The Driver Merry-Go-Round... Musical Chairs in a Lockdown!

The 2020 F1 Season which was due to commence in March got postponed in the light of the pandemic COVID-19 which has wrecked havoc across the world. The calendar has been modified with the mid-summer break being preponed and the FIA hoping to have 15 to 16 race weekends in 2020.

The entire F1 Fraternity is in a state of lockdown but can there ever be calm and stillness in the world of F1??

There is a lot of paddock chatter at the start of every season about drivers moving to different teams, contracts being extended and hints being dropped to the media over every race weekend. The picture becomes clearer only during the mid-summer break, the time around which I used to make the Driver lineup predictions for the upcoming season. 

There have been major updates about Driver Lineups for 2021 since the past week, 2 of the biggest announcements coming in today. 


The 3 Major Announcements this week :

Sebastian Vettel will leave Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team at the end of the 2020 season, Daniel Ricciardo signs for McLaren F1 Team with a multi year deal while Carlos Sainz Jr. makes the jump into the Ferrari seat vacated by Vettel!


The onset of the pandemic meant that no team was able to show their true capability. The FIA also decided to postpone the Technical Regulation overhaul which was due in 2021 to 2022. This means that teams would majorly run the same cars in 2021 ( as they would in a truncated 2020 season ) with their customary upgrades coming in in-season. This also means that drivers who are switching seats will carry vital R&D information to their new teams and this could bring the grid closer and make 2021 even more exciting.  

Lets have a look at teams who have their lineups confirmed and those which still have drives available.


Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team :

Mercedes have been the most successful team of the Turbo Era and the partnership of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas ( since 2017 ) ensured that supremacy is maintained. Both are out of contract for 2021 though and there are a lot of takers for the best seats on the grid. Lewis Hamilton, the 6 Time World Champion and Mercedes' Prized Asset was rumoured to have been offered a deal by Ferrari but all the speculation came to an end after the appointment of Carlos Sainz Jr. today. Hamilton is capable of winning more titles and hasn't lost any of his edge so staying put is the logical decision. Mercedes should announce the renewal of his contract soon.
Bottas, who was earlier managed by Toto Wolff, the Team Principal and CEO of the team has been through a hat-trick of one year contract extensions with the team. The availability of Sebastian Vettel for 2021 means that Bottas' chances of contract extension are again down to his performances in 2020 ( if we go racing ). The chances of losing his seat seem bleak ( for now ) but if his performances aren't upto the mark then the team might have to do a rethink and probably convince Vettel ( if he is contemplating retirement ).  
If Mercedes were to consider signing the 4 time world champion ( Vettel ), Bottas would be relegated to a team further down the grid. Renault F1 Team would be the best bet in that case since Mercedes' Esteban Ocon got the nod for a drive in 2020 thanks to the efforts of Toto Wolff ( who might manage Bottas again if he is on the way out ). A lot hinges on what transpires ontrack for the Finn.  

There is George Russell as well ( who is a part of the team's driver program ) but is contracted at Williams till the end of 2021. The 2018 F2 Champion is a fantastic driver but will need more grooming before he is ready for the big jump.



Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team :

Carlos Sainz Jr. comes in to replace Sebastian Vettel for 2021 and will partner Charles Leclerc. Charles Leclerc had a great maiden season at Ferrari beating his more experienced team-mate and a 4 time World Champion in Vettel. He is the future and the team hope to see him as Champion one day!

Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 with the dream of winning a championship with them, just like his idol Michael Schumacher. 5 years have passed and the dream is yet to be fulfilled. 2020 will be his last chance, if we do have any races. Pre-season tests weren't the most encouraging but a lot can change at races ( as seen in the past ). Vettel had a lot more on his plate during his time at Ferrari than at Red Bull. There were frequent changes in the top brass, strategy calls weren't at their best, there were mechanical failures and then there were rookie mistakes at pivotal moments by the driver himself. He had to do a lot more within the team than just racing and that can take a toll on any individual. Not much has changed as is evident from the results of 2019. Vettel also knows that he might not have preferential status ( which was never the case inspite of public admission by the team ) and decided against renewing his contract. Its interesting to note that he took this decision after spending just one season with Leclerc as team-mate which hints at the fact that all was not well between them ( similar to his only season with Ricciardo in Red Bull in 2014 ).

