Here in Spa, the big talking point at the end of the summer vacation is silly season and the potential driver moves we could see take place in the sport for 2014. It’s never an exact science, as negotiations are conducted behind the closed doors of the F1 motorhomes, but here’s my take on the chatter in the paddock, and which stories actually have legs.
I’ll deal with the drivers in championship order… and, as always, take it with a pinch of salt. I’ve been wrong before. I’ll likely be wrong again.
1st: Sebastian Vettel
Kimi is the key in the driver market. His decision for 2014 ultimately rules who moves where. The Red Bull gig was, I believe, purely an exercise in a manager doing his job, seeing what was out there and pushing the value of his driver even higher. I don’t think for a second it was ever a serious option for either party.
Ferrari remains the big question. Would Kimi return? Would he race alongside Alonso? In both regards I think he would. There is no fear in the Finn. All he wants is a good car and a good crack at the whip. Alonso would do his best to impose himself as team leader, but I can’t imagine Kimi moving over. But for Ferrari to take Kimi back would entail a mea culpa from di Montezemolo and I can’t see that happening.
Kimi is happy at Lotus, and so long as they can provide him a car to compete I don’t see him moving. As such, for me, he stays at Lotus.
3rd: Fernando Alonso
Rumours insist that Alonso could move on from Ferrari. Frankly I don’t see it. Ferrari is the Spaniard’s natural home. I have never seen more fire in his eyes than during his time at the team. That said, it is argued that Fernando only fires on all cylinders when he has a car that he believes can fight for the win, otherwise he simply pulls out from the car what he believes it can deliver. To then publically call out the team and the car would naturally lead to his loyalty being questioned. I don’t believe there is a rift in the relationship however, nor a desire from either party for an end to their partnership. Luca di Montezemolo’s words of late have simply been to tell Alonso that if he expects the team to give their all, at every second, so too must he.
4th: Lewis Hamilton
5th: Mark Webber
Moving to Endurance racing with Porsche
6th: Nico Rosberg
7th: Felipe Massa
On borrowed time at Ferrari. I don’t think many expected him to be there this year, so next? It’s unlikely. A man of his pedigree and talent might not wish to take a seat at a lesser team, and so his angles are limited. The only viable option of him remaining in Formula 1 would appear to be with his former team Sauber, although whether Felipe would consider such a move is questionable. Perhaps he could end up at Williams, although given the team’s 2013 woes it is likely that Massa would be unwilling to consider such a switch. If he leaves F1, possible destinations would seem to be Indycar or Brazilian Touring Cars.
8th: Romain Grosjean
Romain Grosjean is fast, mature, and rounded as a man and a racer. This “crash kid” reputation he has picked up actually upsets me as he is worth far more than that. He could, and probably should, have at least fought for if not won the Hungarian Grand Prix. And I predict that the Frenchman will win a race in 2013. He is worthy of such success.
That said, his future remains clouded in mystery. Raikkonen, if he doesn’t move to Ferrari, will stay at Lotus. And there are two drivers, one with cash, one with pure unbridled talent, who are rumoured for Grosjean’s Lotus seat. So where does that leave Grosjean?
That ultimately is the big unanswered question. It would be a huge shame if he was to leave F1 at the end of the year as I believe he has what it takes to be a multiple race winner… possibly even a champion. He’d be a great fit at McLaren in place of Perez. I have no qualms in saying I rate Grosjean far higher than the Mexican. But will it happen? Not next year. So where for the Frenchman? It’s not an easy question to answer. My only hope is that he stays in F1.
9th: Jenson Button
Rumours link JB to a Ferrari switch. I say no chance. He’s contracted and happy at McLaren in spite of this year’s issues. Ferrari have been linked to Jenson for a decade, and if they’d wanted him that badly they’d have signed him by now. Honda’s return to McLaren may hold a small element of trepidation for Button after his final few years with the Japanese company in Brackley, but that had more to do with the management of the team than their ability to build an engine. If there is one thing that Jenson does well it is develop an engine. Honda knows that. McLaren knows that. Jenson isn’t going anywhere.
10th: Paul di Resta
Paul di Resta is contracted for 2014 at Force India. His best opportunity for a move out and to a big team came last year, but for a combination of reasons, some performance related, but most personality related, he didn’t fit the bill at either McLaren or Mercedes. His personal transformation over the winter has been tremendous and I now believe he would be an asset for any top team. His move won’t come this year, but if he keeps on racing as he is, then come 2015 he will be in high demand.
11th: Adrian Sutil
He has raced well this year, but for how long will he continue? More than anything, I think that 2013 was a season for Adrian Sutil to prove the doubters wrong. He wanted to come back and show that he shouldn’t have been cast aside so easily. In that regard he has been successful. As for the future, I don’t believe he will be world champion and I don’t think many teams in the paddock do either. He could happily do another few seasons in F1 and be competitive but he has to convince his backers that another year of F1 is worth it. And all this comes at a time when James Calado and Jules Bianchi are being hotly tipped for the second Force India seat in 2014. DTM seems a possible option.
