With Formula One on its summer break in August, the season is on ice until the end of the month.
The Belgian Grand Prix is the deadline Mercedes set itself to confirm the identity of Lewis Hamilton’s 2022 teammate. It’s a seismic decision in the context of F1’s immediate future and one which will cause a ripple effect across the driver market.
Here’s a look at the big 2022 driver market questions going into the summer break.
Bottas or Russell?
This is the big one. The decision on the surface is pretty simple — keep Valtteri Bottas for a sixth season, or finally give junior driver George Russell the chance to make the permanent step up from Williams.
While it might seem as though Mercedes has — from the outside, at least — been in this ‘stick or twist’ situation for a handful of seasons now, this is the first time the latter option appears to be the more realistic.
As this August break approached, there was a growing feeling in the paddock that Russell will be the man alongside Hamilton next year. It certainly seems as though it would require a remarkable 180 degree turn from Mercedes at this stage for that not to be the case.
Williams driver George Russell looks set to drive for Mercedes in 2022. Peter Fox/Getty Images
It’s certainly hard to argue against Russell getting the opportunity. His form, for the most part, has been spectacular over the past year and a half. This year he’s made into Q2 on all but one occasion and even squeezed through to Q3 at the Austrian and British Grands Prix. A points finish at the Hungarian Grand Prix last week was long overdue. There’s been some squandered opportunities, notably in Imola last season and again this year, but those are the kind of mistakes you want a young driver to make while he’s at a backmarker team.
By contrast, Bottas seems to be in a downward spiral. The Finn has just two wins since the beginning of the 2020 season — in the same period, Hamilton has 15 in the sister car. Bottas hardly made a compelling case for Mercedes to keep him and he goes into the summer break after causing a multi-car pile-up at the Hungarian Grand Prix. It was a small mistake with huge consequences, but it seemed to perfectly sum up where Bottas is at right now.
For Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, giving Russell the chance will mark a departure from the pragmatic approach of recent years. Bottas isn’t the flashiest option but he’s a proven race winner and is especially competitive in qualifying. Russell is clearly a special talent but is still an unknown. His audition as Hamilton’s stand-in at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year suggested he won’t be daunted by the opportunity when he gets it.
Another question will have lingered — if not now for Russell, when? Wolff has already done a fair amount of juggling to manage the career of former Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon. The French driver — and new F1 race winner — spent a year out of F1 before finding a second chance with Renault (now Alpine) in 2020, with the help of Mercedes. When he lost his Racing Point drive at the end of 2018 Mercedes was unable to offer him a seat at the main team, but has effectively kept him on a long piece of string at a rival outfit – Ocon is still managed by Mercedes driver programme advisor Gwen Lagrue.
That Ocon deal worked at the time – it kept the French driver in F1 and meant Mercedes could also keep Bottas as Hamilton’s teammate and Russell as an apprentice at Williams. Russell’s development has forced the issue once again and it’s hard to imagine Mercedes being happy having another prodigious talent tied down at another team for the foreseeable future.
Russell’s body language leading into the summer break suggested he knows there’s something very good on the horizon for him. Much was made of an interview he gave before the Hungarian Grand Prix, where a question from F1’s Lawrence Barretto on his future beyond this year prompted Russell to burst into a fit of hysterical laughter.
If it is Russell, as expected, it raises the question of what happens to Bottas. However much he’s struggled at Mercedes, he undeniably deserves another opportunity in Formula One. A recent Autosport report suggested Alfa Romeo has made him their top candidate for 2022, while swapping places with Russell remains a possibility.
What about Williams?
Valtteri Bottas has been linked with Alfa Romeo and Williams. Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
If Russell gets the Mercedes seat, Bottas would be an obvious candidate as his replacement at Williams. He would bring race-winning pedigree to the team, one which would hope to move up the competitive order under the revamped aero rules. Like most former Williams drivers, Bottas still clearly holds the team in high regard.
If Bottas was unavailable, Williams would have plenty of other options.
Williams is a Mercedes partner and boss Toto Wolff has floated the idea of one of the company’s Formula E drivers, Stoffel Vandoorne or Nyck de Vries, joining the team next season. There are still plenty of people who feel Vandoorne never had a fair shot at F1 with McLaren, while De Vries, the 2019 Formula 2 champion and current Formula E championship leader, would be an exciting rookie if he were given the chance.
There are drivers with recent F1 pedigree available too. It is understood Nico Hulkenberg is on the team’s shortlist, although, as reported by Racer Magazine last week, the German is also on the radar of IndyCar team Ed Carpenter Racing. Former Red Bull and Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat would also be a quick and experienced option who might relish a second chance in F1 away from the pressure of the Red Bull programme.
Nicholas Latifi seems all but certain to remain with the team in the other car. The Canadian brings good money and finished seventh at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Russell’s heroics often make it easy to overlook Latifi, but he had been narrowing the gap in qualifying in the races leading up to Budapest.
