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The Driver Merry-Go-Round... New Voyage but New Navigators?

The 2021 F1 Season, the longest in the sport's history, is nearing the end of its mid-season break. It is that time of the year when those drivers, without a contract, become the centre of attention. The Paddock gets abuzz with rumours and speculations, some of which last up until the end of the season. Some drivers are in the twilight of their career, while some are waiting to jump into the big league.

With the complexity of the overhaul of Technical Regulations for the 2022 F1 Season, some teams will have to make tough decisions.

So, who has put pen to paper and which team is yet to confirm its driver-lineup for 2022? 

First up, the teams that have no concerns with their driver choices.

McLaren F1 Team :

McLaren is a team that is going through a resurgence. The Woking-based outfit will continue with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo for 2022. Both drivers have a contract till the end of 2023, and McLaren can focus on building a race-winning car in its quest to return to the sharp end of the grid. 

Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team :

Ferrari, the most successful team in the sport, has retained the services of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr for 2022. Leclerc is the more experienced of the duo, but Sainz is quickly settling into life at Maranello. 

As for Ferrari, the focus is on returning to being successful again, and like McLaren, the journey has begun.

Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team :

Aston Martin boasts a good mix of experience and youth in Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll. Vettel will be instrumental in developing the 2022 car, while Stroll, who has spent more time with the team, can be mentored by the former World Champion into a better driver. It is Lawrence Stroll's dream to make Aston Martin Championship winning unit. They might have found the ideal pairing for this goal. 

Alpine Racing F1 Team :

Alpine, like Aston Martin, have a mix of experience and youth too in Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon. Ocon managed to silence doubters with his win at the Hungarian GP, while Alonso, with his performances so far, has shown that he hasn't lost any of his competitive edges. The Spaniard, with his vast experience and championship-winning credentials, is an invaluable asset. As the only Renault-powered team on the grid, it is more challenging for Alpine to build a potent contender for 2022. Now, they can focus on performance on track rather than matters off it.

Haas F1 Team :

The biggest of worries that Haas F1 faces are the performances on the track. The team retains the services of its rookies Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin for 2022. Mick Schumacher, son of the legendary Michael Schumacher and current F2 Champion, can bring home results with a potent car. As for Mazepin, the Russian's performances are improving with each passing weekend, and the financial backing that he enjoys helps the team stay afloat. 

Now, for the teams that have one seat available for 2022.

Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team :

Mercedes, the most successful team in the Turbo Era, has retained its prized asset in Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton has rewritten history books, and his new contract keeps him with Mercedes until the end of 2023. 

As for Valtteri Bottas, his future hangs in the balance. Bottas' contract went through a couple of one-year renewals in the past, and as a driver, he plays a support role to Hamilton. He is a team player, adhering to the instructions of the higher-ups, thus making life easier for Hamilton at Mercedes. However, in the recent past, his performances have dipped. The reality check came when George Russell, the Mercedes Protegee and Williams driver, stepped in for Hamilton ( who had contracted COVID-19 ) at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.

Russell comfortably beat Bottas in his debut race with Mercedes. Come 2021, Bottas is yet to win a race, failing to impress and making a rookie error at the recently concluded Hungarian Grand Prix.

Russell, a firm favourite to replace Bottas at Mercedes for 2022, continues to impress in a Williams, be it on Saturday or a Sunday.

Hamilton holds the key to Mercedes retaining Bottas for 2022. Hamilton is locked in an intense battle with Verstappen for the Drivers' Title. He can add to his record-equalling tally of seven world titles in this year and beyond. The job would be a lot harder and more unsettling with the presence of George Russell ( should he get the promotion from Williams ). Hence, the likelihood of Bottas getting another extension ( one year ) seems more likely. If Mercedes choose otherwise, Bottas has a choice either at Alfa Romeo ( who are reportedly in contact or with his ex-team Williams Racing. But will the Finn move from a Championship and Race-winning team to one fighting further down the field? The demotion remains a bone of contention.

Red Bull Racing F1 Team :

Like their arch-rivals Mercedes, Red Bull Racing face the dilemma of choosing a teammate for Max Verstappen for 2022. The Red Bull driver program has gone through stagnation with limited talent coming through, suitable for F1. While Verstappen remains Red Bull's prized asset and number one driver, the team's struggles to find a driver with a similar level of performance continue. 

Sergio Perez's performances have been mercurial, but the Mexican has a win and podium to show in his first year at Red Bull. His performances, however, have been more convincing than his predecessor, Alex Albon. The Mexican got only a one year contract and will be hoping for a renewal. It would be unfair to assess his abilities based on a single season.

Pierre Gasly, who got demoted to Alpha Tauri ( midway during the 2019 season ), has produced stellar drives to warrant a promotion. He, too, remains a candidate for the seat, but Red Bull has reservations about his competitiveness in a high-pressure situation. 

Verstappen, too, will have a say and the likelihood of Sergio Perez getting retained seems more realistic. Everyone is hoping for the top brass at Red Bull to think likewise.

