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Analysis
Formula 1 British GP

How Perez and Antonelli have stalled Formula 1’s driver market

Formula 1’s driver market looks to have frozen again, as rumours swirl around Red Bull and Mercedes’ 2025 seats

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Photo by: Erik Junius

A couple of weeks ago, Formula 1’s driver market had been expected to quickly fall into place once the first domino of Carlos Sainz’s choice for 2025 became clear.

As F1 left the Monaco Grand Prix, the options for the Spaniard had appeared to pretty much distil down to a straight choice between Williams and Sauber/Audi.

With the golden seats at Red Bull and Mercedes looking gone, as Sergio Perez closed in on his new contract and Andrea Kimi Antonelli being lined-up to make the step up from F2, there seemed little point in Sainz holding out any more for those.

The pros and cons for Sainz in both Williams and Audi projects were pretty clear for all to see, and it seemed to be a simple task for Sainz of sitting down in a room, with his options on a table in front of him, and making a decision that was best for him.

Both meant joining exciting long-term projects, but it was a question of which could potentially offer more in the short term – especially with the uncertainty that 2026 power unit rules have thrown into the mix.

But the arrival of Flavio Briatore at Alpine as an advisor to Renault CEO Luca de Meo ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix suddenly reignited interest from the French manufacturer – as it appeared eager to get on the front foot with nailing its 2025 drivers rather than sitting back. Pierre Gasly's deal was signed off, and an offer made to Sainz.

And, where once the Alpine project had a lot of doubts over it because of its power unit situation, the increasingly likely possibility of it abandoning its works Renault project for a customer deal – perhaps even Mercedes – certainly made it more of an attractive option.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A524, leads Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A524, leads Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

That is why Sainz suddenly wanted more time before making his final commitment. This delay left Williams slightly frustrated; its desire to slot a race-winning driver in as Alex Albon’s team-mate next year meant the team didn’t want to be left standing if its preferred option made an 11th hour call to go elsewhere.

PLUS: If Sainz joins Alpine, who is Williams' best F1 option for 2025?

But as Sainz continued pondering, and did not want to rush things amid the chaos of F1’s triple header where there is little time for anyone to catch a breath, the driver market situation has now become even more complicated. Doors that Sainz thought had been long shut suddenly became ajar again.

Perez’s lacklustre performances for Red Bull, at a time when it looks set to come under growing pressure in the constructors’ championship, has fuelled questions about whether or not he will remain a part of the team long-term despite sealing his two-year contract extension.

Red Bull is not shying away from the fact that Perez has to do better – there are no ifs and buts about that – and it has begun putting some thoughts to what could be a Plan B if it cannot help the Mexican turn things around.

The difficulty it has is that there are no obvious stand-out candidates that are a dead cert to slot into the second Red Bull seat, if it thinks a change is needed.

Its comfort blanket of Daniel Ricciardo is fighting to save his F1 career after an up-and-down season for RB, while Yuki Tsunoda, despite his natural speed, is understood to have not yet convinced Red Bull’s senior management that he has what it takes for the pressure intensity of fighting for wins.

Autosport revealed on Saturday that reserve Liam Lawson could now be a surprise contender for Red Bull, with plans for a 200km filming day run for the Kiwi in its 2024 car at Silverstone next week.

While this is billed as a marketing exercise, there is little doubt that the engineers will be poring over his data to try to get a gauge of where he stacks up in taming the RB20.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 Team VCARB 01

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 Team VCARB 01

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

If Lawson is deemed not up to it yet, then on paper, Sainz would appear to be another obvious choice for Red Bull. He is a race-winner, he has a ton of experience, he is renowned for his technical prowess, and does not come with the kind of political baggage that some other potential talent has.

However, counting against him is a history with Max Verstappen as the pair – and perhaps more especially their fathers – did not get on brilliantly when they raced at Toro Rosso in 2015 and the start of 2016.

With Red Bull obviously eager not to bring in any element that could destabilise its current star man, factors outside the track may dictate Sainz’s chances there if Red Bull goes for a change.

At Mercedes, the door appears to have opened a little bit for Sainz with Mercedes now perhaps pondering whether or not 17-year-old Antonelli should be moved up to F1 next year, or given another year elsewhere.

The Italian’s maiden F2 victory in the sprint race at Silverstone will have boosted his chances, but equally even he admits that he has had a difficult few events where things have not clicked.

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Speaking at Silverstone, Antonelli said: “I have to say that in the first part of the season, I was improving pretty well and then, at the last couple of rounds, I wasn’t performing well because I made too many mistakes, despite the car getting better.

“On the last two weekends, I didn’t really perform. But I think this weekend, the car is feeling pretty good. Even in the dry on Friday, it felt pretty good.”

But as Mercedes looks increasingly competitive, having locked out the front row of the grid for the British Grand Prix, the German manufacturer will have to weigh up whether the pressure of thrusting a rookie into an environment where he has to immediately deliver wins could perhaps be counter-productive.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema Racing

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema Racing

Photo by: Prema Powerteam

This situation could be why Mercedes boss Toto Wolff talked of some fascinating things going on with drivers that could tempt him.

“The driver market at the moment is quite a dynamic, interesting thing,” he said.

“I think because some of the drivers have more options and some of the teams have more options. So, it's interesting….”

While that debate goes on, it means from Sainz’s perspective that silly season is pretty much back to where it was near the start of the campaign – where the chance of a seat with one of F1’s big-hitters is still there.

It has been pretty clear throughout the past few months that the last thing Sainz wants to do is commit to one project, only to see something better become free later on.

From the outside, it appears that Sainz’s choices have become ever-more complex amid the Red Bull and Mercedes uncertainty, but from his perspective he says it has never been a simple call to make.

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“It's always been complicated,” he said. “It's never been easy. It's never been as simple as you guys would put it on the media.

“That's why I've never taken a decision because it's never been easy and straightforward and clear cut to take a decision. So, I'm always going wait if it's not easy.”

F1’s silly season may have started early, but it looks like it is going to drag on for a while yet.

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