What next for Sebastian Vettel :

Vettel still has the will to win. He is one of the top drivers on the grid and with the right team of people around him, can easily bring home his 5th World Title. The only teams capable of giving him that setup are Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 and Red Bull Racing F1, his former employers. Going elsewhere doesn't really make sense. Dr. Helmut Marko has made it clear that Red Bull has no vacancy for Vettel. Mercedes AMG F1 have won 6 Constructors Championships in a row with their prized asset Lewis Hamilton winning 5 Champions in the Turbo Era! Valtteri Bottas in the other seat is out of contract at the end of 2020. 

Would Mercedes want to have 2 serious contenders for the title in each of their cars? It would be a dream lineup but such a move seems highly improbable since Hamilton will have a say in such a decision. It could lead to stressful times and even clashes, something that was a regular feature during the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership from 2014 to 2016. Bottas who joined in 2017 has done a fine job as dutiful team-mate, keeping the best interests of the team always. He has had his fair share of wins but can't match the class of a Hamilton. Hamilton and Bottas share a great equation, so why change something that works? If Vettel was to move to Mercedes..then where would Bottas go? ( Renault probably )

I personally feel Sebastian Vettel will take a sabbatical from the sport. It would be really sad to not see a 4 time World Champion on the grid. I hope I am wrong.


Whats in Store for Carlos Sainz Jr?

Carlos Sainz Jr. has worked hard to get a top drive. A product of the Red Bull Driver Program, he partnered Max Verstappen who was chosen over him for promotion to the A Team ( in-season in 2016 ) by Red Bull. He stayed with Toro Rosso ( now Alpha Tauri ) until his switch in-season to Renault F1 in 2017 and then stayed with them for 2018. He did an exceptional job for McLaren F1 Team ( his employers in 2019 ), bagging a podium, a feat achieved by them after 2072 days and finishing 6th in the Drivers' Standings ( Best of the rest ) in a highly competitve year. He was termed as "hot property" and McLaren chased the others away by signing him on a multi-year deal till 2022. Ferrari would have paid a hefty amount to McLaren to fulfill the exit clause on his contract.

The Spanish Media is overjoyed with this news, evident from the series of tweets which were like a countdown to the official announcement of his appointment ( on  Movistar F1 Reporter Noemi di Miguel's Twitter Handle ). The Spaniard is following the footsteps of his hero and double world champion Fernando Alonso and I am sure he will be a handful at Ferrari! He needed a drive to show what he is truly capable of...THIS IS HIS CHANCE! We wish the best for Carlos Sainz Jr...

Ferrari will have relatively younger drivers in their lineup, something that goes against their tradition of having a mix of youth and experience. Hope they are able to develop a strong package for 2021 and beyond. 

Daniel Ricciardo was another contender for this seat ( equally worthy of it and a multiple race winner ) but I think he would have decided against it because Leclerc enjoys the same amount of attention that Verstappen does at Red Bull. He also saved himself from the politics that come with bagging a seat at Ferrari.    


McLaren F1 Team :

McLaren are on the move, they have been improving since their switch to Renault Power from 2018 and 2019 saw them finish in a strong position ( 4th ) in the Constructors' Standings. They will be powered by Mercedes Benz from 2021 onwards, the return of the iconic "McLaren Mercedes" Partnership - reminiscent of the days of Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and a young Kimi Raikkonen! The switch to Mercedes power was in lieu of the new technical regulations but due to the postponement of the same, considerable amount of work will be required on their 2020/21 chassis to accomodate the 2021 spec Mercedes Unit. 

Lando Norris, the McLaren protegee will be partnered by Daniel Ricciardo who makes his way from Renault F1 Team in 2021. Norris had a decent rookie year but will need to iron out the mistakes to bring the team closer to the top and ensure he enjoys an upper hand in the intra-team battle.

Daniel Ricciardo took the leap and switched to Renault F1 at the start of the 2019 season on a 2 year deal with the hope to be part of a Factory Works Team that can return to winning ways. 2019 wasn't smooth sailing for either with experts and fans questioning the reason behind such a move. His switch to McLaren coincides with the arrival of the reliable and multi championship winning Mercedes engine in 2021. This could be the boost that the team needs to propel themselves to the sharp end of the grid. Daniel Ricciardo was the driver of choice to land the Ferrari Seat ( for most of us ) but this switch isn't such a bad deal after all. He might not be in a Championship winning car yet but will be able to bag podiums and an occasional win. Will 2022 be the same? That is another matter.
Ricciardo and Norris are great entertainers in the world of F1 and the prospect of having them as team-mates will add more fans to an already popular and well known team!

