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.

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.

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]

Where will F1’s juniors be in 2019?

The 2018 driver market has been both kind and cruel to F1’s young drivers. On the one hand, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris have all secured dream promotions to Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren respectively.

But on the other hand, Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne have both found their F1 careers on the rocks thanks to silly season developments, while rising stars like George Russell struggle to find any space on the grid.

As the final 2019 deals begin to fall into place, we look at which young drivers might yet find seats for Melbourne next year.

Antonio Giovinazzi

Ferrari Media

Despite becoming Italy’s first F1 driver in six years when he deputised for Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber last year, Antonio Giovinazzi has been unable to add to his two starts since being leapfrogged in Ferrari’s junior scheme by Charles Leclerc.

But with Leclerc moving from Sauber to Ferrari, Giovinazzi might finally get his shot at a full-time race seat. If Ferrari’s right to nominate one of Sauber’s drivers is to be believed, then Giovinazzi could be just an executive decision at Maranello away from joining the Swiss team’s lineup for next year.

Stoffel Vandoorne

Glenn Dunbar / McLaren Media

If Ferrari does insist on Sauber taking Giovinazzi, that will put pay to one of Stoffel Vandoorne’s best post-McLaren options.

Should Sauber be off the table, Vandoorne’s only real hope for 2019 is Toro Rosso. Honda is reportedly keen to bring Vandoorne into Toro Rosso having valued his feedback during their partnership with McLaren.

But even with Honda behind him, Vandoorne will have his work cut out convincing Helmut Marko that he has more potential than was shown in his two years with McLaren.

Pascal Wehrlein

Sauber F1 Team

Another potential obstacle in Vandoorne’s route to Toro Rosso is Pascal Wehrlein. The former Manor and Sauber driver is leaving the Mercedes family at the end of the year in a bid to open up more opportunities on the F1 grid, and is said to have a big fan in Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost.

It’s not the first time Wehrlein has been linked with Toro Rosso—he was touted as a potential mid-season replacement for Brendon Hartley earlier in the year. Those rumours may have come to nothing, but Wehrlein’s sudden appearance as a free agent in the driver market will surely give Red Bull and Toro Rosso something to consider.

Esteban Ocon

Racing Point Force India F1 Team

The details of Esteban Ocon’s plight to remain in F1 next year hardly need repeating by now. Currently his best chance of a 2019 race seat involves either Mercedes pressing customer team Williams to pick him over a more well-funded alternative, or breaking free from the Mercedes camp as Wehrlein has done and hoping that leads to a shot with Haas or Toro Rosso.

If neither avenue comes to fruition, then we’ll likely see Ocon take up a third driver role with the works Mercedes team—possibly dovetailing that with outings for the marque’s HWA-run Formula E team—before aiming to replace Valtteri Bottas in 2020.

Outside F1

Renault Sport F1 Team

If current drivers like Ocon and Vandoorne are struggling to stay in F1 next year, it’s doubtful anyone from the junior formulae will find space on the 2019 grid.

As the Formula 2 championship leader, Mercedes junior George Russell should be the best placed young driver to make the step up to F1. However, his position behind Ocon in the Mercedes hierarchy means that it’s unlikely he’ll be allowed to overtake the Frenchman and take an F1 drive at his expense.

On the other hand, F2 stalwart Artem Markelov may yet get his F1 break after five years in the feeder series. His Russian Time backing has seen him linked to Williams in recent weeks, and an FP1 run with Renault in Sochi will be the perfect chance to make his case when it counts.

Formula 3 title leader Dan Ticktum was being queued up to join Toro Rosso for next year, until the FIA pointed out that he was ineligible for a Super License. Ticktum will likely move to F2 for next year to complete his Super License, before stepping up to Toro Rosso in 2020.

David Pastanella / Red Bull Content Pool

Wehrlein to leave Mercedes after 2018

Mercedes-Benz has announced that it will part ways with Pascal Wehrlein at the end of the 2018 season.

The decision, which has been described by both parties as mutual, brings to an end a six-year partnership that included a record-breaking run in the DTM and Wehrlein’s Formula One debut with the Mercedes-engined Manor team.

Mercedes AMG

Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff said: “Our junior programme has always been about supporting young talent and finding opportunities that are in the best interests of the drivers’ careers.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t offer Pascal a competitive drive for next year. In his best interests, we have therefore decided together with Pascal not to extend our agreement and to give him the best chance of securing an opportunity elsewhere that his talent merits.”

Wehrlein added: “I am very grateful for all the support Mercedes has offered me. Now it’s time to take the next step. I am looking for new challenges and opportunities and am currently talking to other teams about a cockpit for next season.”

Foto Studio Colombo / Pirelli Media

Wehrlein’s break came in 2014 when he became the DTM’s youngest ever race winner and was appointed third driver for the Mercedes F1 team. The following year he became the youngest ever DTM champion.

Wehrlein made his F1 debut in 2016 with Manor and scored his first championship point in Austria. The following year he moved to Sauber and took a further two points finishes, in Spain and Azerbaijan, but lost his seat for this year to Charles Leclerc following Sauber’s renewed Ferrari partnership.

Toto Wolff has been quoted recently as saying that Mercedes would be prepared to let its junior drivers go if doing so would help their careers, following his struggle to find Wehrlein’s former stablemate Esteban Ocon an F1 seat next year.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Sauber bringing key aero update to Spa

Sauber will be completing its second major upgrades package of the season this weekend in Belgium, in a bid to offset its year-old Ferrari engine deficit.

Sauber F1 Team

The update—a new floor—will form the second part of a significant aerodynamic upgrade that began at the last round in Hungary, where new bodywork and an improved cooling system were fitted to the C36.

