F1 silly season steps up a gear after Haas drop driver pairing

With five races left in the Formula One season, Lewis Hamilton’s march towards a record-equalling seventh world championship looks all but inevitable.

However, away from the certainties on the track, there is plenty of tension in the driver carousel for next season.

As it stands, there are still seats available at Haas, Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri, Red Bull and Williams. One can ignore Mercedes as Hamilton is expected to pen a lucrative contract extension over the coming weeks.

At Red Bull, Max Verstappen is the only driver within the stable to have a confirmed drive, with team-mate Alex Albon struggling to compete against the Dutchman.

The London-born Thai was promoted to replace Pierre Gasly last season, but has underperformed, failing to beat Verstappen once in qualifying (0-12) or on race day (0-8).

In contrast, Gasly has thrived since his demotion back to AlphaTauri, clinching a surprise victory in Monza, as well as a string of formidable finishes in his inferior car.

Daniil Kvyat and Gasly are the current duo at AlphaTauri, however, Japanese F2 star Yuki Tsunoda is considered a potential candidate for 2021. The talented 20-year-old is third in F2 with three races remaining.

In the final year that Honda supply the team with engines, it could be fitting to see the Kanagawa native make his F1 bow, especially with Kvyat underperforming.

Red Bull do not have a wealth of junior talent coming through the ranks so if they don’t retain Albon’s services, they could recruit from the outside for the first time in 10 years.

A return to Red Bull for Gasly is unlikely as boss Christian Horner recently admitted if they were to promote the Frenchman again, results would be the same as Albon now.

In 2019, Gasly only held the edge on Verstappen once in qualifying (1-10) and on race day (1-11) respectively.

Haas, meanwhile, will have an all-new driver line-up next season after confirming the departures of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen last week.

Nico Hulkenberg, who raced three times for Racing Point since August, has been linked with a drive at the American outfit.

A talented performer and consistent points scorer, the 33-year-old would inject fresh energy into Gene Haas’s side.

However, when asked recently about the prospect of racing for Haas, he described it as an unrealistic option, perhaps already knowing other drivers are being considered ahead of him.

And with Alfa Romeo set to retain Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, it could mean another season without F1 for the German.

Sergio Perez, who was ousted from Racing Point for Sebastian Vettel, is an outside contender for a seat at Haas. But a bigger possibility could be Williams.

While many would have enjoyed the prospect of Perez and Hulkenberg lining up at Haas, it is expected they may opt for two youngsters to fill their vacant seats.

After finishing fifth in the constructors’ championship in 2018, they placed ninth last season and currently sit eighth this term. Signs of a slow demise for a once improving team.

Nikita Mazepin, the son of Russian billionaire Dmitry, has been heavily linked with a switch.

Sixth in F2, it is highly improbable the 21-year-old will score more points than Magnussen behind the wheel. Or be a better driver than an experienced Perez or Hulkenberg.

However, the money Mazepin brings through his father will help an ailing side go in a different direction and hopefully improve on their last two disappointing seasons.

The other driver set to fill the empty seat is the impressive Mick Schumacher, current leader in the F2 championship.

His name will attract a lot of sponsorship, though his talent alone deserves a shot in F1, after impressive performances this term.

At Williams, George Russell’s 2021 seat is in doubt despite dominating his team-mate Nicholas Latifi all year, out-qualifying the Canadian (12-0) and finishing ahead on six occasions.

While many would expect Latifi to be worried about his seat, the key difference is the Montreal man brings more money to the table than Russell.

Hence, why Perez is in the frame for the Briton’s seat, and Latifi, whose father Michael is worth $2 billion, will remain in the cockpit despite failing to fire against Russell.

The Tydd St Giles man does have a contract for 2021, but fresh speculation is that new Williams owners Dorilton Capital are looking at the commercial possibilities of a changed line-up. Signing Perez would attract the backing of billionaire Carlos Slim.

The Mexican’s package is an enticing proposition, and added to that is the fact Perez has been churning out consistent performance for Racing Point this campaign, sealing four top-five finishes.

Callum Ilott, the 21-year-old British driver who sits second in F2 and is part of the Ferrari driver academy, has also been jostling for promotion.

Unfortunately, there are more talented drivers than seats available. Some will inevitably be disappointed and forced to compete in other racing series.

You could argue Ilott deserves a place in the cockpit more than Mazepin or Tsunoda, however, F1 teams rely on the sponsorship a driver can bring plus prize money based on their finish in the constructors’ championship.

Smaller teams depend heavily on the revenue, especially those who finish lower down the standings. And with revenues hit due to Covid-19, you can’t blame them for looking to decent drivers who bring cash and sponsorship with them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t allows lead to the best drivers on the grid.

CURRENT SEATS FOR 2021

Mercedes: Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton (TBC)

Ferrari: Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz

Red Bull: Max Verstappen, Alex Albon (TBC)

McLaren: Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo

Alpine: Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso

Alpha Tauri: Pierre Gasly (TBC), Daniil Kvyat (TBC)

Aston Martin: Lance Stroll, Sebastian Vettel

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen (TBC), Antonio Giovinazzi (TBC)

Williams: George Russell*, Nicholas Latifi

Haas: TBC

*has 2021 contract but could change over coming weeks

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