12th: Sergio Perez
I’ve been surprised with how good Perez has been this year, especially in light of how bad the McLaren has been. He’s been fighty and I like that in a racer. Sometimes he’s taken it a touch too far, but again, I like the fact he’s got balls. Saying that, I didn’t believe McLaren had picked the right driver to replace Lewis Hamilton when Perez was announced, and nothing I’ve seen this season has changed my mind. Hulkenberg was by far the better option. McLaren panicked and picked Perez. And it really is that simple. The Mexican will stay at McLaren next year as he is under contract.
13th: Jean Eric Vergne
Stays put at Toro Rosso. The fact Red Bull says he wasn’t ready for consideration wasn’t Red Bull saying he wouldn’t ever be good enough. If Ricciardo fails, Vergne will be there to pick up the pieces. I expect him to be partnered by Antonio Felix da Costa, who is one of the most exciting young prospects I have seen since Lewis Hamilton.
14th: Daniel Ricciardo
Red Bull Racing. And he’ll be a great partner to Vettel. The only comparison we can make between Vettel and Ricciardo is in the fact that both were, for half a season, partnered with Vitantonio Liuzzi. I rate Tonio highly as a driver, and I think Helmut Marko also knows how good Tonio is. I think that’s why, after seeing how Vettel fared against the Italian, Ricciardo was thrust into the HRT for half a year alongside the former Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso star. Pound for pound, I think Ricciardo did a marginally better job. But Tonio was at a different point of his career than when he lined up alongside Vettel, so it is a hard comparison to make. Ricciardo’s true quality is still waiting to be seen in a truly great car. The one fear we all have is that Ricciardo will be forced into accepting the #2 role and won’t be allowed to flourish. If so, that would be a huge shame, because having a young and fast charger with the ability to compete on equal terms with Vettel is what we all really want to see.
15th: Nico Hulkenberg
How “The Hulk” has got to his age without landing a top line drive escapes everyone in F1. He is a mega talent. There seem, at present, two most likely destinations for the young German. If Kimi doesn’t go to Ferrari, most seem confident that the second seat will go to Hulkenberg, just as (arguably) the second seat at McLaren should have gone to Hulkenberg this year. For the German, given the 2013 season McLaren is enduring coupled with an engine change after only a year of the new regs in 2015, a move to Ferrari may end up being manna from heaven. If no seat is available at Ferrari, we might realistically expect Hulkenberg to land at Lotus. In either seat he’d be a fabulous addition to the teams. 2014 should be the season that Nico Hulkenberg finally gets to show the world what he’s capable of.
16th: Pastor Maldonado
Big bucks backing means Maldonado could yet call some serious shots in the driver market. He has been linked with a move to Lotus for some months, and it is not that crazy a consideration. Lotus could do with the financial reassurance that comes with Maldonado and his PDVSA sponsorship.
The issue is that Maldonado is in a fairly tight contract at Williams. So could he move? As we know, nothing is ever set in stone in Formula 1, and with a hefty enough payment to release him from his contract, perhaps there might be some possibility of an early exit. We also don’t know if there is a performance clause in his deal, as if there is then Williams will almost certainly fall short on that front in 2013.
While not exactly simple to execute, there is still a possibility that Maldonado could leave Williams and move elsewhere.
17th: Valtteri Bottas
I can’t see Williams letting go of Bottas without a fight. Hugely talented, although the car has not allowed him to show just how good he is, Bottas is definitely one for the future. Not ready for a move to the big teams quite yet, a few years nurturing his quality at Williams will be the perfect foundation for something very special in the coming years.
18th: Esteban Gutierrez
When one looks at the results achieved by Nico Hulkenberg in 2013, roundly considered one of the best drivers in F1, that should give you some impression of how difficult this season has been for Sauber. As such, perhaps it is time for people to give Gutierrez a bit of a break. Being a rookie is never easy, but in a car that is woefully below expectations, it is even more difficult. I don’t believe that he was ready for F1 this year, and I think that if Peter Sauber had still held the reins of his team he would have held the Mexican back for a year. But experience is experience, and Gutierrez will be richer for it. I only hope he is not judged too harshly on his debut season. Does he deserve a second season? Absolutely. Will he get it? I guess that all falls down to the almighty dollar. With Sergey Sirotkin a shoe in for the second seat at Sauber next year, could the team risk two such young drivers? I doubt it. That’s why Massa fits the bill as a team leader in 2014. But if Gutierrez, who I myself often referred to as “The Chosen One” in his junior career, was rushed in and was overawed… what chance is there for Sirotkin, who if we are brutally honest hasn’t shown half the potential of Gutierrez at the same point in their careers?
19th: Jules Bianchi
Bianchi has been very impressive in his rookie year, making a positive impact with those in the paddock and media centre alike. He is highly regarded at Ferrari, where he has been a member of the Scuderia’s driver academy for many years. While I doubt they would rush him into the team as Alonso’s team-mate for 2014, he will be racing in F1 next season. Whether he sticks with the newly Ferrari-engined Marussia boys, or switches over to Force India for whom he came so close to racing in 2013, seems to be the only question.
20th: Charles Pic
Contracted for 2014 at Caterham.
21st / 22nd: Van der Garde / Chilton
2014 race seats will depend on what is left and who has the budget to stay.