Overview: Assessing the 2019 driver market

Overview: Assessing the 2019 driver market

26 September 2017 – It may only be September 2017, but the short-term deals and static nature of the driver market means posturing is already taking place for 2019, as GPUpdate.net explains.

Formula 1 is currently blessed with an abundance of talent, especially at the sharp end of the grid, but as it stands only one driver has a contract which will still be active on January 1, 2019.

Sebastian Vettel put pen to paper on a new three-year deal with Ferrari at the Belgian Grand Prix, tying him to the Scuderia through 2020, in the process locking out one of the most coveted jobs in the sporting world.

Elsewhere, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are a perfect fit. Hamilton is Mercedes through and through, while the Briton is the perfect ambassador for the manufacturer on a global scale. Not to mention being one of the quickest Formula 1 drivers in history. Hamilton has spoken of his desire to remain with Mercedes for the long-run, and expects a deal to be concluded in the next few months. Barring an improbable Nico Rosberg-style mic drop, these are the only two certainties for 2019.

Both Ferrari and Mercedes will have choices to make, in which Vettel and Hamilton respectively may have an influence. 

Kimi Räikkönen has been on rolling one-year contracts since his return to Ferrari in 2014, and tellingly his retention for 2018 was confirmed mere days before Vettel's deal was announced. The combination of Vettel and Räikkönen ensure a harmonious environment, with Räikkönen only occasionally quick enough to trump Vettel, who is the favoured son. Mercedes, similarly, after three years of a tense atmosphere, has enjoyed the improved scene with Valtteri Bottas alongside Hamilton.

Therefore, which way does each team go for 2019? Räikkönen is still performing at a competent level, though next October will turn 39. If he still has the desire to continue, and competitive spirit, then he will want to keep going. If not, or Ferrari changes its stance, it will need a replacement. That could come in the form of young drivers Charles Leclerc or Antonio Giovinazzi, though this is dependent on either or both being afforded a 2018 chance with Sauber, and then converting junior formula potential into F1 reality.

Mercedes, meanwhile, has Bottas on a one-year contract, a detail which was stressed several times in the press release. '2018' appeared four times in five intro bullet points. Bottas has assimilated well to Mercedes, displaying encouraging pace, taking good results, and contributing to a healthy atmosphere. However, his one-lap deficit to Hamilton, after the early stretch of races, has been alarming, while he has yet to prove that he is consistently on Hamilton's level in race trim. Therefore, Mercedes will want to assess how Bottas performs in 2018, and whether it is happy with the status quo or desires an alternative for 2019.

In both instances, it could depend on one driver: Max Verstappen.

Verstappen is a driver in a hurry, eschewing the usual trajectory through his own precocious brilliance and aggressive management, wary that they have a megastar in their hands. Four years ago Verstappen was in karting, now he is frustrated at not being in an F1 title-contending package. For 2018 the message is clear: give me a car capable of competing, or I will consider my options. Should Red Bull lag behind, Verstappen will be on the radars of Ferrari and Mercedes, particularly the latter, which tried to sign the Dutchman to its young driver scheme mid-2014. However, it is not merely next year's package, but the potential 2019 outcome. Red Bull's future with Renault is uncertain. It may be left with Honda. Longer-term (think 2021) it could be using a completely different manufacturer's products – new title partner Aston Martin has expressed an interest in becoming an engine supplier, but only if the new power unit cycle is attractive. If Red Bull's sole 2019 option is Honda, and its 2018 progress with Toro Rosso is so-so, then both Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, a huge talent who has spent the bulk of his prime years scrapping for occasional wins, will be seeking alternatives. And Ferrari and Mercedes will be on alert.

These are the primary dominoes to watch, for once the top teams are sorted the rest tend to fall into place, as has been evident this season, with very little movement across the grid.

Several midfield teams will have fascinating battles; Nico Hülkenberg against Carlos Sainz Jr. at Renault promises to be an enticing duel. Hülkenberg and Sainz Jr. both have something to prove, with Hülkenberg attempting to spearhead Renault's renaissance, and Sainz Jr. determined to show his value in a factory environment, while still tied to Red Bull as a 2019 insurance option if Verstappen or Ricciardo vacate the premises.

Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon will duke it out at Force India, Pérez still retaining hopes of a seat at a leading team, with Ocon keen to show his suitors at Mercedes that he is a viable candidate if a 2019 vacancy arises. They have come to blows in 2017, and the situation will only ratchet up a notch in 2018.

Meanwhile, McLaren will become more of a factor with Renault power units, and continue with a strong line-up, assuming that Fernando Alonso signs on. Alonso versus Stoffel Vandoorne in a car likely to be competing for podiums is a tantalising prospect, but McLaren's biggest problem may be the growing presence of Lando Norris. Norris – just 17 – has excelled in the tertiary category, is on the brink of the title, his rate of development is rapid, and he caught the eye testing in Hungary. Norris is set for a prime Formula 2 seat next year, and if he continues his ascent, he will be on everyone's radar in 12 months.

Then there are the likes of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen at Haas, while Williams (evaluating Robert Kubica), Toro Rosso (preparing for Honda's arrival) and Sauber (amid talk of an expanded relationship with Ferrari) have yet to determine their 2018 pairings, as bartering continues towards the lower end of the grid.

Even though the start of the 2018 campaign is still six months away, the early stages promise to be influential in the make-up of the 2019 grid.

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