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.

Brown: Dennis would have made same decision on McLaren-Honda split

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Zak Brown believes former McLaren team boss Ron Dennis would have made the same decision to cut ties with struggling Formula 1 engine partner Honda had he still been in charge at the team in 2017.

McLaren executive director Brown helped engineer a deal for the team to split with Honda at the end of the 2017 season after three tough seasons that had seen the Japanese manufacturer offer little in the way of performance or reliability.

The decision split opinion, with McLaren spurning a significant annual financial injection from Honda in order to link up with Renault, believing its on-track fortunes had to be prioritized over its commercial interests.

In an interview with Sky Sports, Brown was asked if he believed Dennis – McLaren’s long-running team chief before stepping down at the end of 2016 – would have made the same decision to cut ties with Honda.

“I think he would have,” Brown said.

“He was here when those conversations were ongoing and I think Ron always has and always will have the best interests of McLaren in his heart.

“He is Mr. McLaren. It burns him inside as much as us not to see us winning races.”

Brown also elaborated on the decision to break off the much-lauded relationship with Honda, saying the first signs of trouble with the 2017 power unit were clear in pre-season.

After a number of attempts to try and rectify the situation, Brown and his fellow team bosses felt there was no alternative but to end the Honda deal for 2018.

“We knew we were in trouble in testing in Barcelona and we worked really hard for six months to try and find solutions that would give us confidence that we’d be much more competitive in 2018,” Brown said.

“Ultimately, after trying many different things and many different ways we felt we couldn’t get there.

“Three years is a long time in Formula 1 and so we needed to change the direction to get our team back at the top.”