Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Driver Market Update

With the 2013 season over, focus will now shift to the evolving driver market and any news that the teams feed out about their 2014 challengers or sponsorship deals. As covered in my previous blog posts, changes at the top have filtered down through the lower teams, triggered by Mark Webber's retirement and Ferrari signing Kimi Raikkonen to replace Felipe Massa. Here is a look at each teams 2014 line up, and the rumours for the 6 spots currently vacant...

Infiniti Red Bull Racing
1. Sebastian Vettel
2. Daniel Ricciardo

Red Bull Racing have stuck to their development program and hired a driver from the Scuderia Toro Rosso outfit to replace retiring Mark Webber. Ricciardo has impressed the team with his qualifying pace and his feedback to the team, but will need to near perfection in order to avoid humiliation from the dominant Sebastian Vettel. Vettel's dominance over Webber has been put down to his understanding of the downforce generated from the exhaust gases, and so may be set to lose some of advantage going into 2014. The rest of the field and the neutral fans will certainly be hoping it is a significant loss.

Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team
3. Nico Rosberg
4. Lewis Hamilton

Mercedes will retain their current drivers going into 2014, and will hope to go one better having secured second in the constructors championship. Not much separated the pair in the drivers championship, with the extra 18 points acquired by Hamilton giving him 4th with Rosberg in 6th. Since Brazil however there has been one significant change within the team, with Ross Brawn anouncing that he is to leave the team. So far he has not made his plans for 2014 clear, whether it be a sabbatical, joining another team, or joining the FIA's technical delegates. I believe that the latter would be the best option for Formula 1 overall, even if he could still be the difference for most teams getting to the head of the field.

Scuderia Ferrari
5. Fernando Alonso
6. Kimi Raikkonen

This line-up is sure to draw attention in 2014. Felipe Massa served Ferrari for 8 years but was cast aside at the end of 2013, something the team have been threatening to do for a number of seasons. The irony of the new deal is that the team chose to retain Felipe Massa for the 2010 season, and paid a large sum of money (believed to be €17Million) to Kimi Raikkonen to make room for Alonso. How they will fare as team mates is another question, with Alonso clearly the number 1 driver in the team from the beginning at Massa's loss on a number of occasions. You can bet that won't be the case with Kimi Raikkonen around though, something I covered previously. Fernando Alonso seemingly is not the golden child anymore, and could be looking for a new team in 2015 if predictions play out...

Lotus Renault
7. Romain Grosjean
8. Pastor Maldonado

The fight over the second driver role with the Lotus team is expected to be the deal the remainder of the silly season revolves around. Lotus' money struggle has been apparent for much of the last 12 months (if not longer) and so in the end, Pastor Maldonado secured the deal ahead of Nico Hulkenberg. The Quantum deal that seemed so likely to save Hulkenbergs hope of a top drive is apparently still on, but at this stage it has all but disappeared away as just another F1 rumour. When news broke of Maldonado getting the drive, almost all of the opinions were of a very negative nature, but I believe it should also be remembered that the Lotus team have 2 drivers who have won the GP2 championship. Romain Grosjean showed in 2013 that he has made strides forward and can now lead the team, and so it is possible that they can do the same with Pastor Maldonado. It is a longer gamble than Hulkenberg, who would be expected to deliver immediately, but the sums of sponsorship money will outweigh those doubts.

McLaren Mercedes
9. Jenson Button
10. Kevin Magnussen

Formula 1 is such a cruel sport at times, just ask Sergio Perez. He signs for one of the top teams in Formula 1 (McLaren had arguably the best car at the end of the 2012 season), the new car flounders and he is out of the team after just 1 very disappointing season. He showed at times that he could be faster than Jenson Button over a single lap, but qualifying has not been Button's strongest string to his bow, and points are awarded on a Sunday. Martin Whitmarsh pointed to the Abu Dhabi race as a highlight for this point, where Perez finished 12 seconds and 3 positions ahead of Button. Perez's race had been undramatic however, whilst Button had made a pitstop in the first laps for a new front wing. When he emerged from the pits, his was no longer on the planned strategy, and he was over 30 seconds behind Perez. The feeling in the team is that Kevin Magnussen is a faster race driver, and it should again be applauded that a team have followed their young driver program through to a full drive. Martin Whitmarsh had hoped to place Magnussen with another team for his debut season, but when that deal fell through it became a McLaren contract instead, and everyone will be doing the Hamilton comparison next year.