While more than half the field has at least one driver secured for 2022, three teams remain with both the seats ( each ) up for grabs.

Scuderia Alpha Tauri F1 Team :

Alpha Tauri, Red Bull's B-team and the assessment place for Red Bull before the "big promotion" is yet to announce its driver lineup for 2022. Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda are currently on their roster, and the team is contesting for P5 in the Constructor Championship.

Gasly has spearheaded the charge since his return midway through the 2019 season. The Frenchman managed to win a race in 2020 and feature once on the podium in 2021 ( so far ). While he garners hope of returning to the A-team, Gasly is also on the radar of other teams. Like Ricciardo and Sainz Jr, who were products of the Red Bull Driver Program, the Frenchman can opt for greener pastures elsewhere, but the options further up the grid are currently non-existent. The driver manages his career himself, and it would be prudent for him to stay with Alpha Tauri for another year. His place within the team is under no threat whatsoever.

However, for Yuki Tsunoda, the Honda-backed rookie, life in F1 has been a baptism by fire. The Japanese driver has failed to match the performances of Gasly's besides making many errors, which attracted the ire and displeasure of Dr Helmut Marko, advisor to Red Bull Racing and Head of the Driver Program. The clock is ticking for Tsunoda, and he must step up his game in the second half if he wishes to stay put at the team. Honda's withdrawal from the sport at the end of 2021 won't help his chances either. However, the lack of talent in the lower series ( from the program ) might force Red Bull to continue with the current partnership for 2022. Alex Albon, ex-Red Bull and currently the Reserve Driver, remains an option, but his chances hinge on Tsunoda's performances from hereon. 

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen F1 Team :

Alfa Romeo announced a multi-year extension of its agreement with Sauber Engineering, with Team Principal Frederic Vasseur getting a free hand to choose his drivers for 2022. This announcement has freed the team from reserving a seat for Ferrari's "upcoming talent" and focus on their betterment. 

Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi currently drive for Alfa Romeo, their third year as teammates. While Raikkonen, at the age of 42, is nearing the end of his career, the former World Champion remains the more successful of the two on race day. His expertise and knowledge have been invaluable, and the Finn will be an asset in developing Alfa Romeo's 2022 Contender. However, will he still have this competitive edge going into 2022 is a cause for concern. Age is the biggest challenge, not motivation. As for Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian looks more settled, performing on par with Raikkonen at several races. 

Both drivers understand the team and have built a base for 2022 with Alfa Romeo. To bring in a new signing or a rookie could mean rebuilding a car more suited to the new driver's driving style. It would be wise for Alfa Romeo to persist with their current lineup to maintain continuity. 

If Alfa Romeo were to look elsewhere, then they aren't short on options. Team Principal Fredric Vasseur is in contact with Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes. Bottas is a multi-race winner, but unlike Raikkonen, he lacks the latter's experience and credentials. He could partner his countryman, but there is little to find fault with what Giovinazzi has accomplished so far.

The team is also monitoring the progress of Guanyu Zhou and Callum Ilott in F2. Ilott is also the team's Reserve Driver and a hot contender for the 2022 seat. However, the reduction of Ferrari's influence on the team could jeopardize his chances. Former F3 Champion and F2 Racer Robert Schwartzman is also an option. However, like Ilott, he too is a part of Ferrari's driver program.

As for Zhou, the Chinese driver is currently leading the F2 Championship. Despite being a part of the Alpine Driver Academy, Zhou might need to advance his career in the sport with another team since Alpine has both its current drivers on multi-year contracts. While Alpine is open to Zhou joining another outfit, it seems highly unlikely.

Williams Racing F1 Team :

Williams Racing retained the services of George Russell and Nicolas Latifi in 2021. The duo has put in commendable performances, and it would be a no-brainer to continue with the same partnership. Latifi is currently above Russell in the standings and destined to renew his contract again. Finances are a factor in decision making, and Latifi has the desired backing that the team needs.

George Russell is on the wishlist of Mercedes F1 and will eventually make the jump. He remains committed to the Williams cause, but if Mercedes comes calling in 2022, it leaves Williams with limited options as replacements. 

The team recently released F2 driver Dan Ticktum from its driver program, leaving Jack Aitken and Jamie Chadwick on the roster. 

Williams finds themselves in the same boat as Alfa Romeo. 

Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou ( should Alpine allow ) are feasible options for 2022. Bottas, an ex-Williams driver, is well versed in the working and functioning of the team. The Finn will also bring in a wealth of data from front-runners Mercedes which will help Williams develop a more capable car for 2022. There is no substitute for experience, and development is going to be paramount for 2022. 

A lot is at stake in the second half of 2021. Performances and the subsequent decisions will make or break what follows in 2022. The teams have enough resources to ascertain the calibre of every driver and decide what is best for the future and their chances.

So will the Old Guard get a chance to prove their mettle in the new chapter of racing, or will the next generation get the nod and join the elite club of Formula One racing?

Time will reveal all, and soon!