It was in the week after the Hungarian GP last year that one unexpected driver move sent the F1 market into a frenzy in what should have been the sport’s summer ‘break’.
Daniel Ricciardo left his then-Red Bull bosses as stunned as the wider sport by signing for Renault, creating a vacancy at the top end of the grid and setting off a series of interlinked moves.
Before the sport reconvened for the Belgian GP three weeks later, Pierre Gasly had been announced as Ricciardo’s successor while Carlos Sainz, who had been on loan at Renault from the Red Bull stable, fully cut his ties with the company and signed up with McLaren. It didn’t take long for the rest of the 2019 grid to fill in from there.
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So as F1 again reaches its usual mid-August recess, what’s the latest in the market – this time for 2020?
Will it be Bottas or Ocon at Mercedes?
“There won’t be a big shake-up this winter, but Valtteri Bottas could be the first domino in whatever musical chairs kicks off,” wrote Sky Sports F1’s Martin Brundle this week, after the Finn’s future was the subject of increasing speculation during the Germany-Hungary double header.
Whereas in 2018 Mercedes already had new deals for Lewis Hamilton (two years) and Bottas (one with an option) signed and sealed by July, this year it’s the future of the latter which will keep Toto Wolff and his colleagues busy over the coming weeks in what is ostensibly F1’s one yearly holiday period.
Do Mercedes stick with the experienced and race-winning Finnish hand alongside Hamilton or promote Esteban Ocon, who showed so much promise at Force India before losing out in last year’s merry-go-round?
“It’s a question between Esteban and Valtteri,” confirmed Wolff in Hungary. “It’s making a decision on stability, a great personality and a very good driver versus giving youth a chance and the opportunity in the car with all the reward and risks it can bring.”
Although Bottas only turns 30 at the end of August, Ocon is seven years his junior and a member of the young, exciting late-1990s-born generation which includes Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris.
The ‘reward’ for Mercedes would be that they have one of those rising stars in a seat alongside Hamilton, F1’s established standard-bearer. But is losing the Hamilton-Bottas mix, a harmonious partnership which has put Mercedes well ahead in the constructors’ standings despite the latter’s recent troubles, worth the ‘risk’?
What happens to whoever loses out?
Whichever way Mercedes’ decision goes, neither Bottas nor Ocon are likely to be short of alternative suitors.
Of Ocon, Wolff said: “I think if you can’t provide an opportunity for a young driver, then you’ve got to make compromises. Certainly I wouldn’t sabotage Esteban’s career by blocking him and not releasing him to drive in Formula 1.”
With Nico Hulkenberg out of contract at Renault, a move to the French manufacturer for Frenchman Ocon could make sense – even though Wolff thought such a deal, on loan terms, had been agreed for 2019 this time last year before the Enstone team pulled off their Ricciardo coup.
Meanwhile, were Bottas to lose out, a “soft landing” has been assured for him, with Wolff previously telling Sky F1 that there is “interest in the market” in the Finn. Bottas himself has said he has started thinking about a Plan B – and indeed C, should he need it.
Could that be Renault? Could it be Red Bull? As one of only seven race winners on the grid, and the second-youngest of them, Bottas would certainly be a very solid signing by someone.
Christian Horner and Helmut Marko discuss Max Verstappen’s Red Bull future at the Hungarian GP
What’s happening at Red Bull?
Before his first brilliant win of the season in Austria in June, Max Verstappen’s future had been the subject of speculation with attention centred on an apparent ‘performance clause’ in a contract which ostensibly runs to the end of 2020.
But it seems that what has happened since, with Verstappen breaking for summer in third place in the Drivers’ Championship, has shut off any such exit route, were it even being explored. Certainly, Helmut Marko and Christian Horner were sounding confident of retaining their star asset in Hungary, with the former telling Sky Sports that Verstappen “sees the progress what we are doing and, as it looks, he has to stay with us anyway”.
Horner added: “Max is very comfortable in the team, we love having him in the team, and the rest is fairly irrelevant.”
