally had the chance to put to practice a lot of the procedures and processes I had learnt in the simulator,” Latifi said.

“I am pleased with how the day went; we ran smoothly with no big dramas. We completed lots of laps and I couldn’t have asked for a better first day.

“I am glad I could help the team with their testing programme and I am looking forward to being back in the simulator with this new knowledge of how the car behaves on track.”

Sahara Force India F1 Team

Force India’s chief race engineer Tom McCullough called Latifi’s first outing with the team “a very solid performance”, saying that the Canadian “settled in well with the team from an operational point of view and was on top of the various switches and procedures straight away.”

Latifi is due to pilot the VJM11 again in “a number” of currently unspecified Friday practice sessions this year, and may return for the second in-season test in Budapest in July.

Force India unveils VJM11 in Barcelona

Force India became one of the last teams to launch its challenger for the 2018 F1 season, pulling the covers off the VJM11 in the pitlane ahead of Barcelona testing.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

Overall, the VJM11 doesn’t deviate much from last year’s design, which netted the team fourth place in the 2017 Constructors’ Championship. The VJM10’s stepped nose section and elongated thumb-tip nose, unique on last year’s grid, have remained for 2018.

The most striking visual difference between last year and this comes from the car’s livery—still built around the “pink panther” scheme of sponsor BWT, Force India has added to the VJM11 with sections of white on the nose, cockpit and rear wing.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

But although the VJM11 shows no drastic departures from last year’s philosophy, Force India’s technical director Andy Green said the addition of the Halo meant the team couldn’t simply carry over last year’s chassis as planned:

“From an aerodynamic perspective, the work [on integrating the Halo] is still ongoing. It’s not designed to be an aerodynamic device. It doesn’t do us any favours in that department.”

Green further explained that the Halo causes “a significant downstream effect, especially around the rear wing area.

“It requires a lot of work to mitigate the issues that it causes. We’re still actively working on that, and I don’t think we’ll have a solution until Melbourne.”

Sahara Force India F1 Team

The Mercedes-powered VJM11 will have its track debut on Monday courtesy of Force India development driver Nikita Mazepin, before race drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez take over for the rest of the week.

The team’s new reserve driver Nicholas Latifi was scheduled to drive on the final day of the test, but has had to stand down after being hospitalised by a serious infection earlier in the week.

Latifi takes up Force India third driver role

Force India has signed Canadian F2 racer Nicholas Latifi as its new test and reserve driver for the 2018 F1 season.

Latifi’s role will comprise simulator work as well as participation in young driver tests and “a number of Friday practice sessions” throughout the year.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity,” Latifi said in a statement. “Sahara Force India is a team that has shown constant improvement for the last few years and I’m proud to become a part of one of the success stories of Formula One.

“I am eager to show the team what I can do and help them as they continue to close the gap to the front of the grid.”

Joe Portlock/FIA Formula 2

Force India team boss Vijay Mallya said of the appointment, “Nicholas joins us off the back of a strong season in F2 and strengthens our driver development programme. He will support our simulator programme and work with the team during a number of Friday practice sessions.”

Mallya added: “We have a long track record of bringing on young talented drivers and Nicholas will learn a huge amount as he gets embedded in the team, and looks forward to a career in Formula One.”

Latifi, who previously held a test driver role at Renault, took one race win and nine podiums to finish fifth in the 2017 F2 Championship.

Formula 2 Midseason Report

It could be very easy to write off the 2017 Formula 2 season as something of a one horse race. But with twelve different podium finishers, and every team scoring points, it has been anything but. While Charles Leclerc may be grabbing all the headlines, it would be unfair to overlook some of the other drivers and teams who have been performing well this season. However, for every driver exceeding expectations, there have been those who have failed to deliver.

High Flyers

Perhaps an unexpected stand out star has been DAMS driver, Nicholas Latifi, who recently tested for Renault at the mid-season Formula 1 test at the Hungaroring. For the majority of his single seater career the Canadian has flown under the radar, performing well enough to pick up a few points here and there, but never delivering any results that made him stand out. This season has been something of a breakthrough for Latifi, picking up a win and five podium finishes on his way to a fourth place in the driver standings. What is perhaps most impressive about Latifi’s season so far is that prior to the 2017 season, few had him pegged as a race winner, and expected his teammate Oliver Rowland to comfortably out perform him.

