F1 silly season kicks into gear in Hungary

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As Formula 1 quickly approaches its summer break, the moving and shaking in the driver market – also known as ‘silly season’ – is starting to begin.

It is a double-edged sword that is loved and loathed by the F1 community in equal measures. The last few years have seen a number of drivers linked with a number of seats, be it Alonso to Red Bull, Vettel to Ferrari or Hamilton to Mercedes (one out of three isn’t bad), but once again, all three are now coming under scrutiny ahead of the summer break.

The missing jigsaw piece in all of this is McLaren. Although the team has been dithering towards the backend of the top ten so far this season, the arrival of Honda engines in 2015 is thought to be a huge draw for a number of drivers. Jenson Button is yet to confirm what he is doing next year, be it staying with McLaren or retiring from F1, meaning that a seat with the team may be available.

Fernando Alonso is thought to be considering his future with Ferrari. The Spaniard has continually laughed off rumors linking him away from Maranello, but following another disastrous year for the team, he could not be blamed for looking elsewhere. Ron Dennis has said that he would welcome Alonso back to McLaren despite their fall-out in 2007, although Fernando has denied contacting any other teams regarding a drive.

If you were in Alonso’s shoes though, there’s only one car that you really want to drive: a Mercedes. With Rosberg on a new long-term deal and Hamilton in some of the best form of his life there, surely that’s a closed door?

Maybe for Alonso, but not for Sebastian Vettel. According to Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, the four-time world champion has been approached by the German marque as well as McLaren.

“Of course they target him,” Marko said to Sport Bild with reference to Mercedes. “And they are not the only team. McLaren-Honda made Sebastian an outrageously high offer.”

Outrageously high? Hardly surprising, given his form with Red Bull over the past few years. Now that he is no longer in the quickest car, Vettel has seemed – for want of a better word – average. Even new teammate Daniel Ricciardo has the edge on him in 2014.

The German remained passive when asked about the rumors concerning his future.

“I think any offer has to be considered but nothing has changed,” he said. “I still don’t talk about these things. I don’t know which sources Helmut has, or doesn’t have, but they seem to vary, let’s say.”

So where would that leave Hamilton? Potentially out in the cold. He confirmed on Thursday that he is hoping to open negotiations with Mercedes about a deal soon, given that his contract runs out at the end of next season.

However, non-executive Mercedes director Niki Lauda was having none of it. Speaking to AMuS writer Michael Schmidt, he said: “We’ve never talked to Vettel about driving for us. There is no demand for new drivers at Mercedes.”

Quite clearly, silly season is really beginning to do the rounds.

So what is the incentive for leaving a team? It essentially comes down to two things: a better car or more money, with the former being more important (one would hope). It really does depend how ‘outrageous’ McLaren’s offer to Vettel was, but it would take something astonishing to pull him away from Red Bull.

We looked at the reasons behind his tame title defence earlier this year, and the idea of Red Bull losing the mojo that has yielded four straight titles wasn’t one of them. Many of the issues stem from the Renault power unit, but the RB10 car itself is still very sound. Paddock consensus suggests that a Mercedes-powered RB10 might be the best combination on the grid.

Williams is a bit of a simpler enigma to decipher, with both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa impressing the F1 world this season. Massa confirmed on Thursday that he has a firm contract for next season, saying: “Next year as well, so you cannot write what you’re thinking!” Ah, silly season…

Back to Alonso. The big question mark for him is whether he could get out of Ferrari even if he wanted to. The suggestion in the paddock this weekend is that the Spaniard may have a clause in his contract allowing him to walk away if the team is lower than third in the constructors’ championship. Currently, Ferrari sits fourth behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams. Has the blue-touch paper already been lit? Would he really be willing to hinge his hopes on McLaren-Honda being the winning partnership in 2015?

You can also look at the other teams on the grid. Lotus is a funny one, given that Mercedes power appears to be on the way for 2015. This would appear to put an end to its partnership with Total fuel to make way for Petronas, yet Romain Grosjean’s backing comes from the French company. Pastor Maldonado has unsurprisingly stayed put for 2015, but will RoGro remain at Enstone?

Toro Rosso is, likewise, about one seat. Daniil Kvyat has been very impressive during his debut season, but Jean-Eric Vergne is struggling to beat his inexperienced teammate. The Frenchman could be replaced by Carlos Sainz Jr. come the end of the year as the Spaniard looks set to win the Formula Renault 3.5 title.

At Sauber, we have five drivers – Esteban Gutierrez, Adrian Sutil, Giedo van der Garde, Sergey Sirotkin and Simona de Silvestro – vying for two seats, and the arrival of Alexander Rossi at Marussia has also put him in the running should Jules Bianchi find a seat further up the grid. Caterham is an enigma worth any guess, but Force India seems to be set unless Nico Hulkenberg is lured away; he is known to be on Ferrari’s radar.

Silly season: hated, adored, but never ignored. It’s a crazy phenomenon that cannot be avoided in Formula 1.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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