 

Red Bull Racing F1 Team :

Red Bull Racing F1 had some tough decisions to make in 2019. Pierre Gasly who had landed the drive alongside Max Verstappen had to be demoted to Scuderia Toro Rosso ( now known as Scuderia Alpha Tauri ) mid-season due to inconsistent performances. Alexander Albon, a rookie got the nod and he didn't disappoint. His performances warranted him a drive in 2020 but come 2021, that seat is once again up for grabs! Max Verstappen is the team leader and his contract extension of 3 years clearly indicate he wants to win Championships at Red Bull. The one who comes onboard as his team-mate will need to be equally good if not better since its important for both drivers to score big in the team's quest to win the Constructors' title again. 

The Contenders - Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat & Pierre Gasly. The trio have had a stint with the A Team and are aware of the standards that need to be set to remain in that seat. 
If we don't have any racing in 2020, then the seat by default should land with Albon. The young Thai Driver has impressed the bosses with his consistent drives and almost bagged a podium in Brazil but to be taken out by Hamilton on the penultimate lap last year. 
Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly ( after his demotion ) made a strong case for themselves in 2019, bagging a podium each. 2020 is the best chance to win back the trust of the top brass. Dr. Helmut Marko, the head of the Red Bull Driver Program admitted that Kvyat was back in the reckoning for the Red Bull Seat after his performances in 2019 and Red Bull will take their time ( probably till the end of 2020 ) before making a decision. Dr. Helmut Marko also shunned the possibility of Sebastian Vettel returning to Red Bull.

Albon is the favourite for 2021 ( according to me ).

 

Scuderia Alpha Tauri F1 Team :

Scuderia Alpha Tauri, Red Bull's "B" Team, has been a great launchpad for drivers of Red Bull's Driver Programme. The departures of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo from the programme have seen their options dwindle. The most promising youngster in their ranks is the Estonian Juri Vips but he is still a year or two away from a F1 Drive. This leaves Red Bull with Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly. Albon stays in the A team for 2020 while the other two are retained by Alpha Tauri. 
The trio are in the reckoning for the Red Bull Seat for 2021, so the pair that misses out is likely to be retained by the team for 2021. Red Bull can look outside their program and rope in the services of the next F2 Champion ( if he isn't of any other programme ) or sign another capable F2 driver. Too early to make that call and we shall have a better picture once racing in 2020 kicks off.   

( Jehan Daruvala, the Indian Racer in F2 has also been recruited to the Red Bull Junior Team )


Renault Sport F1 Team :

Renault Sport F1 had a challenging 2019. They snapped up the services of Esteban Ocon ( 2 year contract ) after he was released by Mercedes. Daniel Ricciardo was also offered a long term contract but the talks fell apart and the Australian moved to McLaren F1. 

The empty Renault seat is now a hotbed for speculation. They aren't where they should be but as a works team have a lot of resources and manpower to turn things around. This will attract the attention of the extremely talented but currently on a sabbatical, Fernando Alonso. Alonso had 2 fantastic stints with Renault, winning back to back Championships in 2005 and 2006. He knows the team well, knows how they operate and has the skill set to help them diagnose issues and turn things around. His experience will be invaluable. He will also be a great mentor to a younger Ocon. 

Valtteri Bottas is another option if Mercedes were to release him in 2021. He would have a fair amount of experience and bring in vital knowledge which could help the team build a formidable challenger next year. We shall know soon. The team must weigh all their option before making any decision.

The recently released Nico Hulkenberg is also an option for the team. The German failed to capitalize whenever an opportunity arose and might not bring anything new to the table...so his chances of being re-signed are low.

Renault lost the services of F2 Driver Jack Aitken ( who was their reserve driver ) to Williams but they have a good pool of talented drivers who will eventually be F1 worthy soon. 



Racing Point F1 Team :

Sergio Perez, the faithful one, announced that he would be sticking with the team for another 3 years. Lance Stroll's contract is due for renewal at the end of 2020 but he is likely to stay put. His Billionaire Father Lawrence Stroll has invested heavily in the team after saving it from going into administration in 2018. His acquisition of the Aston Martin brand brings an added impetus. There is a new factory on the way in 2021 and the team will be rechristened as Aston Martin Racing F1, so long term plans are already in place. There have also been reports of Toto Wolff, the current team principal and CEO of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 moving to the team since he holds a stake in Aston Martin. I see it as highly improbable. Mercedes will do everything to retain their winning combination.
On the Driver Front, it seems the pairing of Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll will stay. The team need continuity in this rebuilding phase and the duo offer a right mix of Experience and Youth.


