Earlier this month, I penned a column explaining how the annual ‘silly season’ for the 2016 Formula 1 driver market had been far from silly. In fact, it was very unsilly. Rather mundane.
My closing points were to a) keep an eye on Jenson Button, for his future was the next big movement in the market for 2016, and b) follow the decision that Haas F1 Team made ahead of its maiden season in the sport.
And the coming week could see both of those stories come to fruition. The 2016 market is finally beginning to near completion.
Let’s start with Haas. In this case, it isn’t so much Haas’ decision, but instead that of Romain Grosjean, who appears set to call time on his long-running association with Enstone, Lotus and Renault.
In Paddock Pass for the Singapore Grand Prix, NBCSN’s Will Buxton spoke to Grosjean about a possible move away for 2016. The Frenchman confirmed that he knew his plans, to which Will asked whether we could safely assume that the team is based in Oxfordshire, England.
“I think so, yeah,” Grosjean replied.
Will then pointed out that he must surely know that Lotus is based in Oxfordshire, given that he has enjoyed ties with the team (and its predecessor Renault) since 2009.
If he only thinks the team is going to be in Oxfordshire, that suggests he’s moving elsewhere. Haas will also be based in the county, having taken over Marussia’s old base in Banbury.
“No, I’m kidding,” Grosjean said less than convincingly. “As I say, my decision is clear and everything is clear in my head. I probably know more than you do about everything. I know the truth. I think you don’t have long to wait.”
Perhaps it’s reading too much into things, but a geographical bamboozler may have given us a big hint that Grosjean will be racing for Haas F1 Team in 2016.
And it makes a great amount of sense. Lotus in 2016, whether it is bought out by Renault or not, will be something of a shell operation. The team will either be broke as it is now, or be adapting to life as Renault. The first time ‘Renault F1 Team’ truly returns will be 2017.
Grosjean is a driver who has turned from a crash kid into one of F1’s most underrated drivers. He has proven himself worthy of a seat further up the grid, and is known to have had contact with Ferrari over the past couple of years about a role.
Haas is enjoying a very close technical partnership with Ferrari for its debut season. It will essentially be a Ferrari B-team. Therefore, it is the perfect place for Grosjean to prove his pace further and get used to working with Maranello ahead of a possible move there in 2017 as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement.
Ferrari has effective control of the market for 2017. Its decision to give Raikkonen another year was met with confusion from many corners given his struggles in 2015, but the Finn plays a big part in the ‘grand plan’ at Maranello for now. He works well with Sebastian Vettel, and, as we saw in Singapore, can follow him home to the podium.
Grosjean is the best option out there for 2017. Valtteri Bottas had been linked with a seat for next year, but his inability to beat Felipe Massa – a driver Ferrari tried to get rid of for 2013 before eventually dropping for 2014 – speaks volumes. Nico Hulkenberg continues to knock around in the midfield, and otherwise, there are few notable candidates.
Moving to Haas gives Grosjean the shot to join Ferrari in 2017, and offers the team much-needed experience for its first year in the sport. It would be a big coup for Gene Haas, but one that looks increasingly likely.
Jenson Button’s future has always been in his hands this year. McLaren has an option on his services for 2016, and racing director Eric Boullier has said that it “intends” to take the Briton up on this.
However, Button has never made clear he wants to stick around. In fact, his recent interviews have depicted a man very content with his future, knowing full well what lies ahead: retirement from F1.
A report from The Daily Telegraph claims that Button is set to announce this week that he will be leaving the sport at the end of the season ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix, bringing the curtain down on a glittering career that has seen him go from top to bottom and back… and back again.
For Button, retiring on his terms is fitting. He won’t have been forced out or dropped as was nearly the case at the end of last year. He can walk away with his head held high.
McLaren-Honda hasn’t given him the final shot at the top he craved, but his heyday years from 2009-2012 will forever be remembered fondly. When he was given the right car, Button proved himself to be worthy of the world champion moniker.
This then leaves McLaren with a two-man shortlist for 2016: Kevin Magnussen or Stoffel Vandoorne. Magnussen raced with the team in 2014 before being dropped to make way for Fernando Alonso, and remains an integral part of the operation at Woking. However, Vandoorne’s total obliteration of the field in GP2 this year may be too impressive to ignore.
Either way, the 2016 driver market is beginning to come together.