After Daniel Ricciardo dropped a bombshell on the F1 world at the start of the summer break and Alonso followed by announcing his intention to leave F1 at the end of the year, silly season has officially kicked off. So which seats are still up for grabs and who is available to fill them?
F1 driver contracts are notoriously fluid, as Sauber proved when it signed four drivers for two seats in 2015, but here is what is known. Hamilton and Bottas both signed extensions earlier this year, Hamilton commiting until the end of 2020 and Bottas being given a years extension with options to renew. Vettel signed a three year deal with Ferrari to cover the 2017-2019 seasons, while Max Verstappen is also committed to Red Bull until the end of 2020. After Alonso announced he was quitting F1, it only took a day for McLaren to announce Carlos Sainz Jr as his replacement on a multi year deal.
There are a couple of other near certainties for 2019, Lawrence Stroll was a key part of the consortium who have taken over ownership of the Force India team, how the management structure of that team will work out is unknown but it is highly likely that Lance Stroll will move over from Williams. Haas have an option on Magnussen for 2019, and the Dane has matured through his season and a half with the American team, scoring more than double the points of Grosjean so far in 2018; so it seems likely Haas will take that option.
Of the teams on the grid only two have confirmed their full driver line ups for 2019, Mercedes and Renault. With so much uncertainty around the engine and chassis regulations from 2021 no driver has so far been willing to commit beyond the end of 2020.
|Team||Driver 1||Years left||Driver 2||Years left|
|Red Bull Racing||Verstappen||2||TBA||-|
*Force India are likely to change their name change prior to the 2019 season.
Of the seats available, Red Bull and Ferrari’s second seats stand out as the most desirable propositions, but only a handful of drivers are in the frame for each. The Ferrari seat is surely only being contested between two drivers, Raikkonen and Leclerc. Leclerc has shone in his debut season reaching Q3 three times in a fairly average Sauber car; however, Ferrari have stood with Raikkonen over the last few years when many commentators have felt his time in F1 should come to an end. Leclerc will remain a Ferrari junior driver leaving his options limited to the Ferrari powered teams, Haas and Sauber, with Ferrari the title sponsor of the Sauber team through their Alfa Romeo brand it is likely Leclerc will remain at Sauber rather than move to Haas.
The Red Bull seat seems to be Pierre Gasly’s after Sainz’s move to McLaren was announced. Gasly appears to be ideal for Red Bull, he has experience with the Honda power unit, is a product of the Red Bull junior system, and has shown enough so far in 2018 to confirm the talent shown in the junior formulae. The potential fly in the ointment is the lack of juniors in the Red Bull stable currently available for the Toro Rosso drives, Hartley has not really shone so far in his tenure, while Dan Ticktum was recently denied a license to test in Hungary - a legacy of his two season ban. It is already known Red Bull tried to secure Lando Norris’ services for Toro Rosso around the Canadian Grand Prix - and with designer James Key jumping ship to McLaren, a deal could be forthcoming to reduce Key’s gardening leave in exchange for the loan of a young and promising driver. That leaves the second Toro Rosso seat with very few drivers capable of taking it, so Hartley may remain - if only because of a lack of competition.
Further down the grid Alonso has grown tired of McLaren’s continual under performance and has elected to leave for pastures new (it’s well know he is chasing the triple crown and only needs the Indy 500 to complete the set). Since Zach Brown has stated McLaren do not want a rookie in the second car, which excludes Lando Norris, and since teams like continuity with their drivers, it is highly probable that Vandoorne will be retained alongside the incoming Sainz. Like Hartley some may see this as an uninspiring choice, but Vandoorne found an ally in Alonso who blamed his poor performance in 2018 on a strange lack of downforce which only affected the number 2 car. Vandoorne was also closer to Alonso’s pace in Hungary with a new chassis before a gearbox failure put him out of the race.
