The 2010 driver market is one of the most lively in years with a number of key contracts up for renewal as well as four (possibly five) new outfits joining the sport. Red Bull is the only team that has confirmed both drivers for next year and most of the others are expected to make a change of some sort.
Fernando Alonso is the key to the high stakes game of musical chairs. If the Spaniard moves to Ferrari he will displace Kimi Raikkonen who instantly becomes the hottest property on offer. Most teams would love to have Raikkonen in their car and would gladly shuffle their current order to accommodate him. This could therefore trigger a series of other moves.
If Alonso and Raikkonen stay put, the main interest will lie in Nico Rosberg’s likely switch to either McLaren or Brawn.
Either way it’s going to be an exciting off season. Here’s a detailed look at who could end up where.
The chances of Fernando Alonso joining Ferrari in 2010 increased over the Italian Grand Prix weekend when Luca Di Montezemolo said “sooner or later I’ll make it happen”. Kimi Raikkonen has admitted to approaching other teams, and McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh recently suggested that an Alonso-Ferrari deal has already been done. The Ferrari World Finals are being held in Spain this winter, which also indicates that Alonso might be on his way to Maranello.
However, Ferrari is leaving it pretty late in the season to confirm such a big move. Raikkonen has been driving very well this year so the team might wish to honour the contract they have with him for 2010. Sacking Kimi will be very costly and there is no guarantee that Alonso will be worth the extra hassle and expense.
Felipe Massa will be staying with the team next year and Ferrari’s management have already said they look forward to his return next year. He is one of the best drivers in F1 and will remain a part of the Ferrari family for years, even though he might lack the raw talent of a Raikkonen or Alonso.
The chances of Michael Schumacher lining up in a third car are fanciful, with both the FIA and other teams saying the idea is a ‘fantasy’.
Lewis Hamilton isn’t going anywhere in the near future, but Heikki Kovalainen almost certainly is. The Finn’s poor performance at the Italian Grand Prix was possibly the last straw for McLaren after a season of disappointment. Heikki raced at Monza with a superb grid position and the ideal strategy for Sunday, but ended up finishing sixth. That’s simply not good enough for someone who should have been fighting for the win.
When Kovalainen gets the chop, Nico Rosberg is favourite to secure the vacant seat. McLaren tried buying Rosberg out of his Williams contract at the end of 2007 so will be keen to sign him as a free agent this winter.
However, if Alonso moves to Ferrari it will open the door for Kimi Raikkonen to make a McLaren comeback instead. The team still rate him as one of the best they have ever had, and Martin Whitmarsh would like to prove that he can reverse the trend of driver mismanagement at McLaren. Placing Kimi alongside Hamilton would create a formidable combination and that seems to be the only thing standing in Rosberg’s way.
Regardless, Lewis Hamilton will have a significant challenge from the other side of his garage next year.
Ross Brawn has noted that he has no reason to consider changing his drivers for next year, and why would he? Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello work very well together and one of them will end the season as World Champion. They have developed into a great winning combination and are likely to stay that way in 2010.
However, the possibility of Kimi Raikkonen being available might be enough to sway Ross Brawn towards a change, and Barrichello is the man who would get pushed aside. Rubens is vulnerable due to his age and his public outbursts against the team earlier this year might come back to haunt him.
Button’s place in the team is secure even though the Brit is apparently asking for more money than Brawn is willing to pay.
There are also constant rumours that Nico Rosberg will be joining Brawn as part of the team’s recent deal with Mercedes. This seems rather strange as Nico will likely perform no better than Barrichello, and it would be a disaster if Rubens ended up claiming the ’09 title. Mercedes has never dictated driver choice to McLaren in the past so it would be strange if they changed that policy for a team that is about to win both World Championships.
Having said that, Rosberg is a good long term option and that might be more of a deciding factor than raw speed or experience.
Red Bull is the only team to have confirmed an unchanged driver line-up for 2010. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel have both performed well throughout the season and have been rewarded with contract extensions, although Webber’s is only for one year.
Sam Michael recently said that Nico Hulkenberg “is someone that is on our list for a drive next year”. That’s a strong endorsement from a management team that does not give out many. Hulkenberg combined his Williams testing duties with racing this year to claim the GP2 title, so is on track to become an F1 driver in 2010.
If Raikkonen blocks Nico Rosberg‘s move to McLaren, and the German’s deal with Brawn doesn’t materialise, he will probably stay where he is for another twelve months. However, if Rosberg does get the opportunity he wants the team will need to find a suitable replacement. Patrick Head noted earlier in 2009 that he would like to commence hiring experienced drivers again, so assuming Williams take a gamble on Hulkenberg, they will presumably try to partner him with one of the older guys looking for work like Nick Heidfeld or Jarno Trulli. They would snap up Rubens Barrichello in a heartbeat if the Brazilian got punted at Brawn.
Robert Kubica is another possibility, and whilst most people expect the Pole to sign up with Renault, he might strive for a Williams deal instead given the mess left behind by Flavio Briatore.
