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Analysis

Why stable F1 2024 entry list was calm before driver market storm

We’re still in the first month of 2024 and yet Formula 1 has already seen two significant plays in what is expected to be a hectic contractual silly season.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, the rest of the field at the start of the race

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The twin confirmations of extended deals for Charles Leclerc at Ferrari and Lando Norris at McLaren may not be much of a surprise, and are perhaps less exciting than if either driver was moving elsewhere.

Nevertheless, they are also important statements by both the teams and the drivers, who are making very public displays of faith in each other.

The deals are just the latest steps in a chess game amongst the teams that started slowly last year, with all 20 drivers on the 2023 F1 grid eventually confirmed as staying on for this season – the first time ever that there have been no changes between campaigns.

However, that was the calm before the storm, as we are sure to see a lot more moves ahead of 2025.

Everything that goes on in the driver market over the next 20 or so months has to be considered in the context of the new regulations that come into force in 2026.

At this point no one can judge which of the six power unit suppliers will have the upper hand, and the prospects of newcomers Audi and Ford/Red Bull are a complete unknown.

Every driver wants to do what Lewis Hamilton did when he signed for Mercedes in September 2012, leaving McLaren and positioning himself to have the best power unit and overall car package when the hybrid V6 regulations arrived in 2014.

Leclerc and Norris are only the third and fourth drivers whose contracts now cross over into the new era of 2026 and beyond.

The first to commit was Max Verstappen, whose Red Bull deal runs to 2028, and the second was Oscar Piastri, whose McLaren contract was extended to 2026 last year.

Both teams involved in the latest announcements were coy about the details. Leclerc will now be at Maranello for “several more seasons”, while Norris was already committed to 2025 before extending this to a "multi-year contract.”

We can safely assume that both are firmly secure at their respective teams until at least the end of 2027, presumably with options already in place for after that date.

The only other drivers with deals that extend beyond this season are Lewis Hamilton and George Russell at Mercedes, both of whom are currently on board until the end of 2025.

Everything else is up for grabs for 2025 and thereafter – including a prime seat alongside Verstappen at Red Bull Racing.

As such we are set for a season of speculation and gossip as teams and drivers sound each other out and look to secure the optimum deals before the music stops and seats are filled not just for 2025, but potentially well into the new regulations.

Given that Norris was already safe at McLaren for next season it appeared that there was no hurry for either party to secure their longer-term future together, but clearly both felt that the time was right.

Lando Norris, McLaren, talks to the media

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

Lando Norris, McLaren, talks to the media

It’s no secret that Red Bull’s management has long been keen on Norris and viewed him as a potential team-mate for Verstappen in 2026. By extending his deal Zak Brown and Andrea Stella have put a firm stop to any efforts to tempt him away.

Such a move seemed unlikely in the first part of last year, when McLaren was struggling, and the ongoing debate was along the lines of how long would Norris put up with the frustration of having an uncompetitive car?

The team’s development rate under Stella’s management and subsequent push up the grid in the second half of 2023 changed all that, and McLaren now looks like a good place to be.

Confirmation of the extension of the Mercedes PU supply arrangement until 2030 was the last bit of information that Norris needed before he committed.

For McLaren the new deal sends an important message, one that resonates both externally and internally – two of the very best drivers of the current generation have faith in what we’re doing and where we’re going.

It also takes away all the stress, added to by the inevitable media questioning, that comes when you have drivers with deals that are running out.

“I'm sure when you work here and you have one of your drivers, and you see them getting linked to other teams, that's probably never an easy thing to see,” said Norris today. “And [people are] probably questioning that at times.

“So I think from my side to give everyone here at McLaren, just that bit more confidence within me, and it shows my confidence in the whole team. I think that's really the most important thing.

“They are now even more assured that I'm committed to the team and staying and that I've picked McLaren over Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, whatever team it could have been, they now have that reassurance that I've picked McLaren over all of them. So I think it's more for them than it is for myself.”

With a stable line-up for three seasons McLaren, Norris and Piastri can take a step back and watch while rivals face the potential distraction of the silly season shenanigans.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

“I'm in a good position,” said Norris said. “It's not something that I want to really worry about over the next few years. Obviously, there's always been these discussions going on, on our future.

“And I think it's just a very, very good time, especially when it's going to be coming to a couple of years where things start to get a bit more crazy, with everyone else's contracts and people potentially moving teams and things like that.

“And just going into '26 and those years of new regulations and everything, that's not something I think I or the team want to be thinking of, or focusing on, or spending any time on in such an important couple of years.”

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Thus far Ferrari has only gone halfway to enjoying similar long-term stability. Leclerc was clearly high on the shopping lists of rivals who hoped that he’d become frustrated at Maranello and look elsewhere, and now he’s off the market.

However his team-mate Carlos Sainz remains in limbo, committed only for the coming season, while having made it crystal clear last season that he wants to secure his longer-term future before the 2024 campaign starts. That could yet happen in the coming weeks – if it doesn’t, his future will inevitable be a point of focus and a distraction for driver and team.

Like McLaren the Mercedes team is also out of the driver debate, but only in the short term. It won’t be long before talk turns to what will happen post-2025, and especially whether or not Hamilton – who will turn 41 before the 2026 season starts – will want to extend his career.

Meanwhile, even from next month’s RB20 car launch the spotlight will be on Red Bull and the future of Sergio Perez.

The Mexican will have to make a huge leap this season and be consistently competitive in order to hang onto his seat, which is obviously attractive to drivers up and down the pitlane – with the twin provisos that being Verstappen’s team-mate is not an easy task, and that no one knows how competitive the Ford PU will be.

Similar question marks hang over all engine suppliers, although one has to assume that the current incumbents start from a stronger position, and with more development momentum, than the two newcomers.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

The prospect of a well-paid works Audi seat has obvious appeal, but where will the team be in its first season? Can Honda carry its current class-of-the-field form into then new partnership with Aston Martin? Will Renault do a better job than it did for the last rule change and give Alpine a flying start?

Drivers and their managers will have to make some big calls with the limited information currently at their disposal, while teams with seats available will be looking outside the current entry list for the next Piastri.

“There's no crystal ball for 2026,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner admitted last year. “Who knows who's going to be competitive? There’s going to be completely new chassis regulations, complete new aerodynamic philosophy, so the chassis is going to play a key role.

“The engine is going to play a key role with the split between electrification and combustion, and fuel is going to play a key role in that as well. And so for us, starting from scratch, it's our biggest risk, and it's our biggest opportunity.

“It's going to be an interesting journey, and I'm sure all the engine manufacturers are working incredibly hard.

“We’ve got new manufacturers coming in, and Audi as well. But it is a significantly different challenge to the current set of PU regulations.”

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