Haas F1 Team :

Haas F1 persisted with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean for 2020. It was a big surprise to retain the duo considering the fact that they don't get along and have brought a fair share of pain to the team with their on-track errors and tiffs. They need to improve their performances in 2020 to help the team come back up and make the bosses view the team's participation in the sport as a profitable and feasible venture. Both drivers are out of contract in 2020 and I see Grosjean being released by the team.  

Magnussen is fiesty but is more consistent of the two which tips the scales in his favour. I see him being retained for 2021.

Nico Hulkenberg will be a great option for the team. The German was initially resistant to a move lower down the grid but was willing to bend in order to save his F1 Career last year. Haas had made their decision by then. They should consider him for 2021 though. He is quick and more dependable than their current lineup. His not-so-amicable interactions with Magnussen ( in the past ) will pose a hurdle should the team have such a pairing.   
I see Louis Deletraz ( a Renault protegee ) and Haas' test driver for 2020 as another contender for the seat. The promotion will hinge on his performances in F2 where he has been racing for the past 4 years and improving steadily. 


Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen F1 Team :

Alfa Romeo is going through a massive rebuilding phase. Kimi Raikkonen provided them with a mini revival of sorts in the first half of 2019 but the lack of updates sent them backwards in the second half. Antonio Giovinazzi on the other hand had a much better second half with performances improving with each passing race. The duo were retained for 2020 but come 2021, both seats will be up for grabs at this team.

Antonio Giovinazzi deserves a drive in 2021. One must remember that he hadn't raced competitively for 2 years and he will go from strength to strength in 2020. He has the skills to be in a top team and Scuderia Ferrari will be closely monitoring his progress..who knows he might eventually get the call up to partner Leclerc in the Prancing Horse!

Kimi Raikkonen, my hero, is in the twilight of his glorious career and 2020 is slated to be his last year in F1. We are yet to go racing in 2020 and the delay of the new regulations to 2022 might tempt him to stay on for another year at Alfa Romeo. The team that gave him his debut way back in 2002 have reiterated that he is free to race with them as long as he wants, his expertise being pivotal in their revival. He has also been mentoring his team-mate with regards to racing in F1.

There are a few talents from the Ferrari Drivers' Program waiting in the wings should a seat become available - Mick Schumacher, the son of the legendary Michael Schumacher has been fast tracked into F2, Callum Illot ( who tested for the team last year ), Marcus Armstrong and the F3 Champion of 2019 Robert Schwartzman.



Rokit Williams F1 Racing Team :

Williams F1, one of the oldest teams of the sport have lost their way in the Turbo Era. There have been the slowest on the grid for quite sometime but there are glimpses of hope from the results in the second half of 2019. George Russell, the 2018 F2 Champion is retained and contracted till the end of 2021 while Nicolas Latifi, the 2019 F2 Runner Up bagged the second seat for 2020. He brings a significant amount of funding with him, something desperately needed at the team and this will definitely work in his favour for 2021.

If Mercedes were to exercise the option of hiring George Russell in 2021, then Williams have a considerable pool of talent from their programme to replace the Brit - Reserve Car Driver Jack Aitken, Dan Ticktum, Roy Nissany and even Jamie Chadwick who could bring the return of females into F1 after 43 years!



I think Nyck de Vries, the 2019 F2 Champion also deserves a special mention. The talented Dutchman who finally won the coveted title couldn't find a drive in F1 for 2020 ( quite unfortunate ) and is plying his trade in Formula E. I do hope that he is considered by some team and doesn't fade into oblivion like Davide Valsecchi, the 2012 GP2 Champion!

I would love to see him in the Black and Yellow of Renault F1 and if he does...then remember that you first read it here!


The 2020 F1 Season hasn't even kicked off and it feels like 2021 is already upon us. The news of Drivers with New Drives have made many of us forget that they still have a full season of racing left with their current teams! Time is flying by in 2020.

Such have been these lockdowns in the time of COVID-19.... and the F1 Fraternity have been playing Musical Chairs!