So who goes where in 2007? 09 Aug 2006
As the season approaches its climax, speculation is rife surrounding driver line-ups for 2007. Although some seats have been confirmed, there is still a lot to play for in the paddock - not least because the biggest name in Formula One racing, Michael Schumacher, has yet to announce his plans for the future. As the rumour mill steps up a gear, we run through this years major movers and stayers
It was Fernando Alonso who, back in December, kicked off the annual driver merry-go-round when he announced he would leave Renault for McLaren in 2007. In June, Renault confirmed Giancarlo Fisichella would be staying put, but it remains a mystery as to who will fill Alonsos vacant seat. Although McLarens Kimi Raikkonen is the biggest name to be linked to the drive, rumours of a possible seat-swap with Alonso seem premature, especially as Raikkonen remains tight-lipped about his future. Renaults current test driver Heikki Kovalainen is another Finn waiting in the wings. He is well regarded by the team, and with Mark Webber - who is managed by Renault boss Flavio Briatore - now confirmed elsewhere, he must be a favourite for the drive.
Everything at Ferrari remains dependant on Michael Schumacher. The Germans much talked about retirement has yet to materialize (although a decision is expected in Monza in September) and many now suspect he is not quite ready to hang up his race helmet after all. But if he does end up going? Kimi Raikkonen - with Alonso off the market, clearly this years favoured driver - has been whispered to be Ferraris preferred replacement, whilst Felipe Massa, who has so far impressed the team with competitive performances, would surely stay on as second driver. And if Schumacher stays? It remains to be seen whether he would prefer to again pair up with the cooperative Brazilian, or instead take on the challenge of the feisty Finn. The latter option may not seem Schumachers conventional style, but if he does win an eighth drivers title this year, then he may well relish a fresh challenge.
Another big drive still up for grabs is the McLaren seat alongside Alonso. But any speculation there relies on the assumption that Raikkonen will definitely leave the team once the Spaniard arrives. This is by no means certain as the Finn may yet decide to stay and fight the current champion for supremacy within the team. If Raikkonen does head elsewhere there is always a chance that Juan Pablo Montoyas stand-in, Pedro de la Rosa may stay on as race driver for 2007. However, rookies Gary Paffett - McLaren tester - and Lewis Hamilton - team protege and GP2 championship leader - are also in the running. In theory, either of them could make a maiden Grand Prix appearance this season, and were they to impress sufficiently, De la Rosa could yet find himself relegated back to testing duties.
Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello are contracted to stay on for Honda in 2007 and as the teams performance improves, there is no reason to expect either driver to make an impromptu exit. The same applies at Toyota, where Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher have been confirmed to stay on, taking their solid partnership into a third successive season.
But more changes are afoot at BMW Sauber, with the announcement that Jacques Villeneuve will no longer race for the team after his absence at the recent Hungarian Grand Prix. With the French-Canadian gone, Nick Heidfeld, whose drive has been confirmed, could pair up with Robert Kubica, after the Polish drivers successful maiden race at the Hungaroring. The team have also tested German youngster Sebastian Vettel this year, but his limited Formula One experience means he is unlikely to challenge Kubica for the seat. That doesnt mean another driver couldnt, though.
After an impressive debut season, German rookie Nico Rosberg is staying put for a second year at Williams and, in light of Mark Webbers imminent departure, the teams test driver Alexander Wurz will finally return to racing in 2007 after a six-year testing hiatus.
Webber leaves Williams to race alongside David Coulthard at Red Bull. The man Webber replaces, Christian Klien, may well be left without a Formula One drive next year. Red Bull have made no suggestion of Klien moving to the companys B team, Toro Rosso. They seem pretty happy with their current line-up of Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi, though neither has been confirmed for 2007. Of course, Red Bull also have a whole stable of young talent in their junior squad, but whether any of them are ready to make the step up to Formula One racing is uncertain. Among them, GP2 star Michael Ammermuller would be the likely favourite.
Midlands driver line-up remains up in the air. Paddock rumours concerning a possible buyout of the team by Dutch company Lost Boys have gone quiet in recent weeks. They had prompted speculation that Dutch incumbent Christijan Albers would stay on to be partnered by compatriot Robert Doornbos, currently third driver at Red Bull. Now, with both Albers and 2006 team mate Tiago Monteiro having impressed this season, anything looks possible.
That leaves Super Aguri, with just number-one driver Takuma Sato so far confirmed for 2007. Its no secret the team would prefer an all-Japanese line-up, though they say it is not essential. Satos current team mate, Sakon Yamamoto, has had little chance to prove his worth yet, with technical problems prompting early retirements in his two Grands Prix to date. Should he not be retained, then long-term Honda tester Anthony Davidson would have to considered a potential candidate.
As always at this time of the season, we should be in for a fascinating few weeks as the missing pieces in the 2007 driver puzzle gradually fall into place.