Overview: The state of F1's 2019 driver market
The mid-way point of the Formula 1 season and the announcement of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes extension means increasing focus is being placed on the state of the driver market.
Confirmation of Hamilton’s two-year contract extension means three of Formula 1’s major players are now tied down until the end of 2020, when Formula 1’s current regulatory cycle and set of agreements come to an end.
Hamilton’s multi-million-dollar renewal, one of the most expensive deals in history, had been expected through 2018, and means he has time parity with Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, whose respective agreements with Ferrari and Red Bull were announced last year.
Officially, they are the only three drivers with cast iron 2019 contracts, though the identities of Hamilton’s and Verstappen’s team-mates are also likely a formality.
Valtteri Bottas, having joined Mercedes from Williams in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s retirement, has been stronger this year, though reliability setbacks, misfortune and the tight battle between the lead trio of teams has masked that in terms of points gained. He is poised to stay for 2019.
Daniel Ricciardo’s five-year Red Bull deal expires at the end of the season and he put himself on the market – but neither Mercedes nor Ferrari has made significant advances, and Ricciardo is set to stay put for when Red Bull takes up a supply of Honda power units.
As for Vettel’s team-mate, that is less clear cut. It is a straight choice between Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc. Leclerc’s consistently strong performances have captured the attention and widespread praise, more so than if he had put in a couple of eye-catching runs, his prospects also aided by his off-track attitude. Several outlets have reported that Leclerc has a Ferrari contract – though given his status within its set-up that is little surprise; other drivers have also had agreements, up to a stage, only for them not to be finalised. The apolitical Raikkonen remains occasionally fast, frustratingly inconsistent, but is a known quantity, and determined to prove that he can still cut it among the leaders.
Outside of the leading three teams, the other dominoes will gradually fall into place – though several question marks remain.
Nico Hulkenberg is set to remain with Renault, but the position of Carlos Sainz Jr. is less clear. Sainz Jr. is still under contract with Red Bull so his future cannot be finalised until Ricciardo’s deal is set in stone. Current Mercedes-backed Force India driver Esteban Ocon, currently plying a quietly impressive second season, has also been linked with Renault, for whom he carried out 2016 FP1 runs, in a potential loan role due to the uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the Silverstone-based operation. Force India’s management have been looking to sell, with co-owner Vijay Mallya still battling a high-profile legal dispute with his native India, and both Ocon and Sergio Perez have felt the pinch of a lack of developments. Force India also has youngsters Nicholas Latifi and Nikita Mazepin on its books, as well as Formula 2 leader George Russell, who as with Ocon is backed by Mercedes, and surely thrusting himself into contention for a 2019 seat.
McLaren and Fernando Alonso remain dependent on each other. McLaren needs Alonso as its top-line driver, Alonso has nowhere else in F1 to go other than McLaren, while the team is also able to placate his Triple Crown ambitions. However, there is a snag. Should Alonso wish to win the 2018/19 WEC title he will have to miss the Australian Grand Prix, while should he return to the Indianapolis 500 then missing Monaco is a probability. McLaren’s recent managerial restructuring and statements have placed a greater focus on Formula 1, suggesting the mooted IndyCar project has been placed on the backburner. Stoffel Vandoorne’s future is uncertain, with the Belgian having struggled in 2018, while supposed advances to Raikkonen and Ricciardo were hardly a vote of confidence in the 26-year-old’s ability to emerge as McLaren’s leader should Alonso depart. Reserve driver Lando Norris impressed during test runs but has faced a series of setbacks in F2 and a promotion, at this stage of his career, would be a risk – though not an unfathomable one.
Kevin Magnussen has impressed for Haas this season but team-mate Romain Grosjean’s fourth place is the only points finish he has delivered during a wretched 2018, prompting boss Guenther Steiner to accept patience is wearing thin. Haas will not consider its 2019 line-up until after the summer break but Grosjean could do with a strong pair of races to lift the pressure and bring the focus on his speed rather than propensity to find trouble. Perez, if Force India’s situation remains unclear, has been linked.
Toro Rosso is to stick with Pierre Gasly but the occupant of the sister seat is unknown. Red Bull already attempted to offload Brendon Hartley by sounding out McLaren about Norris’ availability but that approach was firmly rebutted. Red Bull’s junior system has brought through several highly-rated drivers but it lacks a standout option having lost its iron grip in that department over recent years. Honda proteges Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino are not ready for F1, though both have shown promise at stages, while F3 title contender Dan Ticktum is well-regarded by Red Bull but lacks the required Superlicense points to even test at the moment. He needs to win the F3 title, as a bare minimum, to stand a chance of a 2019 seat.
Williams drivers Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll both come with important financial backing and, given the team’s current predicament, it is highly improbable that more suited candidates will emerge in the coming months; a more pressing concern would be if Stroll opts to take his money elsewhere. Over at Sauber, Marcus Ericsson has stepped up a level, even if he has been outshone by rookie Leclerc, while Antonio Giovinazzi remains a candidate, set for his first FP1 run of the season on Friday. Should Leclerc receive the call from Ferrari, current reserve Giovinazzi would fit the bill as a replacement for the Alfa Romeo-affiliated Sauber team.