The identity of Verstappen’s 2020 teammate is less clear, with Pierre Gasly fighting for his future. While the team insist they are committed to the 23-year-old for now, Horner said in Hungary that “he’s got the second half of the year to really get it together because then they’ll be a lot of pressure on what we do for next year”.
So what about the latest drivers at Toro Rosso? Asked by Sky F1 in Hungary if Daniil Kvyat, originally dropped by Red Bull in 2016 but back on the up and fresh from his brilliant podium in Germany, could one day go back to the senior team Marko replied: “Let’s do it step by step. First he did a very good job at Toro Rosso and at the end of the year we will see what’s going on for next year.”
Alex Albon, another of F1 2019’s impressive rookies with five points finishes, can be confident of a second year at Toro Rosso at the very least.
Fernando Alonso? The former world champion may technically be on the market having stepped away from racing in F1 at the end of 2018, and been mischievously suggested by Hamilton as a 2020 partner for Verstappen, but a blockbuster match-up is highly unlikely for numerous reasons. In any case, Red Bull have not hired a driver from outside their own junior stable since Mark Webber in 2007.
Who else could be on the move?
Will Haas have a vacancy for 2020? Recent on-track clashes between Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean have certainly tested the team’s patience Guenther Steiner confirmed they would also be using the break to assess next season’s plans.
“Gene [Haas] and myself will make the decision over the summer break, hopefully, and we can come back and know how we come back forward with the drivers for next year,” Steiner told Sky F1.
“There is demand of drivers, but there is not a lot of movement yet. Everyone is asking, we are all putting our feelers out seeing what is happening, but nothing has moved. When the first domino falls the market will start to move.”
Hulkenberg has been linked to Haas – but he could clearly also still stay at Renault for a fourth season. The German told Sky F1 his future was in his own hands when asked in Hungary.
At Racing Point, team veteran Sergio Perez has suggested that another renewal, which would almost certainly keep him next to Lance Stroll, was edging closer. “The team would like to keep me, I would like to stay, so I hope that it’s just a matter of days or so before we can get into a [conclusion],” confirmed the Mexican.
George Russell is staying at Williams, while the team will have to make a 2020 decision about Robert Kubica with reserve driver Nicholas Latifi, second in this year’s F2 standings, one possible alternative.
At Alfa Romeo, Kimi Raikkonen is in the first of a two-year contract, while Antonio Giovinazzi is essentially the pick of partners Ferrari. The Italian, who has shown flashes of promise but not Raikkonen-like consistency, is significantly more experienced than any of Ferrari’s current young drivers in the junior series, such as Mick Schumacher and Britain’s Callum Ilott.
Sebastian Vettel and Leclerc will remain Ferrari’s line-up for 2020 according to Mattia Binotto, despite those lingering doubts about the four-time world champion’s F1 future. Vettel’s deal runs to the end of next season.
And McLaren? Having been at the centre of several ‘will he, won’t he?’ rounds with Alonso in recent years, McLaren got themselves out of the rumour mill early this time by confirming the impressive pairing of Sainz and Norris for 2020 back in July.
Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok summarised: “Mercedes, Red Bull, Renault, Haas, Alfa, Toro Rosso and Williams all seemingly have seats that aren’t yet settled for 2020. This means that it’s not going to be a particularly relaxed summer holiday for the some of the drivers, their managers and the team bosses.”
The calm before the 2021 storm?
But even if the upcoming months don’t produce the shocks of 2018, and the existing grid remains fairly static heading into next season, the battle to snare the best, or predicted-best, seats for F1’s rules overhaul in 2021 could be quite something.
None of the grid’s biggest drivers – Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen – are yet signed up to anyone for the season after next, with the sport’s regulations still being formalised.
Nonetheless, as Brundle remarked during Sky F1’s Hungary shows: “People in Formula 1 think a long way forward.”
With agreement on the blueprint pushed back to October, who will be the first of the big names to sign up for 2021 later this year or early next? That could prove quite some ‘silly season’.
This article originally appeared on Sky Sports and has been republished with consent.