Renault’s F1 management is in a crisis at the moment. They are about to receive some sort of significant penalty for their part in the Singapore race fixing scandal, they have no team principal, no executive director, and no major sponsor for next year. Confirming drivers for 2010 is the least of Renault’s priorities right now.
To make matters worse, Fernando Alonso seems intent of leaving the team for Ferrari. The only thing stopping him is Kimi Raikkonen’s existing contract. If Ferrari decides to hang onto the 2007 World Champion, either because they cannot buy out his contract or feel that he has been driving well enough to keep his seat, Alonso will have to stay put at Renault for another season. He might try to look elsewhere for a special one year deal but no major team would be interested in such an idea.
If Alonso does move to Maranello as expected, Renault will be keen to replace him with Robert Kubica. The Pole is one of the superquick drivers in F1 and works much the same way as Fernando, so should slot into the team nicely. Kubica said that he is waiting on the outcome of the Singapore scandal before confirming where he will drive in 2010, which is a massive hint that he is looking at Renault. He already has a history with the team as he used to be part of their driver development program, and Kubica had his first F1 test with Renault back in 2005.
If Renault can’t lure Kubica into a deal they can probably rely on a returning Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn is out of favour at McLaren and might find solace with the team that created him as an F1 driver.
Romain Grosjean should be confident of keeping his seat. He’s a burst of good news for Renault and at the moment they need every bit of that they can get. He’s French, he rose through the company’s driver development program, and has so far been performing pretty well. Lucas Di Grassi is still waiting in the wings for his big chance, but the team would be ill advised to promote him at Grosjean’s expense.
Having said that, the team was ill advised to make Nelson Piquet crash at Singapore.
John Howett said at the European Grand Prix “there is a very strong probability” that Toyota will not be renewing Jarno Trulli‘s contract at the end of this year. If so, the team will hang onto Timo Glock in the name of continuity, and Howett has already confirmed as much.
Robert Kubica, Nick Heidfeld, and Heikki Kovalainen are possibilities for the other seat. Toyota would be happy with any of them, but given their upcoming budget restrictions and propensity to turn F1 into a TV advertisement, the misplaced driver to end up there could be Kazuki Nakajima. He’s part of the extended Toyota family, and although he’s not that special, he’s not that bad either. Nakajima is well placed to continue Toyota’s trend of mediocrity.
Test driver Kamui Kobayshai is another outside chance, but even he will probably be too much of a risk for the Japanese.
The current post-Spa line up at Force India is rather impressive and will surely stay the same heading into the new season. Adrian Sutil is quick and is finally starting to mature into a consistent driver. He is a great teammate for the talented Vitantonio Liuzzi who compared pretty well against Sebastian Vettel during their time together at Toro Rosso.
Although Vijay Mallya would like to have an Indian driver in the car, the only one available at an international level is Karun Chandok and he is simply not quick enough.
Last year there was speculation that Fisichella and Sutil would be replaced by a pair of Mercedes backed drivers. There is still a possibility that someone like Paul Di Resta or Bruno Spengler could get a seat thanks to their German connections, but that is growing unlikely now that Mercedes have spread their wings far and wide.
The Red Bull junior squad has no major reason to swap one of their current drivers for someone else, but could demote Jaime Alguersuari if he fails to deliver in the late stages of 2009. The young Spaniard’s performances so far indicate that he is on track to remain with the team in the foreseeable future but is under pressure at the moment because Toro Rosso has other options.
Last year the team went close to signing Takuma Sato and Bruno Senna, and could easily do so again if the money is right. Actually, Toro Rosso could end up with any driver in their car depending on sponsorship, but Alguersuari reportedly brings Repsol money with him and that should be enough to keep him alongside the impressive Sebastien Buemi.
Sebastien Loeb has been sniffing around F1 lately and his best chance to break into the sport is with Toro Rosso. He tested very impressively for Red Bull before the 2009 season and offered his services earlier this year when Bourdais was given the chop. He would be a very exciting addition to the team and is possibly Alguersuari’s biggest threat.
New Zealand test driver Brendan Hartley could also join the party mid season and will be one of the favourites should any vacancy arise partway through 2010.
Peter Windsor has said that he would like an established driver in his US based team next year, and whilst he also said the second driver does not have to be American, it would make a lot of sense if he was.
Nick Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli are two very experienced drivers on the market. Peter Windsor is a long time fan of Trulli’s so you would expect Jarno to be a good chance. Trulli is quick, works well with his teammates, and should help the team find the true potential of their car (even if he can’t do it consistently).
Alexander Wurz has confirmed that he is in talks with the team, but the Austrian’s poor showing at Williams in 2007 suggests he would not be the best option. Still, with limited testing available, Wurz’s development experience would be very valuable, if not his outright speed.
The number of rookie US drivers available is huge but there are only a few of them that could actually show well. Marco Andretti would be a great name to introduce into the sport, and Danica Patrick would be even better, but USF1 will sensibly look for someone with more genuine F1 potential.
