BARRETTO: The surprising duo who hold the keys to the F1 driver market after Leclerc and Norris’s contract extensions
In the space of 24 hours, two of F1’s most highly-rated racers committed their futures to their respective teams, with Charles Leclerc extending his stay at Ferrari for “several” more seasons beyond 2024 and Lando Norris signing on the dotted line to lengthen his stint at McLaren.
That both teams were opaque with the detail of how long the respective contracts would run suggests they are long-term, but will likely have break clauses built in which either the driver or team can exercise at certain points.
But for the foreseeable, they can rest assured they won’t be asked relentless questions about their future at each and every Grand Prix weekend. The same can’t be said for many of their rivals, though, with most of the grid with work to do on their own deals.
Sainz keen to lock down his future
Top of that list is Carlos Sainz – the Spaniard out of contract at Ferrari at the end of this season. The 29-year-old is keen to know what he’ll be doing in 2025 before the start of this coming campaign – and he is believed to be keen on securing a new two-year deal.
Ferrari rate him highly, his consistency one of his great strengths through his time with the Scuderia. Not having sorted a deal yet is not alarming. These things take time. It is also believed Ferrari’s plan was always to nail Leclerc’s future down and then move to the second seat. However, now that’s done and dusted, the Sainz camp will want answers soon.
The Italian team are assessing their options for that seat and are understood to have multiple avenues they could explore to find a partner for Leclerc, from experienced racers to those busy making a name for themselves.
Should they choose not to retain Sainz, the Spaniard will have a plethora of options, so strong has he been during his time at Ferrari, though his chances of moving to a top team are limited – unless something changes with those already under contract.
Red Bull is the best available option for 2025, with Sergio Perez’s contract up at the end of the year. Boss Christian Horner has said it’s the Mexican’s seat to lose. Deliver, and he has a strong chance of staying. Struggle again and Sainz, who was formerly part of the Red Bull family and spent close to three years with Toro Rosso, would be a fine contender.
His former McLaren boss Andreas Seidl remains an admirer and would love to have Sainz onboard at Hinwil, where the Sauber-run team will become Audi in 2026. However, this would be a much bigger risk for Sainz, at a time of his career where he is heading nicely towards his peak. As Williams’ star continues to rise, the British team could be a potential destination for him too.
Could we one day see Albon in red?
Running Sainz close for the accolade of biggest key to the driver market is Alex Albon. Williams naturally want to keep the Thai racer, who single-handedly guided the team to seventh in the constructors’ last year.
Albon and his team are believed to have been involved in talks with at least half of the grid about a move in the future, with two teams – Alpine and Haas – having been keen on his services for 2023.
Ferrari are understood to be one of the interested parties, while my sources say Red Bull engineers rate him highly. It’s quite the turnaround for the Thai driver, who had to fight to get back on the grid after being dropped by Red Bull in 2020.
Should Albon deliver strongly in the opening half of the season, and if Sainz hasn’t yet signed a deal with Ferrari or made a move elsewhere, the two of them will be the biggest talking points in the driver market.
What's in the cards for the likes of Alonso and Ricciardo?
Elsewhere, Aston Martin will be working hard to sign Fernando Alonso beyond the end of 2024, the double world champion having had a transformative effect on the billionaire Lawrence Stroll-owned team, while Alpine have both seats free as Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly’s respective contracts enter their final year.
Red Bull have plenty of choice regarding their second seat, with the chance to see Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda up close at newly-christened sister team RB, and reserve Liam Lawson waiting in the wings.
Should RB make a major step this year – the Italian team formerly known as AlphaTauri set to have a closer relationship with Red Bull – they will quickly become a very attractive proposition for drivers elsewhere on the grid.
At Kick Sauber, Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu have time to prove they have a place in Audi’s future, with both deals coming to an end come the season of the season – though they will know their respective seats will be of great interest to those around them, as well as some rising stars banging on the door.
And then there are the seats at Williams and Haas – and the intriguing prospect of seeing if Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli can continue his meteoric rise through the junior formulae and step up to F1 after just one season in F2 and having skipped F3.
So after an unprecedented year with no driver changes at all from 2023 into 2024, it looks like there could be a lot more action at the end of this season in the driver market…