Mick Schumacher has expressed hope of making a return to Formula 1 following his ousting from Haas at the end of last season – but the chances of that happening as early as next year are dwindling.
Unlike last year, the prospect of a multitude of driver changes occurring over the winter is looking increasingly slim as it stands. The driver market exploded into life in 2022 following Sebastian Vettel’s decision to retire, prompting one of the most dramatic silly season sagas in F1 history.
However, there has been no such announcement carrying such huge ramifications eight months into 2023 and, barring an even more unforeseen incident, it doesn’t look apparent that will change.
Five of the top six teams in the Constructors’ Championship all have two drivers locked down beyond 2023. The exception lies down at Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton’s contractual situation continuing to rumble on without a resolution. Still, it is widely expected that the seven-time F1 champion will put pen to paper on a new deal.
Meanwhile, of the seats still available, Alfa Romeo has asserted its intentions to retain Zhou Guanyu alongside Valtteri Bottas. Down at Haas, the preference for experience should see Hulkenberg and Magnussen remain, with AlphaTauri only accommodating Red Bull-backed drivers.
One driver who is set to be impacted by the dominoes set to fall into place over the coming months is Schumacher, who could be in line to fulfil enough year on the sidelines at Mercedes in the reserve driver role he has impressed massively in since being recruited at the start of this year.
However, the ex-Formula 2 champion could yet be in line to become a surprise permanent fixture on the 2024 roster if Logan Sargeant fails to impress Williams enough to earn a second season.
The Williams Academy member has been handed his F1 bow this season after the Grove team elected to remove Nicholas Latifi last year, but the American has struggled considerably in his rookie year.
Whilst his debut outing in Bahrain provided promising signs, Sargeant is yet to scale those heights since, resulting in his seat being the one most likely at risk of changing between now and next season.
Following Nyck de Vries ousting from AlphaTauri last month, Sargeant is the only driver to have completed all 12 rounds in 2023 without scoring a single point. Although the Williams FW45 has hardly been a car capable of scrapping in and around the top 10 on a regular basis, Albon has managed to amass 11 points to elevate the team to seventh place in the Constructors’.
But perhaps more pertinently, Sargeant is still waiting to either out-qualify Albon or beat him once in race trim when the Thai racer has reached the chequered flag. Aside from lacking pace at several rounds, Sargeant has also gotten caught up in various incidents, including a clumsy Turn 1 collision in Australia that bizarrely went unpunished by the stewards.
Like any newcomer, Sargeant definitely deserves time to make his mark, but he will need to showcase in the first rounds immediately after the shutdown that he is progressing at a rate worthy of being retained.
The 22-year-old has been adamant that he is improving and it’s a matter of time before he puts the pieces together across one weekend. However, he must begin to demonstrate that on the track with the stopwatch ticking and reduce the gap to his team-mate, particularly in qualifying.
Even simply getting closer to Albon might not be enough to secure his drive if he concludes the season without eclipsing his senior partner at least a handful of times. Although Albon has been a rejuvenated force incomparable to the confidence-ridden individual that was dropped by Red Bull at the conclusion of a disastrous 2020 campaign, he would still not be classed in that top bracket of drivers in the current field despite his exploits at Williams.
Ultimately, even a rookie competitor should be capable of beating a solid but not elite or unbeatable benchmark like Albon. Take Oscar Piastri at McLaren, for example, who has only taken half a year to cause Lando Norris – one of the most highly rated drivers on the grid – problems in equal machinery.
Albon’s supreme efforts have moved Williams into a prime position to secure seventh in the Constructors’ standings, but the British squad requires both drivers to contribute to ensure it holds off the advances of its immediate rivals to score its best classification since 2017.
The only other team to be in a position of having only one driver accumulate the entirety of its points tally is AlphaTauri, who reside bottom of the table on three points. However, the Red Bull-owned entry has already acted, dropping the underperforming de Vries in favour of an experienced, eight-time F1 winner in Daniel Ricciardo as it bids to inspire an upturn in form.
Now that’s not to say that Williams should or will act that cutthroat towards Sargeant, but it’s an indictment of what’s at stake even lower down the pecking order where the margins in the championship are usually even tighter than at the top.
Williams is in a position where it needs two drivers maximising opportunities to score in the same manner Albon has successfully done throughout this year. Failure for Sargeant to do that could open the door for somebody else to steal his seat, with Schumacher a competitor likely to be of relevant interest to Williams’ requirements.
Crucially, the German has recent F1 experience within this regulation cycle, having only been dropped by Haas at the end of 2022. Furthermore, with Williams openly content to hedge its bets on Albon leading the team’s resurgence, at 24, Schumacher would be the perfect option to place alongside.
While his Haas stint has notoriously been remembered for the three high-speed crashes that left the American outfit’s Team Principal, Guenther Steiner, rueing a hefty repair bill, Schumacher did show encouraging pace during the second half of last year up against Kevin Magnussen.
Unlike Sargeant thus far, Schumacher has shown there is underlying speed there, enough to possibly warrant a second shot within an alternative environment.
Such a move would certainly both be encouraged and endorsed by Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff, who has repeatedly issued he intends to seek a spot for Schumacher on the F1 grid.
Wolff’s outstanding relationship with Williams team boss James Vowles is likely to strengthen Schumacher’s cause further. The British engineer previously worked at the Brackley-based side for 21 years, working his way up to the position of Strategy Director before departing to take on the mantle of attempting to resurrect the fortunes of one of F1’s most iconic names.
Schumacher ticks a lot of boxes, but he could face competition from Mercedes academy driver and F2 title contender Frederik Vesti, who is scheduled to feature in FP1 for the German marque at the Mexico City Grand Prix later in the year.
As it stands, another year with Mercedes looks the most realistic proposition for Schumacher – but his chances of lining up on the grid come Bahrain next February in Williams’ overall should not be discounted if Sargeant fails to produce improved displays.