RACE DEBRIEF

    Next year’s driver market was shaping up to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory, with a number of the top drivers out of contract at the end of this season. But for a plethora of reasons, including the coronavirus pandemic, things have changed. So how different will the 2021 Formula 1 grid be?

    Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen’s long-term deals ahead of the season dramatically changed the driver market dynamic, with two of F1’s big three teams nailing their colours to the mast for the foreseeable future.

    The coronavirus pandemic then delayed the start of 2020 F1 season and led rule-makers to delay the introduction of the revolutionary 2021 regulations by a year – with the 2020 chassis being carried over into next term.

    READ F1 CEO CHASE CAREY'S LATEST STATEMENT: ‘When the situation improves, we'll be ready to race’

    This will have a direct impact on a driver and team’s decision making about their plans for 2021.

    Where will world champion Lewis Hamilton go?

    Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff address 2021 rumours

    It’s almost certain now he’ll stay at Mercedes. The only question is for how long. The chances of Hamilton – whose contract expires at the end of the year – departing for Ferrari were reducing anyway, and the latest news has slimmed those chances even further.

    With the 2020 chassis being carried over, and Mercedes looking far superior to Ferrari in testing, why would Hamilton head to Maranello now knowing Ferrari are likely to trail both this year and next?

    There’s plenty of time now for Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Hamilton to get together, either in Wolff’s kitchen – two metres apart of course – or via a video conference to nail down the details of a new deal.

    READ MORE: Hamilton-Ferrari meeting ‘blown out of proportion’ – Camilleri

    Hamilton is favourite to win the title this year, a feat which would equal Michael Schumacher's record, when the season gets going and he would be favourite to win a record-breaking eighth if he stays at Mercedes for 2021. Rarely do you get a such a convincing snapshot into the pecking order for the following season. Hamilton will want to make the most of it.

    Mercedes will likely want to steer clear of a one-year deal and instead push for at least two for stability across the rule change. Hamilton could make that work, as he’d have one year (in 2022) to see how they’ve reacted to the new rules before making a decision on whether to stay put for longer, look at options elsewhere, or leave F1 altogether.

    Is Sebastian Vettel more likely to stay at Ferrari?

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    Ferrari chief Mattia Binotto has already said Vettel is their number-one choice for the seat alongside Leclerc and told this website that talks have already begun. There is a desire to get things done sooner rather than later, to avoid it dragging on. But things have naturally changed as the calendar being pushed back means Ferrari don’t have a chance to evaluate Vettel on track at this time of year.

    One train of thought would be to keep Vettel on because he offers them stability, and while he may not be driving at the peak of his powers, he still remains one of the best on the grid, as was evidenced by his string of strong performances to end last year.

    READ MORE: Sebastian Vettel - Why 2020 will be a defining year for Ferrari’s ‘man of the people’

    However, running the 2020 chassis next year gives the team the opportunity to bring in a new face and allow them to settle in without any pressure, as next year is already expected to be tough for them anyway. They would then be ready to kick on when the rules change the following year.

    Daniel Ricciardo remains high up on that list of possibilities. Could they do an audacious swap deal with Renault, trading him with Vettel? Carlos Sainz is a strong option, too, so impressive has he been since joining McLaren. As is former FDA (Ferrari Driver Academy) driver Sergio Perez. They have no shortage of very strong options. And they have time on their side.

    Will Red Bull stick or twist?

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    Red Bull are in the fortunate position that they can leave it as late as they like to decide on who partners Verstappen, because they have a pool of drivers – Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat – to choose from. So it’s not too much of a frustration for them that the season is delayed.

    The signs were positive from testing that Albon has made a step forward after a strong winter, and there’s an internal desire to make Verstappen and Albon a locked-in partnership going forward so they have some stability to really challenge for the constructors’ championship – but this relies on Albon delivering when the season eventually starts.

    READ MORE: Red Bull need to 'step up’ for championship fight in 2020, says Verstappen

    What about the rest of the grid?

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    Realistically, most will be forced to wait until much later in the year to get things done – as they wait for the seats at the big teams to fill up. You can see teams like McLaren sticking with their line-up, as everyone seems very happy with the dynamic, providing Sainz doesn’t get tempted away by Ferrari.

    Renault will likely have some headaches as it is unclear if Ricciardo will stay. Team chief Cyril Abiteboul had hoped to impress the Honey Badger in the first few races with the quality of the car and convince him to stay on. But that may not happen for months now.

    Equally, with the cars staying the same for two seasons, Ricciardo will want to be absolutely sure the Renault is decent – or that the doors to the likes of Ferrari have shut – before he commits. And this will cause a further delay for teams behind them on the grid – as they’ll have to wait to see how it plays out.

    Drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, whose deal ends at the end of the year, may have been tempted to stick around and test out the new 2021 cars – but will he fancy another year in the same car, particularly if Alfa Romeo struggle as much as their testing form suggested they may? And what of his team mate Antonio Giovinazzi? Can he do enough to avoid losing his seat to Mick Schumacher if the latter has a strong F2 campaign?

    Formula One World Championship
    Could this situation hasten Mick Schumacher's arrival to the F1 grid?

    Could this be a lifeline for Nico Hulkenberg? Traditionally when you miss a year in F1, you’re on the backfoot as you have to adapt to an all-new chassis with very little testing time. That won’t be the case for 2021, so it would be much easier for him to slip in and hit the ground running. He came very close to securing a Haas deal. Could that be an option if Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen don’t deliver?

    LONG READ: Why Hulkenberg has no regrets as he bids 'farewell for now' to F1

    The independent teams – such as Williams – will need to wait and see how many races we eventually get and the revenue that brings in, both in terms of prize money and sponsorship payments, before deciding their route forward. It may be that drivers with significant financial backing will come more into play, whether that’s a race seat or simply an enhanced programme within their test and development framework.

    Interesting times, indeed. While Mercedes and Hamilton look almost certain to continue their partnership now, it seems the rest of the puzzle may take some time to come together…