MEDLAND: Not-so-silly season

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MEDLAND: Not-so-silly season

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Not-so-silly season

The term ‘news cycle’ isn’t supposed to be about repetition. Generally, it’s the rise and fall of news stories in the media, and the time they will be reported.

But in Formula 1 — and most motorsports looking at what some of my RACER colleagues are chasing each year — there is a period where every single interview will include the question: “Any news about what you’re doing next season?”

The middle of the European season tends to be the time that F1’s rumor mill really kicks into gear. The championship is established enough that we can understand trends and know largely what to expect in terms of pecking orders, but it’s still too early to overplay the significance of each result in the title battles.

That leaves a bit of a vacuum where focus switches to next year, and which drivers might be on the move. Talks start behind closed doors, but rarely are the different parties ready to start using the media to move the narrative along as discussions are at an early — and usually optimistic — stage.

This season, there’s the somewhat unusual situation where four of the top six drivers are out of contract at the end of the year. But the focus has been predominantly on one of them: Daniel Ricciardo.

The Australian’s reluctance to start talks about a new deal over the winter while weighing up his options suggested genuine concerns about the future at Red Bull, in part due to its power unit partnerships and in part as a result of the lucrative new contract signed by Max Verstappen late last year.

Getty Images for Red Bull

Getty Images for Red Bull

With Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen all sitting on contracts that were expiring at the end of 2018, Ricciardo was hopeful for an opening at either Mercedes or Ferrari. His own performances had to be up to scratch — and with two victories and a pole position they have been — but the form of others appears to have closed those doors.

Hamilton has yet to publicly confirm he’s signed a new deal at Mercedes, but the increasing consensus is that it’s only a matter of time until an announcement is made. Tied in with that is retaining Bottas, who is performing solidly once again — robbed of victory in Baku due to a puncture — and helping maintain the harmony that allows Mercedes to get the best out of the four-time world champion.

A similar dynamic is taken into consideration at Ferrari, where Raikkonen’s position as support act to Sebastian Vettel has been extended with new one-year deals for the past three seasons. As Ricciardo got the better of Vettel during their solitary season as teammates in 2014, it’s unlikely the German would be particularly happy at his hiring, but Charles Leclerc’s performances have put the rookie in the frame and any deal for Ricciardo would block Leclerc’s route.

So silly season really kicked in last weekend at the French Grand Prix when Ricciardo was linked with a move to McLaren to replace Fernando Alonso.

Replacing Alonso is the other key to the market, namely whether McLaren has to or not. With racing director Eric Boullier openly admitting preliminary discussions have been held with Ricciardo, either Alonso has suggested he won’t race for the team in F1 next year (but may well still do so in IndyCar) or McLaren is keen to get the double world champion to speed up his decision making.

Image by Tee/LAT

Christian Horner summed it up that it would be a brave move for Ricciardo to head to Woking when Red Bull has been so far ahead of McLaren this season, and the latest paddock rumor indicates that any talks that have taken place haven’t advanced particularly far. Raikkonen’s name was thrown into the mix as an Alonso replacement this week, and as far-fetched as it sounds, there’s method to the madness.

If Alonso walks, McLaren needs a headline name to replace him. Ricciardo is likely to prove too difficult to lure away from Red Bull — flattered though he is at the interest, his eyes are farther up the grid — and so a world champion is the ideal target from a commercial point of view as well as a driving one.

Raikkonen is in the twilight of his career and struggles to perform when it really matters, but all is not well between the Finn and Ferrari and that lack of confidence doesn’t help performances. At the same time, McLaren is not fighting at the front, and having a world champion in the team keeps sponsors happy.

There’s only Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen who fit that bill, and what is a more attractive-sounding line-up from a partner’s point of view: Lando Norris and Stoffel Vandoorne or Kimi Raikkonen and either of those young talents?

So in many senses, Alonso holds the key to the driver market right now, but not in the way he will have hoped. His perfect scenario would be to take one of the seats Ricciardo was angling for — specifically Mercedes — but the top three are off-limits to him. IndyCar looks to be the most viable option (along with a return to Renault) and if he makes that switch, then McLaren will be chasing the biggest name it can get to take his seat.

Image by Mauger/LAT

If Raikkonen is retained by Ferrari, or opts to call it a day if replaced by Leclerc, then the likes of Sergio Perez remain on McLaren’s radar. The Mexican is a more mature prospect now than he was during his single year with the team in 2013, but has yet to be given a chance to show it at a bigger outfit.

Timing will be everything. With Hamilton, Bottas and Ricciardo all likely to stay put, McLaren can only seriously go after Raikkonen if Alonso has made his decision. If not, and Ferrari offer Kimi another year, that potential option will disappear, too.

When so many plates are spinning and need others to fall in order to facilitate moves, the status quo usually prevails. The smart money right now is on the top three teams sticking, with the only change being Leclerc replacing Raikkonen. In the latter scenario, Ferrari doesn’t need to move particularly quickly, as it controls Leclerc’s future.

Despite that, while contracts remain unsigned then those further down the grid will always wait to see what pans out at the front. The sooner they know, the sooner they can get on with making their own plans, and that’s where rumors are dropped into the media to try and accelerate a decision.

The uncertainty over a driver’s future — however likely it is that they will remain in the same place — creates another metaphorical vacuum about who could fill that space.

Regardless of the final outcomes, all that’s certain is we’ll do it all again next year.

 

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