The Formula 1 driver market is usually a little bit like when you stand up dominoes in a line and then tap one to start the chain reaction of knocking them all over, because with so few seats it’s a heavily intertwined market. But that’s not so much the case this year, with a number of major moves having been confirmed in advance of the 2022 season.
That said, there are two extremely coveted spots up for grabs, and uncertainty over who is going to get them.
First up, let’s look at Mercedes. Team boss Toto Wolff has openly stated that it is a straight choice between Valtteri Bottas and George Russell for who will partner Lewis Hamilton in 2022. Bottas is always on a one-year contract at Mercedes, and Russell is in the final season of a three-year deal at Williams, so both need their futures sorting.
Wolff has said he will make the decision over the summer break, so Budapest will be the last chance for either to impress, but there’s not much more that Wolff needs to know about the two drivers.
From the outside, many simply look at what Russell can do over one lap in a Williams, get frustrated by Bottas not fighting Hamilton hard and think it’s an easy choice. But that overlooks so many crucial aspects when it comes to such a decision.
For starters, Bottas is a known quantity to Mercedes who has helped the team secure both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in each of his four seasons in that seat to date. On a few of those occasions, Hamilton has been seriously under threat from the likes of Ferrari but Bottas has played the perfect supporting role to ensure nobody has ended the Mercedes dominance. So far.
Despite the odd bit of frustration, Bottas has not deviated from that approach this year either. Silverstone was actually an extremely important case in point, because there he gave Hamilton a tow that secured the fastest time in Friday’s qualifying session — itself the difference between the Briton being quickest or being beaten by Max Verstappen — and then duly followed team orders to allow Hamilton to pass easily and go on to win the race.
Bottas even played the spotter role by pulling alongside Hamilton’s car behind the safety car to check for damage after the collision with Verstappen, while later using team radio to state he assumed there was no penalty for the incident based on the view he’d had.
And, the Finn might not have been on Hamilton’s level, but a solid third place was crucial in providing extra points to Mercedes when Sergio Perez failed to score for Red Bull after Verstappen’s retirement.
The same weekend gave Russell a chance to shine with an outstanding qualifying effort, reaching Q3 and putting his car eighth on the grid for the Sprint, but then being unable to sustain such a position across the race distances. It’s a familiar story and one that is often seen because Russell outperforms the car over one lap, but he’s also faltered when in the frame for points.
Imola was an expensive example in more ways than one as he took out Bottas when trying to overtake in wet conditions, heavily damaging both cars and wiping them out of the top 10.
But it’s clear for all to see that Russell does have the ability to win races in a Mercedes, and perhaps even produce to a higher level than Bottas on a regular basis. His last-minute appearance in Bahrain last year attests to that. But even if he provides a little bit more, will he follow orders to play the number two role as graciously as Bottas? And if not, is the potential extra performance worth the similarly potential disruption?
As fans we obviously love the idea of a battle between teammates, but if you’re Wolff and simply thinking about the best way of winning titles, the recent formula is a proven one.
It’s not just Wolff with a decision to make, as Red Bull is also yet to confirm Perez’s position. It looked extremely likely that he’d get an extension to his deal after winning in Baku, especially when he backed it up with a podium in France, but results were severely lacking as Verstappen dominated in Austria and then he had a poor weekend at Silverstone.
Ten races into the season, and Perez is getting less and less leeway. Getting up to speed in a new team was clearly not easy this year for a number of experienced drivers, but Carlos Sainz managed to brilliantly, Fernando Alonso is back to his best and Sebastian Vettel is performing more consistently, while Daniel Ricciardo has also shown much more promising signs of late.
Perez was hired because his experience should mean he’s closer to Verstappen and more consistent than Alex Albon who went before him, and while that looked to be the case – Imola aside – for a while, Silverstone was a badly-timed blip that might have just left a seed of doubt in the team’s mind.
Albon probably tops the list to get a second chance if Perez doesn’t remain, but he’s unable to really apply pressure from his reserve role and hasn’t set the world alight in DTM so far. Pierre Gasly continues to impress but also seems to still not be flavor of the month at the main team, meaning another year leading AlphaTauri is on the cards.
All of that adds up to a likely Perez extension at Red Bull, but another poor weekend at Hungary could cause a delay in any decision being made.
Below that, McLaren and Ferrari are both locked in, while Gasly is unlikely to be moved from AlphaTauri and Yuki Tsunoda is surely set for a second year as he develops his raw talent, even if Juri Vips and Liam Lawson have impressed in Formula 2. At Alpine, Alonso is yet to actually sign an option for 2022 but on recent form it seems a certainty he will do so alongside the already-confirmed Esteban Ocon.
Aston Martin will once again field Vettel alongside Lance Stroll, while Nikita Mazepin has a Haas contract and Mick Schumacher is on the verge of re-signing, meaning most of the movement is likely to happen at Alfa Romeo and Williams.
For the former, it depends on Kimi Raikkonen’s desire to keep racing, because the recent announcement that Alfa Romeo will stay on as title sponsor means a world champion remains attractive. Another Finn could be in the frame in the form of Bottas if he is replaced at Mercedes, but Alfa has favored stability recently that could also prove beneficial into a new set of regulations. Callum Ilott is test driver while Robert Shwartzman could stake a claim with an F2 title win this year, but both Ferrari juniors are unlikely to be considered if Antonio Giovinazzi is retained.
Another name that keeps cropping up for any potential seat is Nico Hulkenberg, and Williams team principal Jost Capito has stated he wouldn’t rule him out on the basis that he’s available. To that end, anyone not currently tied to a team — and even some who are — counts as in the frame.
It’s a long list but some names are stronger options than others. Nicholas Latifi could well get an extension given his backing and sporadic race performances that get close to Russell’s level, while Russell would almost certainly be retained if not picked up by Mercedes. If the Briton does depart, however, Bottas could move in the other direction, or a younger driver could be selected.
Williams is a team on the up and now with the financial backing to consider multiple options. Be that a young driver placed there by another team — such as Alpine’s F2 title contender Guanyu Zhou, Mercedes’ Formula E championship leader Nyck de Vries or even Albon — or a more known quantity to the team such as reserve Jack Aitken, who impressed during a last-minute call-up in Bahrain last year, it is spoiled for choice.
But there won’t be any movement until Mercedes decides what it wants to do alongside Hamilton, meaning a whole host of drivers are hanging on the outcome of that choice before knowing where the best chances are elsewhere.