© Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
Leave a comment

Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.