The is the first major update to the car since Sauber revised its floor, sidepods, brake ducts and bodywork during the race weekends in Spain—where Pascal Wehrlein scored the team’s first points of the season—and Monaco.

It is hoped that the completed second package will help Sauber to counteract the shortfall in power of their 2016 Ferrari power units, particularly with the Belgian Grand Prix and the following race at Monza providing some of the most engine-dependant racing on the F1 calendar.

Sauber F1 Team

Speaking about the upgrade to Autosport at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson said, “Hopefully this next update will work a bit better than the upgrade we got [in May] as it didn’t really give us the jump we had hoped.

“When we got the car working, like in Silverstone in the race, we could keep similar pace to the Haas cars, and Vandoorne wasn’t much faster. We are not too bad, when we get our car together.”

Nevertheless, the team will be wary of expecting too much from the new parts this weekend—especially as at the chassis-specialist Hungaroring, the first instalment of Sauber’s new aero package saw Wehrlein and Ericsson qualify on the final two rows of the grid, and finish the race two laps down and last of those still running at the flag.

It is likely this will be Sauber’s final big push to improve the competitiveness of the C36, before it turns its attentions fully to constructing next year’s challenger.

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

Previewing the 2017–18 driver market

When summer comes and F1 takes to its European heartlands, that can only mean one thing—the time for silly season is here. At time of writing, only six drivers on the current grid have contracts in place for the 2018 season, and while many can be expected to renew their existing deals, there is still plenty of scope for changes over the course of the next few months.

Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Starting at the very front of the grid, it looks unlikely that Mercedes will feature much in the contractual rumour mill this season. Lewis Hamilton is one of those half-dozen drivers with a 2018 deal already in place, and although many speculated early in the year that Valtteri Bottas’ one-year deal was just a placeholder until a superstar name became available, the Finn seems to have established himself as an asset to the team and is likely to be retained.

The same cannot be said of Ferrari, however. With the Scuderia now locked in a close title fight with Mercedes, it’s hard to imagine much desire among the bosses to retain Kimi Räikkönen for yet another season when there is much younger blood to be found elsewhere. The obvious candidate for his seat is Sergio Pérez, who carries that blend of proven talent and North American sponsorship so desired at Ferrari, although Carlos Sainz is also well-known to join him on their shopping list.

An alternative name to throw into the Ferrari pot is that of Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has been visibly disheartened by Red Bull’s lack of a title bid this season, and although he already has a supposedly ironclad contract in place for next year, his departure may actually suit Red Bull in the long run—especially when one considers the alternative is losing Max Verstappen to Ferrari instead.

Judging by frustration alone, the Dutchman looks far more likely than Ricciardo to want out of Red Bull this year. But allowing him to become the team’s new and undisputed leader would appease Verstappen no end, and promoting one of the Toro Rosso juniors to be his teammate would prevent them from leaving the programme to strengthen the hand of a rival like Renault or Williams. With all five of its drivers (including understudy Pierre Gasly) under interest from all ends of the F1 grid, Red Bull could well be forced this year into losing a finger to save the hand.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

If Red Bull decides to stick with (or rather, refuses to let go of) its current senior lineup, then the likely price will be to lose one of its junior drivers instead. It’s obvious that Sainz, with at least some interest from all four works teams, will face the most attractive offers, but considering Daniil Kvyat’s difficult relationship with both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso management, it’s he who in all probability will find it easier to leave.

Should Kvyat be released from the Red Bull stable he will no doubt carry some considerable weight among the midfield teams. Questions of consistency aside, with a proven points and podium record the Russian will make an appealing option to replace Pérez at Force India, or the ageing Felipe Massa at Williams.

Another potential home for Kvyat would be alongside Nico Hülkenberg at Renault. The French marque is known to like its Russian drivers (not to mention their sponsors), and if Sergey Sirotkin doesn’t prove up to an F1 seat in 2018, the team could do worse than signing Kvyat in place of Jolyon Palmer—particularly as the former’s history of Renault engines at Red Bull and Toro Rosso will help him slot quickly into their development programme.

As for Palmer himself, even with his underwhelming performances so far it would be surprising not to see him somewhere on the grid in 2018. The Briton’s GP2 title and substantial personal backing was known to have put him on Force India’s radar when it sought a replacement for Hülkenberg last season, and could do so again this year; if not, he may well find a welcome home at Sauber-Honda.

Renault Sport F1 Team

If Palmer were to pitch himself to Sauber, it’s almost a given that his drive would come at Pascal Wehrlein’s expense. The German is understood to have developed a difficult relationship with both Marcus Ericsson and the team’s new owners for starters; and with Sauber taking on a new engine deal with Honda for next year, Mercedes may feel it’s best to place Wehrlein elsewhere.

Had Lance Stroll not found his F1 feet in Baku, it would not have been much of a shock to see Williams switch him with Wehrlein to allow the Canadian time to mature outside of the spotlight. And whilst Williams could still opt to take on Wehrlein to partner Stroll instead, the team would probably prefer to find a more experienced driver should it decide against resigning Felipe Massa for a fifth season—a driver like Romain Grosjean, for example, whose vexation with Haas’ continued brake issues has been made all too public this year, and who might be on the hunt for fresh inspiration now that his Ferrari hopes seem to have vanished.

Alternatively, at 31 and with no clear shot at a front-running seat, Grosjean might be tempted to chance one last throw of the dice at McLaren. It’s hard to see who else the former champions would be able to attract if Fernando Alonso walks away and leaves them with an empty seat, unless they take a substantial risk and promote F2 protege Nyck de Vries. Nevertheless, the matter of any driver replacing Alonso remains dependant on the Spaniard actually leaving McLaren—something that still seems a long way from happening with no obvious top-tier cockpit for him to assume.

Charles Coates / McLaren