The deal to sign Magnussen could have ramifications in the 2015 market. Jenson Button was rumoured to be backing Perez for the drive, as it is also rumoured that Fernando Alonso may be looking to rejoin the team in 2015. Button knows Perez now and that the team would almost certainly retain him over Perez to be Alonso's new team mate. The Magnussen deal however could mean that 2014 shapes whether it is Button's last with McLaren should Alonso be available, and should Magnussen meet those rather lofty expectations.

A further story on the McLaren team to come will be who is chosen as the new title sponsor. The Vodafone contract has now run its course, and they announced at the start of the 2013 campaign that they would not be renewing it. The new title sponsor was set to be announced on December 2nd, but has been delayed. That could be due to Perez's replacement within the team (favoured sponsor for the rumour mill was Telmex) or due to the team's very poor 2013 season. Either way, whoever is announced as the new title sponsor could reveal some information about McLaren's future in many different ways.

Sahara Force India Mercedes
11. Nico Hulkenberg
12. TBC

Force India have been the centre of the Formula 1 news this week after securing the return of Nico Hulkenberg. This is a great deal for them, as I feel Hulkenberg should have finally arrived in the upper circles of F1 this year but was denied at the last moment. The move from Force India to Sauber last year was seen as a "sideways" step with both teams at similar levels in 2012, but Force India definitely enjoyed a better 2013 than Sauber did. With the rule changes however, no one is yet sure of what the running order will be but Hulkenberg did say that he was unimpressed by the 2014 Sauber designs. It will also see him using Mercedes engines rather than the Ferrari power units, with the Mercedes units rumoured to be the best choice going into the start of the season at least.

The seat alongside Hulkenberg is being widely contested by a number of drivers, not surprising given the teams decent start to the 2013 season. Paul Di Resta has been given almost zero chance of retaining his seat which will be a shame, though I feel he has been treading water in the sport for a while now. He quietly stacks up consistent points though, and by year end often surprises with his points tally. He has been in the courts defending himself after apparently breaching his contract last year when he terminated the employment of Anthony Hamilton as his manager. In terms of his racing career though, he is being tipped for a drive in Indycar over in the States. He may also look to Formula E, who are hoping to secure a driver with Formula 1 experience to raise the profile of the sport ahead of its inaugural season.

Adrian Sutil is still in the frame to return his seat instead, however the current favourite for the role seems to be Sergio Perez, bringing both sponsorship and experience. Alongside Hulkenberg, he would once again face against another strong driver which could prove the McLaren verdict true if unable to match the German come raceday. Other names tied to the seat by conjecture include James Calado, Giedo Van Der Garde, and Max Chilton.

Sauber Ferrari
14. TBC
15. TBC

Sauber have yet to make any anouncements for their 2014 driver line up, despite talk as far back as the Summer of Sergey Sirotkin being given a drive thanks to Russian investment. Sirotkin raced in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship last year, but took only 2 podiums on his way to a rather average 9th in the overall standings. It is yet to be seen whether Sauber make good on their promise to promote the young Russian on completion of his Super license (which I believe he gained back in October, testing a 2009 Ferrari and gaining the 300km required).

Despite having 2 vacant seats, there doesn't appear to be too much competition beyond Sirotkin. Gutierrez has been linked more heavily with a role at Caterham than at Sauber, and the other names are Perez and Sutil. I get the feeling that they would both rather take the Force India role alongside Hulkenberg, with the one losing out having little issue in taking a seat with Sauber instead. This surprises me given the reset button that is the 2014 rules, though Hulkenberg's leaving statement that the new Sauber did not impress him could go some way to explaining the problem. Perhaps the door has been left open for a GP2 candidate, first in line being Valsecchi and all depending on the funds that they could each potentially secure.

Scuderia Toro Rosso
16. Jean-Eric Vergne
17. Daniil Kvyat

Jean-Eric Vergne gets another year in the Toro Rosso academy, though it will certainly be his last if history serves as a reminder of the teams driver policies. Both Alguersuari and Buemi were dropped from the team for not proving themselves over the 3 years they raced in, and Vergne is also the same age as Alguersuari. He will hope that in 2014 he proves his worth to the team in the hope that he can either stay on as the experienced lead driver, or be in a position to find a new team for 2015 if left without a Toro Rosso seat.

