How the 2020 F1 driver market could get crazier than ever
The silly season is upon with rumours feeding the grapevine and diabolical theories. Every F1 season, there is a decision that opens up the driver market and the status quo is ripped to shreds. As soon as that single event happens, a chain reaction takes place, setting in motion the futures and aspirations of teams and drivers who are left scrambling at the new set of cards they have to play with.
Last season the catalyst was Daniel Ricciardo’s shocking switch to Renault from Red Bull. This year, that decision hinges on what Sebastian Vettel does.
Vettel might see out his contract with Ferrari till 2020, or retire, or even take a break for a year to recharge and return in 2021 with the new rules and regulations in place.
For the article’s sake, let’s assume that he decides to take a year-long sabbatical. That will free up a coveted seat, even if just for a year, and 2021 will again see a completely fresh driver line-up.
Let's see how that could affect the driver market, by imagining the state of the F1 world in the coming future:
Ferrari panics as it is pounded with calls from representatives of several drivers. Max Verstappen's dad Jos has a secret paddock and it sparks the inevitable media frenzy. Ferrari don't want their very own Charles Leclerc and Max fighting, yet they don’t have a driver in their ranks to replace their number 1.
They delay the decision as a certain set of fans clamour for them to sign the free agent that is Fernando Alonso. The wait gets longer every day and just when everyone is focusing on Ferrari, Haas decides that it has had enough of Romain Grosjean and swoops in for Esteban Ocon, who was looking increasingly unlikely to get the second Mercedes seat or Renault.
The pressure is off Valtteri Bottas - for now. But Toto Wolff is dragging his feet before giving him another year-long extension. It is then revealed Jos Verstappen has conveyed to him that since Leclerc is third in the standing below Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, he can break out of the Red Bull contract.
It is a tough choice. Mercedes can lock in Max for a long-term contract, but he won’t accept being number 2 to the current five-time world champion Hamilton - who he will eventually replace at the Silver Arrows.
To his credit, Hamilton says he will race anyone, and so Max holds a chance of being a Mercedes driver. Bottas senses his time is up and approaches Ferrari, who are still debating whether to make a call to Alonso’s management.
The Spaniard meanwhile has secured a drive for the 2020 Dakar rally after which he is still free to drive anywhere he wants. Even Indy.
Red Bull get anxious about Mercedes’s pulling power as they are running short of talent in their driver program, having lost Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniel Ricciardo in consecutive years. Max leaving will be a catastrophe and Christian Horner is still licking his wounds from Ricciardo’s last-minute spurn on him late last year.
Strangely, Pierre Gasly’s seat, which looked wobbly, is now on firmer ground. Yet the lead driver spot is open if Max leaves.
Approaches have been made to Nico Hulkenberg. Another one is made. Both parties are undecided, but sadly Hulkenberg's stock has fallen.
Honda power has improved and Red Bull is neck-and-neck with Ferrari, a superb achievement in itself. The Ferrari management decides to trust in Leclerc and draft in Bottas on a one-year contract and with that, the secret is out in the open.
Mercedes will bring in Max Verstappen to pair with Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull now have the car but not a driver for a championship tilt.
As unlikely as it may seem currently, Alonso flies to Japan to say Honto ni gomen ne (I am really sorry), and contritely offers to drive for free with a ‘no criticism clause’ thrown in. Now, the decision rests with Honda as Red Bull are game for a one-year deal.
Whether they take it up or still won’t forgive him for the famous GP2 engine quote is a fascinating transfer storyline for another day.