F1 2015’s silly season is proving to be a let down, but who could yet spice it up?

6 Comments

Maybe we’ve been spoiled in recent years.

Maybe we’ve become accustomed to at least one World Champion jumping ship to a rival team in all of the past three seasons.

But whichever way you look at it, Formula 1’s silly season in 2015 has been a complete letdown.

For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is silly season, it can be defined as “the period in which every available driver on the F1 grid (or outside of the sport) is linked with every available seat”.

It lasts until the grid is completed and every team has set its line-up in stone, and ordinarily unfolds like a set of dominoes falling. One driver moves, another takes his place, thus freeing up a seat, and so on.

It happened in 2012 when Lewis Hamilton chose to leave McLaren. It happened in 2013 when Mark Webber announced he would be retiring (although ultimately moving into the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche for 2014), and when Ferrari dropped Felipe Massa to re-sign Kimi Raikkonen.

It happened in 2014 when Sebastian Vettel announced he would be leaving Red Bull, moving to Ferrari in place of Fernando Alonso, who returned to McLaren after seven years away.

And so we come to 2015. It was a silly season with much promise that largely revolved around Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen.

In the middle of July, reports in the Italian press claimed that Ferrari had struck an agreement with Williams to sign Valtteri Bottas for 2016 as Raikkonen’s replacement, sending the rumor mill into overdrive.

Williams appeared to have a number of options if they needed a replacement. Nico Hulkenberg from Force India? Jenson Button from McLaren? Romain Grosjean from Lotus? Felipe Nasr from Sauber? GP2 driver Alex Lynn? The possibilities were endless.

Ultimately, Ferrari stuck with Raikkonen for 2016 in spite of his so-so form this season. On his day, the Finn remains a fearsome competitor, and – perhaps more importantly – retaining him gives the Italian marque effective control of the 2017 driver market.

Nevertheless, there was still the possibility for change on the grid. Hulkenberg had been linked with every seat going, including one at the new Haas F1 Team (talks were held), only to confirm earlier this week that he had signed a new two-year deal with Force India. Sergio Perez revealed today that he is also likely to stay on for 2016, with a new contract set to be announced soon.

It’s only September, and silly season is already fizzling out. Ferrari, Williams and Sauber have officially confirmed their line-ups for 2016. Mercedes won’t make any changes and doesn’t need to make an official announcement. Force India looks set to be the same again. Red Bull is unlikely to make a change, as is Toro Rosso.

So can anyone spice up silly season in the coming months?

The situation at Lotus is certainly worth monitoring. The team is struggling financially, but is close to being rescued by French manufacturer Renault, which is keen to return to F1 with a works operation for the first time since 2010.

Given Romain Grosjean’s good form and links with Renault, the Frenchman would unquestionably be retained. The same cannot be said of Pastor Maldonado, though, whose backing from Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA is unlikely to be as valuable to Renault as it is to Lotus.

Should Renault opt to drop him, there are a number of options, but most of them are outside of F1. If a top-line driver is desired, the team could follow Ferrari’s example and stick with their current driver before taking advantage of the open market for 2017 when most of the grid is available.

Manor is in a class of its own for silly season. Basically, whichever driver is willing to stump up the most cash will get the nod. That said, both Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi have been quietly impressive at the back this season, so there’s no reason why they would not be kept on.

Haas’ number one target was Hulkenberg, suggesting that ‘plan a’ was for him to partner Esteban Gutierrez, who is understood to be closing in on one of the seats. As such, we can safely assume that there is just one drive on offer there now, for which Jean-Eric Vergne is the favorite.

If Haas is keen on an American, then Alexander Rossi appears to be the leading candidate after a strong season in GP2. IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden’s name keeps being banded about, but due to the new FIA superlicence rules is unlikely to stand much chance.

That only leaves McLaren. McLaren is the team that now is the main focus of silly season.

Or, more precisely, Jenson Button is now the main focus of silly season.

Button came close to exiting McLaren at the end of last year when the team signed Fernando Alonso from Ferrari. The Spaniard’s arrival left the team with two options: ditch Button or ditch Kevin Magnussen. Button was saved (only just), leaving Magnussen to take up a reserve role with the team for 2015.

Button signed a one-plus-one year contract with McLaren, giving the team an option on his services for 2016. As a result, we’re in the same position again. This time around though, there are three drivers in the running.

Magnussen may have spent a year in the background for McLaren, but he is still highly rated by the management at Woking. The Dane impressed in his debut F1 season under difficult circumstances, and remains a serious contender for the seat.

The third driver involved is Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren’s other bright young protege. After being told to remain in GP2 for 2015 and win it “as a boss” by racing director Eric Boullier, Vandoorne is on course to do exactly that. He leads by over 100 points, and should wrap the title up in Russia next month.

So who do McLaren plum for? Button, the experienced head? Magnussen, the driver who deserves a second chance? Or Vandoorne, the driver banging hard on F1’s door?

Whoever the team picks, it will have ramifications on the rest of the grid. Both Magnussen and Vandoorne want to be in F1 next year. McLaren may try and slot either into a seat elsewhere on the grid, but the early announcements have made that an impossibility. Could Manor be an option?

Should Vandoorne get the nod, then Magnussen will be left with a tough decision to make: sit it out and wait for Alonso to move on, or cut ties with McLaren after being leapfrogged in the junior pecking order. He could be a contender for the Haas seat in the event of the latter.

For Button, it is hard to see a future in F1 for him should McLaren choose to drop him. As Mark Webber told MotorSportsTalk last week, the FIA World Endurance Championship is a very lucrative option, and a factory drive would be attainable for Button.

Silly season has been a let down in 2015. Perhaps it is therefore fitting that McLaren is now the team to watch in the driver market.