Daniil Kvyat's promotion straight from winning the GP3 championship up to Formula 1 has certainly caught a lot of people out, even within the paddock itself. The most senior driver in the Red Bull development program is Antonio Felix Da Costa who enjoyed an amazing season in 2012. He was tipped to win the Formula Renault 3.5 series this year, but instead struggled to 3rd in the championship behind both of the McLaren development drivers. He will instead represent BMW in the DTM series in 2014, a move he may hope is not permanent should Vergne no longer be deemed a rookie anymore ahead of 2015. 

Williams Mercedes
18. Valtteri Bottas
19. Felipe Massa

I was very glad to see Felipe Massa sign with Williams after the Ferrari team anounced he would not be racing with them in 2014. His struggles since his serious accident in 2009 have left him trailling Fernando Alonso more than expected for a driver who nearly won the championship itself in 2008. The team has certainly alligned itself more to Alonso's liking than his own, so it is a strong sign to see his end of year pace match or beat his team mate once he has familiarised himself with the car. He is now free to race more openly from now on, so we will see Massa at his best once again and able to hopefully follow in Rubens Barrichello path beyond Ferrari. The door has also been opened for Rob Smedley to follow Massa to Williams, but the vacancy opened up within the team would not see him on the radio to Massa but rather working for both drivers and instructing their individual engineers.

Valtteri Bottas had a quiet debut season, but that was largely down to the disappointing year suffered by Williams. He now has a better benchmark in his team mate by which he can be measured, so there will be no blaming the car if he is constantly beaten by Massa in 2014. Frank Williams is known to be a supporter of Bottas which will help in the long run if he does struggle, but only to a certain degree. I look forward to seeing just who does come out from 2014 ahead at Williams. 

Marussia Ferrari
20. Jules Bianchi
21. TBC

Marussia have already announced that Jules Bianchi is to remain with the team for a second term, and that the team will be using Ferrari power units from 2014 onwards. Both deals play hand in hand with one another, given that Jules Bianchi is a Ferrari Academy driver. He impressed in 2013 and will be looking to build on that experience in 2014 and improving. If the predictions within Ferrari are correct, then Alonso will be leaving a vacant seat behind that Bianchi will want to have first refusal on.

Martin Whitmarsh has stated that he had a deal in place to put Kevin Magnussen into a race seat for 2014, but that the deal was not followed through. That team is believed to be Marussia, and they are still being linked with fellow McLaren development driver, Stoffel Vandoorne. Vandoorne finished as the runner up to Magnussen in Formula Renault 3.5 and it is believed that should he not get the Marussia drive then he will find a place on the 2014 GP2 grid instead. It is likely that Marussia will retain the well backed Max Chilton to retain their line up. The young Brit will want to reduce the margin to Bianchi should he get the drive, as well as continuing his run of consistent finishes. Other drivers linked to the seat include Rodolfo Gonzalez (having been a Friday outing regularly thoughout the entirety of 2013) and Esteban Gutierrez should he be left without a Sauber seat. 

Caterham Renault
22. TBC
23. TBC

The last team to be looked at, and Caterham will need an improvement in 2014 to not repeat 11th in the constructors championship. There have been no anouncements yet or team statements, though they have said they want experience within the team next year. That looks likely to come from the return of Heikki Kovalainen to a full time driver role with the team. Caterham will be glad that he got some recent race experience under his belt with the Lotus team to remove any doubt about the need to shake off rusty racecraft - the hours completed within the teams simulator would only get him so far back to race ready.

The rumours are quiet surrounding the second seat, but I have heard that Esteban Gutierrez has visited the factory and is obviously keeping his options open. Marcus Ericsson has also been linked with the drive, but the main fight seems to be between the current driver pairing of Charles Pic and Giedo Van Der Garde. I would say that Van Der Garde would be the teams best bet, given the small deficit between the 2 in 2013 despite Pic's extra years experience within Formula 1.

I will continue to update this blog as often as I can following on from the remaining 6 driver anouncements, and I am certainly hoping for some surprises to ease the Winter race drought! There will also be the first pre-season tyre test next week in Bahrain, along with my thoughts about the new rules anounced by the FIA on Monday evening.