The F1 driver market is starting to move for next season as drivers who are out of contract at the end of the year review their options and start discussions.
Unlike football, where there are rules about players being “tapped up” by rival teams without their team’s permission, as well as defined transfer windows, F1 drivers and their agents talk quite a bit and stay in touch with other teams. This constant ebb and flow leads to rumours of driver moves, which turn out to be wrong.
The key to the 2013 driver market is whether Michael Schumacher retires at the end of the year and whether Lewis Hamilton decides to try his luck away from McLaren.
Schumacher has had a tough comeback, but his pole in Monaco will have renewed his confidence and he may be on for a big result in Montreal. He’s outstanding there, having won the race seven times and the track will suit the Mercedes better than any other team, with its double DRS and good traction out of slow corners. It’s like Monaco with straights, so Schumacher should get at least a podium. Whether one strong result would encourage him to leave the sport for good or to continue, only he knows. But he will be 44 in January and time waits for no man.
If he quits, there will be a seat at Mercedes, which Hamilton would be prime candidate for. Should Hamilton stay at McLaren or move elsewhere it is felt that Paul Di Resta will get the Mercedes seat, which would create a vacancy at Force India.
Hamilton is the interesting one. He grew up with McLaren, so it would be a wrench to leave, but his vocal criticisms of the team, particularly in Monaco, have alerted observers to the possibility that he may be looking around.
It’s impossible to imagine Ferrari wanting to put him alongside Fernando Alonso. Not because they don’t get on; they do and the respect is clear between them when you see them together off camera. But the Ferrari/ Santander/ Alonso project is clearly defined and requires a driver like Mark Webber or Robert Kubica riding shotgun, not Lewis Hamilton.
Red Bull remains a possibility, although Sebastian Vettel and the current management would look at it like Ferrari do. However the team is run by Red Bull in Austria, not the race team management and if HQ thinks that Hamilton would be good for the business and the brand they may push for him to be hired.
McLaren want Hamilton to stay and for its principal partners like Vodafone and GSK Hamilton is certainly a big draw. But McLaren is no longer manufacturer-backed and infinitely resourced. It depends whether Hamilton’s management company XIX, which comes from the entertainment industry and has a different view on value from racing people, push for maximum value from their asset. If it came to a bidding war between McLaren and Mercedes, as XIX would love it to, then who would dig the deepest?
Complicating the picture is the uncertainty over Mercedes’ continued participation in the sport beyond December 31st. At present the terms on offer to them to continue are less favourable than the other teams. That must be resolved first before long term driver contracts are signed.
By getting Jenson Button’s signature on a three year contract, McLaren have covered themselves to a point. But XIX is sure to try to create a market for Hamilton’s services and that’s what a lot of the talk in the papers over the next three months will be about.
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