🇳🇱 F1'23: R13 - Align the signs

Silly season is delayed by a year, but when it comes, F1 is going to be very different, driver wise

Being thrown in at the deep end is not fun in any industry, but Liam Lawson getting a weekend in an Alpha Tauri adds another complication to a driver market that already has several curveballs waiting to surprise us, although it probably won’t happen for at least a year.

August in Formula 1 was traditionally known as silly season. With fans wanting news during an enforced shutdown, this was the motorsport equivalent of “Mbappe to Liverpool - exclusive!” (That should help the SEO) Fans could debate about the merits of their favourite driver going to another team or how the grid might look in seasons to come.

However, that element has sort of been lost now, as the sport has grown in professionalism and gone a more corporate. Contracts are all mostly public, there are a few drivers on the hotseat, and a few in between. Let’s take a look. (This came to 2,000+ words, so we’ve broken this up into chunks)

CONTRACT EXPIRY: MAYBE NEVER?

Lance Stroll drives until he doesn’t want to, or his father says he cannot. At some point, if Aston Martin want to make progress as they have with Fernando Alonso and their shiny new factory, Lawrence Stroll will have to one day make The Decision on whether to keep his talented but inconsistent son in the seat.

CONTRACT EXPIRY: 2028 - NOT GOING ANYWHERE

Max Verstappen. Twice a World Champion, soon to be three times and the dominant driver in the sport. Not going anyway until this contract, which, would be Year 12 at the top level in the sport. Who knows what he will have achieved by then?

CONTRACT EXPIRY: 2025 - EXPERIENCE

Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas has sneakily become an elder statesman in the sport. He’s 33 now, after playing second fiddle to Lewis Hamilton in a dominant car, he took the step back. But with the marque disappearing from this car, to be replaced by Audi, they might want some veteran presence. At the same time, does the Finnish driver still have what it takes?

It has been a poor year by his standards, rolling around at the back and collecting just five points so far this season - his worst haul since a singular four-point finish with Williams in 2013. Bottas has finished in worse positions in every race this season - with the exception of Silverstone and Budapest where he DNF’ed in 2022.

Then there’s also Alfa Romeo’s next great hope - Theo Pourchaire. Currently leading the F2 standings, the 20-year-old French man is a clever, tactical and quick racer, able to salvage points in blender races and dominate them at the front too. Pourchaire may well be ready for the big leagues after this season, and if he wins Formula 2, he won’t be allowed to defend his title. 

With the money than Zhou Guanyu brings, it feels like Bottas is more on the hotseat than his teammate for now, although one factor they won’t have to worry about from 2026 is the power unit dictating a seat. Audi will be making their powertrain in Germany, meaning Ferrari won’t be a word in their ear or a hand on their shoulder “advising” that they should go a particular way.

As for the other two 2025 expiries, Lando Norris and George Russell are worth pairing together. Both drivers entered F1 at the same time, with Russell joining Williams after winning F2 in 2018 and Norris taking a McLaren seat after finishing second in that championship. 

Both drivers feel like they’re at home at their current teams. Especially in Norris’ case, he has emerged as a team leader at McLaren, and there is a growing belief at the team that after Zak Brown’s expensive game of Musical Chairs, that they have the right driver lineup for years to come, although if one of the Red Bull or Mercedes’ seats come up, why not Lando?

That free Mercedes seat won’t be George Russell, by the way. If there was a belief at McLaren about their man, then a team who knows how to take a driver to the very top in recent years will be doing just that. Also, there’s a fun parallel in Russell vs Bottas. Both started their F1 careers at Williams before heading to Mercedes. Russell to Audi in 2030, anyone?

CONTRACT EXPIRY: 2024 - NOW IT GETS INTERESTING

Half the current field has a contract that expires in 2024, and yes, because I am a boring man, I have to tell you that obviously some of these contracts will be extended before silly season kicks in, but please allow this. At the moment, it feels like there’s one big domino that is controlled by a former Red Bull driver who is working for a team with a Mercedes power unit.

Alex Albon has been showing the form that saw him take eight podiums - including three wins - in that 2018 Formula 2 season with Russell and Norris. Albon finished third, went to Toro Rosso, then Red Bull, then back to Toro Rosso, had a year away in DTM and now at Williams.

The Thai driver has turned heads with strong performances in Montreal and Silverstone, and this weekend in Zandvoort, qualified fourth in changing conditions.

And while he converted that fourth into eighth, that doesn't tell the full story. If Albon has a trademark, it's being able to be kind on his tyres, making a set of soft Pirellis last over 40 laps before coming in.

While everyone else went one way, Albon and his team went the other. And while that seems obvious to say, doing it needs everything to be predictable. Or in Zandvoort’s case, to react perfectly to those changes.

This is another statement of intent in a season that has been punctuated by Alex Albon emerging, firstly as a shock and now with less of a surprise element.

There’s no reason why he couldn’t head back to the top of the mountain and rejoin Red Bull. But then he could also potentially replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes (one of several options, although Hamilton is also an option!) or even a holdover at a faster team, but he could also stay at Williams? Albon feels like the key domino for the rest of the driver market to react to.

And one of those subsequent dominos is Sergio Perez. A solid understudy to Verstappen, Perez is beginning to regain the confidence he had at the end of his Racing Point career and the start of his time with his current team, with statement drive after statement drive. Unfortunately, those statements have come as a result of worse qualifying results than you might expect from someone in a Red Bull, and the other factor that’s not in his favour is that when you’re on top, everyone wants your spot.

