Could F1's too-quiet driver market be poised for a major shock?
Twelve months ago, Formula 1's Dutch Grand Prix was overshadowed by the most explosive driver market shake-up we have had in years.
Triggered by the retirement of Sebastian Vettel, a whirlwind whipped through the paddock as Fernando Alonso's Aston Martin switch kicked off a fight between Alpine and McLaren over Oscar Piastri that was only resolved by F1's Contracts Recognition Board on the Zandvoort weekend.
But just as F1's 2023 on-track action is not quite as exciting as last year, so too has grand prix racing's annual driver market silly season been quite muted this time around. The theme appears very much to be more of the same in F1 2024, with all the major seats appearing to be locked down until the end of next year.
With Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes - pending Lewis Hamilton finally putting pen to paper - McLaren, Aston Martin, Alpine, and Haas all having their line-ups pretty much set in stone, the key interest seems to revolve around seats at the back end of the grid.
Things there remain in a state of flux: Alfa Romeo is yet to decide if it will stick with Zhou Guanyu, while AlphaTauri will be weighing up Liam Lawson more closely now as it ponders how to progress with Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo.
Logan Sargeant's place at Williams has also emerged as a key target from a number of drivers eager to get themselves on the grid, with speculation having linked both Mick Schumacher and Felipe Drugovich with the squad.
However, there may not be a vacancy there with team principal James Vowles having been clear in public that there will be every reason to continue with the American if he can continue making progress in closing the gap to Alex Albon.
Sargeant looks set to be remaining at Williams despite two heavy crashes over the Zandvoort weekend
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
As Vowles said in Zandvoort: "The rate of learning has to increase now. He's aware of all of that, and I think he has a huge maturity beyond his years. He knows that in front of him is a career and a journey that's within his power to control. And our job is to support him on that journey rather than punish him."
But while things may appear settled on the surface with the driver market, the F1 paddock is a highly-charged fast-moving political environment. Just when you think that things are heading in one direction, something can crop up that sends things off on a completely different tangent.
That is why it is intriguing that trusted paddock sources have suggested that, in recent weeks, Aston Martin has been putting feelers out with several drivers over their future availability as the driver market seems quite open for 2025. Remarkably - although take this with a pinch of salt - it has even been suggested that it could be for as early as next year if things fall into place in the right way.
Insiders suggest that among those who have been sounded out by Aston Martin's Group CEO Martin Whitmarsh, who was believed to have been instrumental in luring Alonso away from Alpine 12 months ago, are Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc. Both men are locked into their current teams for now - Leclerc at Ferrari until the end of next year and Norris until the end of 2025 - so any contact may well have involved simple long-term thinking.
Equally, there is also a truism about the F1 driver market silly season in that it is the duty of every team to speak to every driver and know if they are available because otherwise they are not doing their job. So sometimes such team/driver exchanges do not necessarily mean an intent to poach someone.
However, just the very point of an approach (no matter how informal) at a stage when the driver market seems so settled is intriguing in itself because it comes against the backdrop of fresh speculation over Lance Stroll's future at the Dutch GP.
The Canadian has had a challenging year where things have not clicked as well as they have for new team-mate Fernando Alonso, who has been one of the sensations of the 2023 campaign. The squad should comfortably be second in the constructors' championship based on the performance of the AMR23, but it runs the risk of falling behind Ferrari and ending the year in fourth spot if it does not start getting both cars scoring healthily.
Stroll has contributed just 21.8% of Aston Martin's points tally this year, while Alonso is nearing the end of his career
Photo by: Erik Junius
And while talk of Stroll turning his back on F1 and switching to a tennis career appears to be very wide of the mark, there will have to come a point where, if Aston Martin wants to win the world championship, it needs to know that both its drivers are delivering to the car's maximum potential. If that isn't happening then big decisions need to be taken.
Alonso is the star now but, at 42, the team knows he probably is not someone who will be leading the team in five or 10 years' time, so it's a no-brainer that it gets itself on the front foot in the driver market as it cannot rely on its current duo forever.
The real question is whether Aston Martin's chief concern is trying to line itself up with a short-term replacement or a longer-term talisman, or both. And ultimately someone needs to pull the starting gun on getting 2025 sorted, because no team wants to be left standing when the musical chairs have played out elsewhere.
Against all this too is the back story to Alex Palou's contract saga in IndyCar, after the Spaniard made a U-turn on his plans to join McLaren and instead committed himself to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing. It is suggested that Honda, which will be Aston Martin's works partner from 2026, has been a factor in the Palou situation amid talk it wants him to be a part of its next F1 chapter.
If Palou is indeed viewed as the long-term future of Aston Martin, it is unlikely that a team that has openly set sights on winning the world championship immediately with Honda will think it can do so with a total rookie. That means getting him in early: 2025 at the earliest with 2024 being even better - although unlikely.
The challenge that Aston Martin faces over the next few years in slotting in the right pieces of its driver jigsaw puzzle is fascinating, and one that will certainly weigh on the minds of drivers like Leclerc, who are coming up for more immediate contract negotiations so need to know what other options are out there.
It is also always useful in contract negotiations with your current team to let it be known that someone else is interested too. Speaking before the summer break, Leclerc was open that his first dream for now was sticking with Ferrari, despite obvious interest he has had from elsewhere.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
Photo by: Ferrari
"Of course, I think every driver has considered their different options, once they get the [possibility]," he said. "But I have a huge love of Ferrari. And my first target and my first dream is to become a world champion with Ferrari, more than anything else."
But for any driver in Leclerc's position, having a fall-back plan is essential if such 'first dreams' cannot be achieved. Based on current form, Aston Martin would certainly be a realistic option.
And while the idea of a shock 2024 driver switch involving Aston Martin and any of the current big players like Norris or Leclerc seems unthinkable – as surely the shuffling will only start for 2025 – last year's silly season shenanigans taught us that only fools completely rule out the unthinkable happening.
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