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As F1 silly season winds down, who’s in the race for the final four seats?

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The past two weeks have seen the 2017 driver markets for MotorSportsTalk’s two primary series, Formula 1 and IndyCar, develop very, very quickly.

Over in IndyCar, a flurry of confirmations mean that just two seats remain up for grabs: one at Chip Ganassi Racing, filled in 2016 by Max Chilton, and one for the street and road courses at Ed Carpenter Racing.

The F1 driver market was expected to be particularly volatile heading into 2017, but Red Bull’s early promotion of Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s decision to keep Kimi Raikkonen on for another year left it looking pretty stationary.

Things moved along quickly when Nico Hulkenberg decided to leave Force India for Renault, setting off a chain reaction that has seen Esteban Ocon move up as his replacement, Kevin Magnussen move to Haas and leave just four seats up for grabs: two at Sauber and two at Manor.

So who is in the race for the remaining seats? The names to work with here are Felipe Nasr, Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Gutierrez, Rio Haryanto and Jordan King. It is likely that four of the six will fill out the grid.

Sauber F1 Team

Sauber’s fortunes for 2017 may remain bleak given the team’s decision to stick with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit.

Yet with Longbow Finance’s takeover complete, the recruitment drive ongoing and, most importantly, the team poised for a multi-million dollar windfall all thanks to Felipe Nasr’s ninth-place finish in Brazil, things aren’t as bad as they once looked.

The result saw Sauber move above Manor in the constructors’ championship, with the difference between P10 and P11 equating to a reported $15 million in prize money.

Both Nasr and Ericsson pushed to secure a move to Force India, only to lose out to Ocon. Both bring decent financial backing to Sauber, with Ericsson also reportedly enjoying links to Longbow. As a result, it would be a big surprise to see the Swede racing elsewhere in 2017.

The question mark hangs over Nasr. He may have been a step above Ericsson on track, but off it, his reliance on Banco do Brasil and the current financial crisis facing Brazil may be an issue.

A possible option for Sauber is Gutierrez, who spent two years racing with the team in 2013 and 2014. His departure wasn’t on the best of terms, but he was spotted talking to his former boss, Monisha Kaltenborn, in Brazil; no real effort was made to hide that fact, either.

Gutierrez brings decent backing from Mexico, so would definitely be an option, relying the scars of his exit have healed for both sides.

Manor Racing

Just as Nasr’s points in Brazil boost Sauber’s fortunes, they hamper Manor’s. The British minnows will most probably need to secure a pay driver’s services for 2017 as a replacement for the Force India-bound Ocon.

Wehrlein’s debut season in F1 has been an odd one. His charge to P10 in Austria marked just the second points finish in Manor’s seven-season history, yet his failure to outclass early-year teammate Rio Haryanto and subsequent struggles against Ocon, who only made his debut in August, piqued enough concern for Force India to pass on him as Hulkenberg’s replacement.

Wehrlein will be keen to remain with Manor next year, and it could be that the likes of Gutierrez and Nasr push to join him. Both have backing (the latter’s admittedly uncertain), and both will benefit from 2017-spec Mercedes engines. It’s not unthinkable that Manor should run ahead of Sauber in the pecking order next year, making a move to the team desirable.

Haryanto was forced to give up his seat after Germany due to a shortfall in funding, but the Indonesian is apparently back in contention for a seat next year. Another option is Jordan King, who races in GP2 and is Manor’s development driver. He too would bring some backing.

Manor has no shortage of pay drivers to choose from. The big questions that will determine its decision are how crucial keeping Wehrlein is to its relationship with Mercedes, and what level of funding is now required after losing P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that both F1 and IndyCar look set to have their 2017 grids set before the end of the calendar year. As my colleague Tony DiZinno noted yesterday, Dale Coyne Racing has traditionally left things as late as possible; Manor is perhaps the equivalent in F1.

If things can be firmed up early, though, then the team will surely benefit from the stability that comes with it.

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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