The third big domino is Fernando Alonso. Currently one place below Perez, the Spanish legend has a new lease of life as the veteran presence at a green team (commissioning editors: Please ask me to write about the parallels between Aaron Rodgers and Alonso) but in Alonso’s case, it was because he was able to eke out the performance from an Aston Martin that had stolen a march on the competition.

The rest of the field is catching Aston, who have not pushed on as much as you would like. When Alonso is happy, he’ll throw out brake balance suggestions for his teammate, or tell the team he has no intention of trying to pass the boss’ son, but when he’s angry, he’ll tell you about the GP2 engine he’s having to hulk around the track. A move to another team - say a romantic finale with Ferrari… wouldn’t happen, right? Right?

Both seats are technically available at the Italian giants at the end of 2024. And at the moment, there aren’t any options at teams that currently use their powertrain. Both drivers are clearly angry at the direction the team is taking, and it feels easy to see either Charles Leclerc or Carlos Sainz (or both) departing elsewhere - Sainz especially looks like a divorce waiting to happen.

Leclerc could be a really interesting option for one of the two top teams, or a mid-pack prospect looking to push upwards. At the same time, Oliver Bearman is a young prospect in Formula 2 who has made an impact in the junior series. Driving at serial winners Prema, the teenager won both races at Baku and has had a few highlights already. However, Ferrari don’t have an obvious feeder seat to place him into. There isn’t yet a vacancy at Alfa Romeo or Haas to give him that F1 experience and pair a young British driver with Fernando Alonso. That would never work, right?

Both Haas drivers were recently renewed by the team at the same time, ensuring some continuity and the presence of two solid veterans along with Gunther Steiner. Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg are staying until at least 2024, but the Danish driver does raise a few questions. Mick Schumacher gained 12 points in his final season. Magnussen has two so far, courtesy of a pair of 10th-placed finishes in Jeddah and Miami. If Schumacher wasn’t good enough, is Magnussen?

“I think it’s safe to say that we’ve had an extremely solid driver pairing this season in Formula 1 and ultimately there was no reason to look to change that moving forward,”

Gunther Steiner, on F1.com

Alpine also have some questions to ask. The all-French lineup at the French team has been… well, stereotypically French? There have been moments of elegance and brilliance from Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon - the latter’s podium in Monaco was a particular highlight, but there have also been less fortunate moments, with four double DNFs so far this season. 

With all the turmoil Alpine have wreaked among themselves in their corporate structure, why not add a bit more chaos in their public-facing personnel? They also have a stacked driver academy, with Jack Doohan and Victor Martins waiting in the wings. It would be a brave team, however, who replaced both marketable drivers for a pair of rookies, although Ocon can be added to the shortlist to replace Hamilton.

Lewis Hamilton’s contract technically expires in 2023, but team principal Toto Wolff said it is all but signed, so we can assume that seat isn’t yet available. 

There’s one more driver to consider whose contract expires in 2024, and that is Oscar Piastri. Given the investment McLaren and its lawyers have put into his career, along with the Australian repaying that faith on-track, it’s safe to say he is safe.

CONTRACT EXPIRY: 2023 - WELCOME TO THE THUNDERDOME

We’ve covered Lewis Hamilton, and when I considered this blog post, I wondered whether to put him in the Stroll category. Let’s face it, when you have transcended the sport, and won seven World Championships in the process, the question isn’t “how much” it’s “how long?” When (if?) he ever leaves, the race to replace him should spark a documentary series of its own.

And from something resembling The Last Dance comes The Last Chance, with the Alpha Tauri pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda. There are seven Red Bull juniors in Formula 2 this season, and Liam Lawson is going to get a few races of experience while Ricciardo rehabs a broken wrist. 

In three seasons, results for the team haven’t gone how Alpha Tauri would like, seeing Tsunoda go backwards from 32, to 12 and 3 points so far in 2023. Ricciardo is probably safe, taking the Gasly route of being a veteran driver at the sister team, with Tsunoda needing a couple of big performances, especially if Liam Lawson does well. 

Alpha Tauri may be a little more cautious to make sweeping changes, however, as it didn’t work out with Nyck de Vries (I was also wrong about him) and therefore could choose one more year of continuity before Lawson, Zane Maloney, Denis Hauger, Ayumu Iwasa and a whole bunch of talented juniors compete for one of the seats at the top level.

At the start of this, I talked about Alfa Romeo, and how Bottas could eventually be replaced by Theo Pourchaire. But the other option is that the Swiss team could lose Zhou Guanyu and have Bottas mentor Pourchaire instead. Zhou has had an unspectacular time in F1 (save for that crash in Silverstone that Netflix showed 300 times) and is not a bad driver by any means, but as with others mentioned here, is he going to take the team forward?

The final driver on the current grid we haven’t talked about is Logan Sargeant, who like an average American sitcom, is hoping he’ll be renewed for a second season at Williams. His nationality might help him here, with the sport’s continuing focus on the USA. And while he is yet to score a point in F1. He is probably safe, but only because there isn’t a ready-made replacement yet. Unless Williams get a Godfather offer from another team to place a junior driver, there will be an American on the grid in 2024.

There are a couple of Williams drivers in Formula 3 that are worth keeping an eye on ahead of 2026 by the way. Zak O’Sullivan and Franco Colapinto could be one of the next drivers at the famous team, and perhaps if Albon does leave, one of these two could be the replacement.

This was meant to be a throwaway blog to write in the summer break, but different things have happened, and this has somehow turned into 2000+ words of contract chat - exactly why you subscribed, I suspect.

Please do pass this blog on to anyone else who enjoys a well-structured blog full of speculation and swearing that the Twitter embeds don’t work anymore.

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