Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe

The dilemma faced by players in F1's "uncomfortably early" driver carousel

Formula 1's driver market may remain dependent on Red Bull and Mercedes, but not everyone can afford to wait for the biggest dominoes to fall.

Valtteri Bottas, Kick Sauber F1 Team C44, leads Zhou Guanyu, Kick Sauber F1 Team C44, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, and Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

The unique situation of over half the grid being out of contract for 2025, including some of F1's leading drivers, has led to one of the most highly anticipated silly seasons in history.

The sheer number of seats up for grabs ahead of a crunch regulations change in 2026 was always going to lead to an early start to the merry-go-round, but Lewis Hamilton's shock decision to leave Mercedes for Ferrari next year has taken things up another notch, with drivers and teams having to start engaging in talks before a wheel had been turned in Bahrain testing.

One throwaway line from Williams' Alex Albon, who has also been the subject of speculation but has a valid Williams contract for 2025, summed up the situation well.

"It's inevitable... everyone's seen how early it's taking place and it's been a bit uncomfortably early for a lot of teams as well as drivers I can imagine," Albon said about how early off-track talks have impacted the start of the year.

Since Hamilton's bombshell news, Fernando has pinned his colours to the mast of his current Aston Martin team, while Nico Hulkenberg has agreed to move to Sauber in 2025 to help it move into its Audi era.

The main hold-up remains the situation at Red Bull, with the news that design legend Adrian Newey is set to depart the team, which could impact whether or not Max Verstappen will commit to see out his 2028 contract.

Mercedes is still awaiting a firm decision by Verstappen before it moves to replace Hamilton, having time on its side to see how its youngster Andrea Kimi Antonelli develops in F2 and private F1 testing.

Sainz, the driver displaced by Hamilton, also appears to hold out for other top team opportunities before committing to a lucrative Audi deal that has been ready for him for weeks, with Audi F1 CEO Andreas Seidl keen to sign both the Spaniard and Hulkenberg as his plan A line-up.

“For sure, my best options are still open which is something that quite obviously requires a bit of time, given the situation of the market," Sainz said in China.

"It’s going to take some time for everyone to make up their own minds and take their decisions, but the good options are still open. There hasn’t been any progress over the last couple of weeks."

"Obviously, the sooner everything develops, the better. It’s not like it’s affecting my performance this year, but the earlier that you take it out of your head, the better. But it requires time and it requires some decision-making.”

Sainz's fate further impacts Sauber's incumbent drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu. At least one of them - if not both - is set to leave following the Hulkenberg announcement, so they too needed to get on the phone and start dialling.

"I feel like things will start happening quite soon," Bottas said.

"There are not that many falling pieces anywhere. But of course, there are questions on certain drivers, like what is Carlos gonna do? What's Mercedes going to do?

"I would say, ideally within the next few weeks, things are starting to get sorted. I'm working on it for sure and talks have started, so it should be an interesting few weeks."

Bottas is adamant he has other options for next year, adding his focus is "all 100% F1".

Valtteri Bottas, Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber

Valtteri Bottas, Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Audi has been accused in certain quarters, such as Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, of putting "pressure" on the driver market by coming in early with big-money offers for Sainz, who has also been of interest to Red Bull.

But if it does get to sign Sainz, that means that its strategy will have worked to go all-in on its number one targets rather than being indecisive and risk them being taken off the board by rivals.

With there expected to be at least one if not two rookies in 2025, in the form of Haas candidate Oliver Bearman and Mercedes prodigy Antonelli, taking an 'uncomfortably' swift decision is a consideration that more drivers and teams will need to make.

In a volatile market, how much longer can you hedge your bets and wait for a more attractive opportunity, yet risk losing out on the game of musical chairs completely?

That dilemma is not just relevant for Bottas and Zhou, but also for other midfield players including out-of-contract Alpine duo Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, with the former also an option for Audi as a Sainz alternative.

Red Bull and RB will have to solve the Liam Lawson conundrum, who is free to sign for rivals if he doesn't land a seat for one of its teams in 2025, while Williams has its own decisions to make regarding Logan Sargeant's seat. It will want to give the American a bit more time after backing him for a second season in the first place, but how long does it really have?

The key to the driver market might still be in Verstappen's and Sainz's hands, but not everyone can afford to wait and see what it unlocks.

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Archive: Why Prost and Senna's bitter feud healed
Next article Vettel to drive Senna's 1993 McLaren in F1 Imola tribute

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe