DRIVER MARKET: What’s the latest on who will secure the key seats at Mercedes, Red Bull and more in 2022?
Mercedes added the latest piece to the 2022 driver market puzzle last week, with Lewis Hamilton putting pen to paper on Friday evening to extend his stay at the Silver Arrows for what will be a 10th and 11th season. What impact does that have on the rest of the grid’s plans? Lawrence Barretto takes a look at how things are shaping up...
Hamilton was the easy call. Now, though, comes the difficult bit for the reigning world champions. Do they retain Valtteri Bottas, who has at times pushed Hamilton, particularly in qualifying, and been solid enough for Mercedes to continue their run of constructors’ championships?
Or do they promote their junior – and one of F1’s most promising young talents – George Russell, who has excelled for Williams this year and become known for his qualifying performances?
If Bottas had had a stronger start to the year – which has been tainted by several lacklustre races that leave him down in fifth in the drivers’ standings, behind the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez and McLaren’s Lando Norris – justifying keeping him on for next year would have likely been an easier decision.
But as Bottas lacks consistency – though he has found some momentum with two strong races in Austria – Russell is going from strength to strength and ripening his talent to the point where he is more than ready to step up.
That said, while he impressed in his one-off appearance for Mercedes in Bahrain last year, almost clinching victory, whether he can do that consistently from the off – in a year when the cars change dramatically – is an unknown.
It’s quite the dilemma and why Mercedes continue to mull the decision.
Boss Toto Wolff says they will decide this summer, and announce before the end of the year, giving them more races to evaluate Russell and Bottas. However, they won’t want this to drag on, not only to avoid disrupting either driver’s form this year but also allow for plenty of time for preparation for integration if they opt for Russell.
Until Mercedes make their call, Williams will not make any announcements regarding their 2022 line-up. But whereas in other years they have had a limited pool to choose from, this time they have had plenty of interest courtesy of their new owners injecting fresh investment and the team turning their fortunes around on track.
If Mercedes choose to keep Bottas, Russell will almost certainly stay at Williams – which given their improving fortunes is hardly a terrible second option.
Should Mercedes sign Russell, whose contract expires at the end of this season, might Bottas go in the other direction? The Finn could well decide that a move back to the team where it all began for him in 2013 is sufficiently enticing and motivating.
From Williams' point of view, his experience would be hugely beneficial to the teams at this point in their rebuild and as a now proven race winner, his presence will be a huge motivator. He’ll be hungry to prove his doubters wrong, too, and already has a strong bond with the majority of the workforce.
I understand that there are several other drivers on the shortlist below Bottas, including ex-Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg and former Red Bull and Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri driver Daniil Kvyat.
Should Pierre Gasly become a free agent, if Red Bull decide not to promote him back to the works team nor keep him at AlphaTauri, he would be of interest, too. F2 racer Dan Ticktum, a member of Williams' academy, had been considered but is thought to have dropped out of the running. Guanyu Zhou, who is leading the F2 championship, is a possibility, but the chances are understood to be slim as it stands - and he is also currently tied to Alpine.
Incumbent Nicholas Latifi has settled in very well at Williams, and though he has struggled relative to Russell, staying for a third season is a very strong possibility.
Whatever happens, Williams aren’t in any rush to make a decision, given their strong negotiating position and their greater focus on ensuring the 2022 car is a major step up.
The driver line-up at Alfa Romeo beyond this season is among one of the trickiest to call for a variety of factors. While there are positive noises coming out of manufacturer Alfa Romeo that they are interested in continuing as title sponsors of the Sauber-run team, the lack of firm commitment right now means a driver decision is on the backburner.
If they stay on, the chances of Kimi Raikkonen staying on for a fourth year would go up, as the brand is keen on having a world champion on its books. Whether Raikkonen has the desire to continue for another year remains unclear, and even if he wants to, will boss Fred Vasseur deem his performances this year – which have been largely uninspiring versus team mate Antonio Giovinazzi with his qualifying form particularly poor – enough to warrant keeping him?
Giovinazzi hasn’t kicked on as much as hoped, but remains a good option through links with the Ferrari junior programme (Ferrari can place one of their juniors in one of the team’s seat each year as part of a wider agreement they have with the Swiss team). And having an Italian driver is a plus for the brand, too.
There has been speculation that Ferrari may move Mick Schumacher up from Haas, but I understand that is highly unlikely. Ferrari junior Callum Ilott remains in the frame, having impressed the team through his role as reserve, while the Scuderia could decide to promote Robert Shwartzman from F2 if he delivers.
Zhou would be an attractive option, too, not least because he’ll bring backing from China - though as mentioned above, he's currently tied to Alpine.
There’s one seat available at Red Bull alongside championship leader Verstappen – and they are in a strong position compared to previous years.
They could always re-promote Gasly. The Frenchman has been operating at his highest ever level on a ruthlessly consistent basis this year, but the senior management seem reluctant to take this path.
Yuki Tsunoda is showing signs at AlphaTauri that he could be a star of the future, but he remains very raw and promotion based on what we’ve seen so far would likely be too soon and potentially damaging to his career.
With Sergio Perez starting to consistently deliver the kinds of results Red Bull need from the second car, retaining his services for a second season – when his experience will be useful with bedding in a car designed to revolutionary new rules – is becoming the most likely option.
Speaking about Perez re-signing in Austria, Horner said "it won't be a long conversation" indicating that the Mexican is in prime position to partner Verstappen again in 2022.
Red Bull will need to lock down what they are doing with their primary team before looking at AlphaTauri.
Tsunoda is almost certain to stay on for another season, unless the rest of the campaign goes pear-shaped. The Japanese is making progress under the tutelage of Team Principal Franz Tost and a two-year stint at the little Italian team would be a fine apprenticeship to ready him for potential promotion.
Gasly’s string of seven points finishes in eight races is why AlphaTauri are sitting in Tost’s coveted fifth place in the constructors’ championship. He’s also been critical in helping Tsunoda settle in, the Japanese driver relying heavily on his input.
When Gasly missed FP2 in the Styrian GP, and thus didn’t complete any long running, it set the team back for both that race and the one at the same track the following week. His experience cannot be underestimated.
But having said all that, AlphaTauri exist as a vehicle to bring Red Bull talent into F1 so they can fight to show they deserve a shot at the works team. Should Gasly stay next year, that would be his fifth full season with the team. How long is too long?
Much will depend on how Red Bull juniors Juri Vips (currently fourth in F2), Liam Lawson (eighth) and Jehan Daruvala (seventh) do in F2, though the latter is thought to be falling out contention for promotion.