Jonathon Summerton is a very strong candidate for a drive. He developed his open wheel racing skills in Europe and has performed strongly in the A1GP and Indy Lights championships. He is only 21 years old so has the potential to succeed alongside an experienced pilot like Trulli.
AJ Almendinger is another driver who shouldn’t be taken completely out of the picture. The former CART star is making a highly paid career for himself in NASCAR, but that hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked and might find that a return to open wheeler racing is a better alternative.
CAMPOS GRAND PRIX
Campos Grand Prix is going to be a very patriotic Spanish team and will almost certainly embrace a driver from the homeland. Pedro De La Rosa is the hot favourite since he holds claim to being the fastest Spanish driver behind Fernando Alonso. He also has years of McLaren technical experience behind him as well. Marc Gene is another possible contender, although Ferrari may have hurt his chances by declaring that Luca Badoer is quicker.
Andy Soucek could also get the call up after impressively winning the newly reinstated Formula Two Championship.
Interestingly, Adrian Campos has said that he would like to open up new markets with his team, which is a strong hint that he will sign Vitaly Petrov and his Russian sponsors. Petrov already drives for Campos in the GP2 series this year and looks like finishing second in the championship after some very strong results.
The new Virgin sponsored outfit has been strongly linked with Christian Klien and Anthony Davidson, although no such suggestion has come from the team itself. The stories about Klien and Davidson have emerged only on the internet and there is nothing to explain why they would be the favourites to join Manor. Both are very worthy of a second chance in F1 though and would be great additions to the team.
A1GP sensation Adam Carroll has also been suggested in the online media.
No-one else has been mentioned, but that does not mean there aren’t other contenders.
Manor would suit Heikki Kovalainen because a new team would give him the chance to rebuild his damaged career. The Finn would also feel at home since many of the Manor F1 staff have been recruited from his old Renault test team.
Manor currently runs Roberto Merhi in the Formula Three Euroseries, and whilst the 18 year old has not set the world alight, the company would love to bring some of their own talent into F1. He could be given a testing role if the team wants to take a gamble on youth.
The return of Lotus to Formula One is heavily funded by the Malaysian Government, and a group of Malaysian companies that includes Proton and Petronas. With that in mind it is not hard to imagine the team signing a Malaysian driver, and management at Lotus have admitted to looking into that possibility.
The only Malaysian with a genuine chance is Fairuz Fauzy. He currently drives in the World Series by Renault where he has taken a win and is almost always in the top ten. Fauzy has also scored a victory in both the A1GP and GP2 Asia Championships, so shows a lot more promise than Alex Yoong did eight years ago.
Like all of the new teams, Lotus has made it clear they would like an experienced driver, so that places Nick Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli in the picture. Heidfeld would be more likely to get the nod given his ties with Petronas at both Sauber and BMW.
Heikki Kovalainen is another option, as well as Alexander Wurz whose technical prowess could make him an asset.
There is currently little information available about the new owners of Sauber (BMW) and there is only a slim chance they will be on next year’s grid. As it currently stands there is no place for a 14th team in Formula One but if the FIA change the rules quickly enough they might just make it.
In short, anyone at all could end up with a drive if the team goes ahead. Nick Heidfeld would be a very popular candidate if the team gets going, but the German might find that he can sign a deal elsewhere with a lot more job security.
The team’s engine supplier might have a big impact on the line up, so Renault could have an opportunity to place Lucas Di Grassi and Davide Valsecchi into F1 directly from their driver development program. Similarly, Mercedes could give Gary Paffet, Paul Di Resta, or Bruno Spengler their F1 debuts.
The team could also be the only option left for Heikki Kovalainen.
That’s assuming it ends up happening at all. There is a long way to go before Sauber/Qadbak/Whatever reaches the grid next year, and no driver is going to sign a contract without knowing they will actually be racing. By the time the team is ready to go, there could be any variety of drivers still available.
In the end, no-one will know for sure who will be racing in 2010 until the cars line up for the first Grand Prix of the season. No-one had even heard of Jaime Alguersuari twelve months ago which is proof that anything can happen.
There are a number of drivers not mentioned above that could still form part of the 2010 Grand Prix field.
Jules Bianchi has dominated the competitive Formula Three Euroseries this year and was briefly linked to Ferrari as Badoer’s replacement. Bertrand Baguette is similarly carving up the Word Series by Renault Championship, and Daniel Ricciardo has commandingly won the British F3 title with backing from Red Bull.
Jacques Villeneuve is keen to make an F1 return, and so is Giorgio Pantano. Lucas Filippi and Mike Conway are also keen to have a second chance at reaching F1 after being abandoned by Honda’s young driver program.
When the music stops at the end of this year we’ll have a much better of who sits where on the F1 grid. Until then, it’s all just speculation.
Speculation that makes a potential 2010 F1 grid look a little like this.
Pedro De La Rosa
Lucas Di Grassi