So is Kimi gone?
It certainly seems unlikely Kimi Raikkonen will remain in Formula One beyond this season. The 2007 world champion remains one of the grid’s most popular drivers but this current stint at Alfa has been uninspiring. Part of that is a great driver driving in an uncompetitive car, but another has been that Antonio Giovinazzi has been out-performing the Finn recently.
Bottas would be a great coup for the Swiss team if Raikkonen was not retained. Then there’s Mick Schumacher. Alfa Romeo remains a close Ferrari partner and Schumacher is part of the Italian team’s driver academy. However, Ferrari is still reluctant to rush Schumacher through the ranks and this might keep him at Haas for another season at least.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the media has speculated that it is Raikkonen’s last season, so watch this space.
The Pierre Gasly question
Italian Grand Prix winner Pierre Gasly looks set to stay with AlphaTauri for another year. Peter Fox/Getty Images
Pierre Gasly is in red hot form, but it seems unlikely he will get the second chance at Red Bull he craves until 2023 at the earliest.
Sergio Perez’s form alongside Max Verstappen has been erratic but good enough to warrant a second season at Red Bull. He won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and has shown glimpses of top drawer performances – his biggest task in the second half of the season is to raise his baseline performances to consistently put Hamilton and Mercedes under pressure to help Verstappen’s chances of the championship.
That shouldn’t take away from an undeniable fact — Gasly has been superb since being demoted from Red Bull. He won last year’s Italian Grand Prix and has been on the podium again this season, but that failed first stint means the question of his mental temperament will always remain. Gasly feels confident he would succeed where he failed last time round, but admitted to ESPN in a recent interview that he feels Red Bull wants an experienced driver to lead AlphaTauri into next year’s rule change. Galsy clearly thrives at the small Italian team and this might be the best place for him to continue for the short-term.
Yuki Tsunoda has been the dictionary definition of erratic in his rookie season so far, but his upside is exciting and Red Bull will hope to see him continue to develop in a positive fashion alongside Gasly in 2022.
The rest of the grid
Several teams look set to take an unchanged line-up into next season — McLaren (Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo), Ferrari (Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz), Alpine (Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso) and Aston Martin (Sebastian Vettel, Lace Stroll).
Haas took on rookie pairing Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin knowing it would be a baptism by fire for both drivers in their rookie seasons with an uncompetitive car. Both look likely to remain into next season unless Schumacher gets an opportunity at Alfa.
Will there be any rookies in 2022?
With so few of the current drivers heading for the exit at the end of 2021, it’s hard to find a space for rookies to join the grid next year. What’s more, the overhaul of technical regulations for 2022 could put teams off signing fresh talent as experience will be at a premium to get the most from the new cars next year. However, there are some promising drivers on the radar and a number of them are already linked to big teams.
Australian Oscar Piastri currently leads the Formula 2 championship after winning Formula 3 last year, and regularly displays the kind of talent that is hard to ignore. He also has a Formula Renault Eurocup title under his belt from 2019, meaning a title victory in F2 this year would give him three straight titles in junior series and nowhere left to go but F1 (F2 champions are not allowed to compete in the championship the following year).
Perfect F1 material then? The only problem — for want of a better word — is that he is part of the Alpine driver academy and the Alpine F1 team already has two drivers signed up for 2022 in recent race winner Ocon and two-time world champion Alonso. Placing him at another team seems unlikely given the congested nature of the driver market, but depending on the futures of Bottas, Raikkonen and Schumacher, openings could come up at Alfa Romeo, Williams or Haas.
However, talent is not always a guarantee of a place on the F1 grid, especially among teams with modest budgets. Ideally you want to combine talent with a big sponsor, or at least the potential to attract a big sponsor, and that’s where Piastri’s fellow Alpine driver academy member Guanyu Zhou comes in.
Zhou has been a regular top ten contender in F2 for the past two years and is currently second in the championship, five points behind Piastri. He could also be F1’s key to unlocking the Chinese market, with the potential to become the first Chinese driver to race at the top level of motorsport. With that, a team might also benefit from sponsorship deals and Chinese investment, although the sponsors Zhou currently has are not going to compete with the kind of backing Latifi and Mazepin have.
Other drivers linked with F1 teams to keep an eye on are 17-year-old Theo Pourchaire, who recently tested for Alfa Romeo as part of his Sauber junior contract, and Robert Shwartzman, who is part of the Ferrari driver academy. Pourchaire clearly has talent and won the F2 Monaco feature race this year, but his youth means there is no rush to promote him to F1. Shwartzman is currently third in the F2 championship in his second year in the series, but already has tough competition from within Ferrari’s Academy with the Italian team partly paying Schumacher’s way in F1 while still having last year’s F2 runner-up Callum Ilott on its books.
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