Photo: Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

Whilst they may have been somewhat eclipsed by star of the season Charles Leclerc, his fellow GP3 graduates have certainly than measured up to their more experienced competitors. ART’s Alexander Albon has acclimatised to the series well, showing consistency by scoring points in every round but Silverstone – with the exception of Baku, which he missed due to injury. The Thai driver needs to score more podiums to get on terms with his teammate, but considering it is his first season, he has surpassed expectations. Similarly, Nyck de Vries – who partnered Albon and Leclerc last year – started his season looking a little shaky, tyre management in particular being an issue, but has worked his way into his stride too, even earning himself a sprint race victory. If their respective teams can continue their form in 2018, and provided that both drivers stay in Formula 2, then it would not be surprising to see them as contenders for the championship next year.

In terms of team performances, DAMS and Russian Time have been far above the rest of the field in terms of consistent results and good performances from both of their drivers. They probably have the two strongest line-ups, but it looks set to be a two horse fight for the team title this year. Despite Leclerc’s best efforts, Prema will struggle to stay on terms with their two rivals. Though the Italian team currently sits ahead of Russian Time in the standings, that is more to do with the below-average outing the Russian team had in Hungary. It is a particular impressive resurgence for DAMS who have struggled in GP2 since they won both the driver and the team title in 2014.

While not as consistent as their more successful counterparts, some credit has to be given to Pertamina Arden, who scored their first race win at this level since 2012, courtesy of Norman Nato. It is encouraging stuff for a team who have struggled badly in recent years. The team benefitted from an overhaul at the start of the season, and they will be pleased to see their hard work yielding the results they desire.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

While he currently trails both Rowland and Leclerc, what is most impressive about Artem Markelov this season is how much he has improved since just 2016. The Russian used to be a driver synonymous with inconsistency, quick but always hampered by his overly aggressive driving style and tendency to lose his head. But this year he has been vocal about his focus on working to calm himself down and think about the long game, and it shows. Save for his failed overtake on Oliver Rowland in Hungary, his previous flashes of brilliance have turned into a fully fledged championship campaign, and has put him at the front of the field at this level for the first time in his career.

Above all, however, 2017 has been a story of one man; Charles Leclerc. The nineteen-year-old Monegasque driver as dominated qualifying and the feature races, and leads the championship standings by a very healthy margin of fifty points, displaying immense speed and mental strength along the way. With only four rounds and eight races left to run, you would be hard pressed to find someone willing to bet against him taking home the title in November – though he is on track to seal the deal well before the final round in Abu Dhabi.

Under Achievers

It may be a little harsh to consider Oliver Rowland‘s performance in Formula 2 underwhelming, but by the standards he set himself at the beginning of the season, it is just that. While none would claim he doesn’t have the talent or the speed to claim the title, the twenty-four-year-old has been outshone by Leclerc – though his performance was somewhat unexpected. As someone who stressed the importance of bringing home the F2 title in order to progress up the single seater ladder, to be trailing by fifty points at this stage in the season makes his task very difficult indeed.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Since their entry into GP2 in 2005, Racing Engineering had developed a reputation of a team guaranteed to give their drivers the tools necessary to perform at the top end of the field. But last year’s runners up currently sit in eighth in the team standings, with only twenty-nine points to their name. The Spanish team, and their drivers – Gustav Malja and Louis Deletraz – have been vocal about their struggles with set up and pace. While it is too late to rescue their form from previous seasons, the team can hope to use the summer break to finish their season in a better place than they are currently.

If Antonio Fuoco’s teammate was anyone other than Charles Leclerc, then maybe his struggles this season would not be so glaringly obvious. Despite pulling out some promising qualifying performances, and scoring one podium in Austria, he has floundered while his fellow Ferrari Academy Driver has dominated the field. Regardless of how well his teammate is performing, he has not been as impressive as his fellow GP3 graduates – who, while struggling at first, have started to replicate their form from previous years. Just last year, Fuoco was involved in the GP3 title fight, driving for a team not as strong as his rivals’, but a mistake-ridden run and lack of pace has seen him nearer the back of the grid.

The summer break offers a chance for recuperation and can provide a blank slate for some drivers and teams, and there is every chance for them to put to bed the demons of the first half of the season, and turn things around. Equally, there is nothing to say that those who are on top right now will necessarily remain so.