Buckle up, things are about to get wild in Formula 1.
And I don’t just mean on the track. I hyped up where we were in terms of the title battle just as the sport headed into the mid-season break, but there are plenty of things that need settling in other areas too.
So as the next lot of PCR tests are conducted to let the F1 circus go racing at Spa-Francorchamps, it feels like a good time to look at some of the main decisions that need to be taken in the coming weeks and months.
The second Mercedes seat
I’m pretty sure this one is already settled. You may well have read Edd Straw’s excellent piece about what a Merc-less future might look like for Valtteri Bottas, and all of the noises in the paddock are that he will indeed be looking for a new project because George Russell is going to get the nod to suit up alongside Lewis Hamilton.
There have been a few telling signs from Russell as well, such as the emotion he showed scoring for Williams in Hungary – a day he perhaps thought was never going to come – despite being beaten by Nicholas Latifi, or the shrewd radio message he delivered in the same race telling the team to sacrifice his race for his Canadian teammate’s.
But perhaps more telling was his inability to keep a straight face when interviewed about his future at the start of the Budapest weekend, and his own comments that a decision might well have been made but not communicated. More than one source (admittedly, not close enough to the deal to provide total certainty) has suggested Russell was told he would be moving up to Mercedes some weeks ago.
That said, Mercedes holds all of the cards, and if it wants to wait to finalize that decision then it can. And we’ll just be sitting here searching for even more clues…
Where Bottas (or Russell) goes
It’s almost certain Russell will stay at Williams, if for some reason, there’s an about-turn on the above, so let’s assume it’s the Finn who is looking for a new team next year.
Williams and Alfa Romeo are his main two options, and the steer I’ve had so far is that Bottas is set on a switch to Switzerland. I’m told that he has held talks with both teams, but that a reunion with Frederic Vasseur at Alfa Romeo – Bottas previously raced for Vasseur’s ART team in GP3 and Formula 3 – is the more likely destination of the two.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has already previously stated that he would help Bottas find another seat should Russell get the nod, and you’d imagine he would at least extend the opportunity for Bottas to have his future sorted and ready to announce at the time the change was confirmed.
Should that happen, it is likely to mean the end of Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 career, but that could well come as part of an overall line-up change at Alfa Romeo. But if Bottas ends up returning to Williams instead, that also would close a door for the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniil Kvyat, as Nicholas Latifi looks pretty well set to stay in place given his solid Sunday performances and financial backing.
Will Red Bull keep Perez?
Given that he has a race win under his belt and Red Bull is in a close constructors’ championship battle, you’d expect Perez to be a certainty to stay on, but his big performances have been the exception rather than the norm.
The Mexican is clearly a quality driver, but he’s being used to support Max Verstappen’s title push and that means he’s playing second fiddle when he’s at his prime – and even then he’s had plenty of tough weekends. Mentally, that must be a challenging situation to grapple with.
Perez is only fifth in the drivers’ championship and Red Bull will be largely satisfied with the job he has been doing, but also wondering if one of its own junior drivers would have been in a similar position given the performance of the car this year. And promoting youth is part of the brand’s ethos when it comes to drivers in F1.
It’s likely Perez will stay, but it’s not a certainty, and we could be in for another drawn-out process as Red Bull keeps him on his toes deep into the season.
What’s the calendar going to look like?
No, I don’t mean the 2022 calendar (although we will get that in the coming weeks, too) but this year’s calendar. Heading into the last month before the summer break, we had a set schedule, even if there were a number of question marks. Those have since turned into vacancies, as first the Australian Grand Prix and since then Japan have both been called off.
The slot for the race at Suzuka is TBC at present and the scheduled date is just a little over six weeks away, so something needs to be put in place soon. And it’s likely to be on that same date, because Turkey remains on the United Kingdom’s ‘red’ travel list – meaning a mandatory 10 day quarantine for anyone flying back – so there needs to be a buffer between F1’s departure from Istanbul and return to the UK.
The rising COVID-19 rates also looks likely to spell the end of hopes for two races in Austin, but whether Mexico and Brazil happen after that also remains to be seen. Brazil – another UK red list country – could well move back a week to be paired with the Australia vacancy, with Qatar one option being explored alongside the likes of the Bahrain outer circuit. However, that doesn’t solve the same problem for Mexico, which is also on the red list.
The red list is such an issue because of the teams and F1 itself being based in the UK, and it’s a list that is constantly being reviewed, with updates usually every three weeks. So for the countries currently on the list, there’s a chance they could come off… but others could join it.
After this coming triple-header, there are currently seven races confirmed and two TBC slots, but of those seven it’s totally conceivable that three more could still change. The final number of races and where they take place could end up differing enormously.