There has been less chatter about the F1 driver market this summer than there normally is and what rumours there have been have tended to be long term, big picture stuff. Still waters run deep.
But some of that is pretty interesting and well worth a few moments consideration.
Of course the main reason why it’s quiet is because most of the top seats are already tied up for 2015. Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci has already confirmed verbally that his team will retain the current paring for 2015; Alonso also has another year after that, but there will probably be a vacancy when Kimi Raikkonen moves on at the end of next year, as he has suggested he will. Jules Bianchi is one candidate for that seat and Ferrari are considering whether to leave him for a third year at Marussia, or whether to move him up the grid to prepare him.
Red Bull has Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel tied up for next year, but Vettel is free after that and it will be fascinating to see whether he and the team believe that they can live without each other, having enjoyed so much success. Vettel’s problems this year and his performances when the car has been running, have raised questions. With Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen both coming through the system, Red Bull is not likely to be sentimental about Vettel and he may fancy a change of scene, especially as Adrian Newey is stepping back from hands-on involvement in F1 in December,
With Newey doing the 2015 design and increasing optimism from Renault on their development upgrades for next season, the signs are that the 2015 Red Bull Renault could be a really good car, but after that can they sustain the magic on the chassis side without their genius?
Ferrari, meanwhile is known to have had informal discussions with Vettel in recent years.
McLaren is also very keen to line up Vettel or Alonso for its next challenge with Honda, starting in 2015, and is actively pursing a commitment.
The Honda power unit is likely to be slightly behind in its first season, that is the mood among those in the know. However one major advantage it has over its rivals when building a first generation hybrid turbo engine is that it knows what the performance benchmark is, namely where the other rivals’ power units are at the moment.
When Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari were building their engines for 2014 none had any idea what the performance level of the best one would be, it was a shot in the dark, hence why Renault and Ferrari came up short.
Speak to any engine builder and they will tell you that ‘knowing the target’ is worth a lot to the R&D engineers.
They will also tell you that Honda’s disadvantage is that it started the hybrid turbo F1 project quite late; it was announced in the Spring of 2013 and even if they had some single cylinder project studies going before that, as we suspect they did, they only turned the money tap on 18 months ago, which is very late to be ready to race Mercedes et al in March 2015.
So joining McLaren-Honda in its second year, 2016, could make sense for a top line driver from outside and some quotes from McLaren team principal Eric Boullier in Autsoport today reflect that the team is realistic about the short term, whilst ambitious on the long term.
“We are still pushing and we will take the time we need. We don’t want to do a mistake – we have one shot and we don’t want to miss it,” he said.
“McLaren is a top team, a big team, with a lot of history and we want to be back where we should be.
“So if we can afford to take the time to think and to prepare our strategy then we have to do it.”
McLaren is the key to the 2015 driver market and until it concludes something long term it’s not going to rush into its 2015 plans. In Jenson Button, who has another year in him and Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne they have drivers who can wait – and who are having to wait.
Until last week, Mercedes was been considered a very stable situation, with the team having recently resigned Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton having another year left on his contract.
But with the toxic atmosphere now present between the pair after the Hungarian GP team orders disobedience and the collision “to make a point” in Spa, the picture is less straight forward. All the other top teams and drivers will be on alert; this is the kind of situation which can lead to one of the drivers leaving the team.
Senna and Prost clashed and Prost left the team. Mansell and Piquet clashed and Piquet left the team. Vettel broke the “Multi 21” agreement and Webber left the team.
Rosberg was the incumbent at Mercedes before Hamilton joined, but Hamilton was the star signing and is paid more. Of the two, Hamilton is the more likely to want a change if the situation becomes unbearable as Rosberg has a long contract already, is a stickler for continuity, in addition to being a more hard boiled character, who would probably want to tough it out.
If there are any signs that Hamilton wants out, a domino effect will begin, with any and all of the above possibilities starting to move.
Waiting to pick up any pieces if things fragment is Valterri Bottas, who is being monitored while driving a Mercedes engine this year and who is mentored by Toto Wolff. The team is also developing its Young Driver programme and is soon to sign up Frenchman Esteban Ocon, a rookie in Euro F3, who is currently leading Max Verstappen in the drivers’ championship. Ocon has been brought on by Gravity Management, spotted and nurtured by Boullier during his time there, prior to joining McLaren.
It’s all about long term planning, as it is at Red Bull and Ferrari, hence the less frenetic action and no ‘silly season’. Instead of water splashing on the surface, as has happened in the past in F1, the movements are taking place deeper under the water.
But that doesn’t mean that there will not be change; Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso are very much in demand and two years from now you could easily see all three of them in different coloured overalls.
And this is without considering what Bernie Ecclestone wants. Let’s not forget, it was he who steered Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher to Ferrari to reinvigorate F1’s most famous team.
What moves would you like to see? Leave you thoughts in the Comments section below