Despite his legal action securing a financial future for the team Sergio Perez may ironically be out on his ear at Force India, with Stroll coming in with the new ownership and Ocon probably being retained with the Mercedes engine deal. Perez has proven himself to be a consistent point scorer, and comes with an attractive sponsorship package so should have no problems securing a seat, with Williams in desperate need of cash a seat would certainly be available for him there, however, as a proven podium scorer Perez may not wish to drive what is currently the worst car in F1. Haas were keen for an American tie in with their drivers with Esteban Gutierrez driving for them in their first season, Perez could fit the bill in place of the inconsistent Grosjean. It is also possible that Perez could find a home with a return to McLaren, with whom he drove in 2013. That relationship did not end well with the team ending his contract after a year to replace him with Magnussen, who they also sacked after just a year. Teams are notoriously reticent to change both drivers, but his previous experience with the team could work in his favour (equally it could work against him even though his issues were with a previous management). Finally Perez could also remain at the Silverstone team, depending on how the new ownership deals with the existing debt to Mercedes - either paying it off or making a deal in exchange for Ocon.
Sauber are no longer owned by Marcus Ericsson’s longtime backers, Longbow Finance, and the Swede has been consistently outperformed by teammate Leclerc. Team principal Frederc Vasseur is known to be a fan of Vandoorne, so the Belgian could find a new home if exiled from McLaren. Sauber are not owned by Ferrari and have autonomy on driver decisions, but may find the perks of running a second Ferrari junior are too tempting. Antonio Giovinazzi has raced for the team before in the place of the injured Wehrlein, racing solidly in Australia but crashing twice in China, he recently topped the Hungaroring test for Ferrari.
Another driver with a significant backing is Sergey Sirotkin, like Stroll he has not really been given the tools to ply his trade in an under performing Williams car, but if the money remains forthcoming expect him to remain at Williams, especially as the Martini title sponsorship money is being lost at the end of the season.
Since the vocal outcry of Max Verstappen being given an F1 drive at the tender age of 17 with just one years experience of car racing (euro F3) to his name, the FIA requires drivers to accrue 40 superlicense points over 3 years in the junior categories to race in Formula 1. How the FIA currently ranks each series can be found here https://www.fia.com/file/61678/download?token=ICMRdbv4. Superlicenses can also be awarded to drivers who have completed 300km (190mi) of testing in F1 machinery, or have demonstrated "outstanding ability in single seater formula cars" - for example Robert Kubica would not qualify on points but is a race winner in F1. So who is currently doing enough to qualify for an FIA superlicense?
|Driver||Currently racing||Points from 2016/17||Provisional in 2018‡||Total for 2019|
This is not a complete list but shows some of the best performing and most likely drivers as ranked by the FIA point system.
‡ 2018 points based on championship positions as of 13th August 2018.
*Drivers who don’t currently qualify but could either gain enough points if they improve their position in their respective championships or are allowed an FIA exemption.
There are a number of drivers currently outside F1 with enough points for a superlicense, including some drivers who have raced in F1 before, Lucas Di Grassi, Kazuki Nakajima, Jean-Eric Vergne, and Sebastian Buemi. Buemi is the only driver still associated with Red Bull who could possibly return in the place of Harley - but his current Toyota WEC drive might prohibit his driving for a Honda powered team, he will surely have the same issue with Nissan in Formula E, and it is also unlikely he would leave a championship winning position in WEC for a mid-grid F1 drive.
There are some also older drivers like Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Andre Lotterer who, though they qualify, are unlikely to make the switch to F1 in the latter stages of their careers, especially from competitive drives.
Lando Norris and George Russell are the two drivers outside F1 most likely to make the jump, and both are contracted to teams, McLaren and Mercedes respectively. Norris has already been discussed with regard to the Toro Rosso vacancy, while Mercedes are likely to want Russell in a Mercedes powered car, with the factory team lineup set, that leaves Force India and Williams as the only possible candidates. With Ocon placed at Force India, Williams - who would likely take a Mercedes junior to reduce their engine/gearbox bill - would be the probable destination.
A couple of current F1 test drivers also qualify for a super-license, Antonio Giovinazzi and Oliver Rowland. Giovinazzi has been discussed, while unfortunately Rowland does not appear to have the financial backing to buy the seat with Williams and may be destined for Formula E and a test position. Fuoco is another Ferrari junior, who while he does not have the points for a superlicense, has been testing for Ferrari since 2015 and will qualify through his test mileage. If Leclerc takes over from Raikkonen or moves up to Haas, Ferrari may want to place Fuoco and Giovinazzi together at Sauber.
When the deals shake out, the most likely grid for 2019 is as follows (Driver 1 based on highest championship position so far in 2018, drivers in bold are confirmed for 2019, unknowns read from most to least likely.):
|Team||Driver 1||Driver 2|
|Red Bull Racing||Verstappen||Gasly|