2014 driver market: A look at the remaining places

Even with Daniel Ricciardo’s signing to Red Bull, the F1 2014 silly season hasn’t gotten any less silly. With the most unpredictable driver movements in years, I’m fully expecting more surprises to come before the end of this year.

It’s astoundingly early for me to be writing something like this, but with so many changes around the corner, it seems that the teams want everything to be sorted prior to the chaotic 2014 season. Let’s have a look at the teams and their driver choices (or options) for next year:

Red Bull

Certain: Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo

Is Red Bull’s new driver a breath of fresh air, or another failed attempt to rival Sebastian Vettel? The on-track and politics play will be fascinating to watch, as both drivers will be pushed to prove themselves.

Ricciardo expects to be performing close to Vettel by “mid-season” next year. It’s a brave statement, but with the pace we’ve seen in the last 3 years, it’s not out of the question.

Sebastian, meanwhile, will be doing his best to rally the team around him, to ensure his status as 3 (or 4)-time champion will be respected. I can’t see anyone other than Vettel doing better next year, so it’s just a matter of what margin is between them.

Ferrari

(Almost) certain: Fernando Alonso

Possible: Nico Hulkenberg, Kamui Kobayashi, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa

Outside chance: Jules Bianchi

It would be a huge shock if Fernando Alonso were to move teams, but rumours of a switch with Kimi Raikkonen are still doing the rounds. But this is extremely unlikely – he has all the support he needs at the Scuderia, the only variable is their technical proficiency for their 2014 car.

His future teammate provokes a much more interesting debate though. Hulkenberg and Kobayashi both possess capable speed, and also would not be able to threaten Alonso’s #1 status, to his relief. Felipe Massa is the safer option, but if Ferrari ever want to even challenge for the constructor’s championship, they’ll have to do better than a has-been.

Running Kimi Raikkonen has been predicted by many, but this would go against Ferrari’s long-standing tradition of having one top driver, and one supporting driver. Having Kimi and Fernando on the same team risks destabilising the team, and I don’t think it’s worth the (potential) rewards.

Jules Bianchi is undoubtedly making noises at their upper management, but it doesn’t make sense for him to be racing at a top team just yet. One year in a team like Sauber or Force India would be better for his development.

Mercedes

Certain: Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

Is Mercedes’ line-up the strongest on the grid? It seems to be the case this year, but depending on Ferrari’s or Lotus’ movements, it may not be the case in 2014.

There’s not too much else to say – Hamilton seems to have the edge on Rosberg, but both seem to be keeping good relations with each other, which is excellent for team stability. I doubt we’ll see any driver changes here for a few years.

Lotus

Possible: Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Paul di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Valtteri Bottas,

Outside chance: Pastor Maldonado, Sergio Perez, Jules Bianchi

Many of you will be surprised I named so many drivers, but there’s a reason for each of them being there. Much of it depends on the decision of Kimi Raikkonen.

If he stays, Lotus are free to choose whatever up-and-coming driver they like, with few issues. There’s plenty to be nominated here – Hulkenberg, the Force India drivers, Bottas, or maybe even Jules Bianchi. Take your pick.

If he leaves, the team will require someone new with technical knowledge and experience. Hulkenberg, Di Resta and Sutil are again nominations here, but there’s a vast range of older drivers that can be chosen, and way too many to be listed here.

However, it must also be noted that Lotus have overspent in recent years, with not enough FIA prize money to make up the difference. If this proves to be a problem, Pastor Maldonado’s massive paycheck may turn out to be the deciding factor. It must be said though, lining him up with Romain Grosjean would be a disaster for Turn 1 marshals everywhere.

McLaren

Probable: Jenson Button, Sergio Perez

Outside chance: Nico Hulkenberg, Paul di Resta

While both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez are contracted through to 2014, both they and the team hold options to cancel the contract. It is unlikely either driver will execute this – Button has little to no chance of moving to a faster team, while Perez surely wishes to develop more at the team.

In the strange scenario where either driver left, a promising midfield driver would be waiting to take their place. Hulkenberg and Di Resta are the standard choices here.

Sauber

Probable: Sergey Sirtokin

Possible: Jules Bianchi, Robin Frijns, Stoffel Vandoorne, Kevin Magnussen

I don’t approve of Sirtokin being promoted to F1 this early, but it’s not my call to make. Sauber have gained financial stability with this deal, and if it keeps them afloat, then in the long run it’s the correct call for the team. Sergey’s drive still depends on an FIA superlicense, but this shouldn’t prove to be an issue.

Their choice of second driver gives them plenty of options. McLaren may push their two young drivers – Magnussen and Vandoorne – through the ranks of F1, and it wouldn’t harm the Hinwil-based squad, seeing as they are so highly rated.

Otherwise, Robin Frijns is still hounding teams for an F1 seat, but his sponsor issues will cause massive issues with a team like Sauber. Other GP2 drivers like Marcus Ericsson are an option, but we haven’t heard any rumours yet. Again, Jules Bianchi may make a step up the ladder, more than likely tied into a Ferrari engine deal as part of a package deal.

Force India

Probable: James Calado, Paul di Resta, Adrian Sutil

Possible: Robin Frijns, Sam Bird

While Di Resta and Sutil are reliable options, the hiring of James Calado for FP1 sessions this year is surely a statement of intent from Force India. Which of these three gets the two race seats is subject to much speculation.

It must also be noted that Force India and Mercedes are continuing their technical partnership, and this may possibly involve drivers as well. Sam Bird tested for Mercedes previously, and he may make the step up to F1 through FI.

Toro Rosso

Possible: Antonio Felix da Costa, Carlos Sainz Jr, Jean-Eric Vergne

Outside chance: Stefano Coletti

While Vergne has been promised a drive by Toro Rosso for next year, he would do well to not trust this – see Jaime Alguersuari for more information.

Antonio Felix da Costa and Carlos Sainz Jr. are both highly rated youngsters, either of which would make a fine addition to the squad. Both drivers have been seen in negotiations with the team, and I expect to see at least one of them in F1 in 2014.

Stefano Coletti is a former member of the Red Bull young driver programme, and his current GP2 performances might convince Toro Rosso to hire him, but it’s a long shot.

Williams

Probable: Valtteri Bottas

Possible: Pastor Maldonado,  Daniel Juncadella

Outside chance: Robin Frijns

While Bottas has impressed me massively in his debut year so far, it makes no sense for him to move up the ladder this early. Another year of development with Williams is the most sensible option for the Finn.

Pastor Maldonado’s future depends on an ivory checkbook as usual, and whether PDVSA will continue to fund his racing is still unclear at this point. His main rival for the seat would be Daniel Juncadella, who tested for the team last year. What sponsorship he brings to the table is unknown.

Caterham

Probable: Charles Pic, Alexander Rossi, Heikki Kovalainen

Possible: Giedo van der Garde, Will Stevens

Despite being a backmarker team, Caterham are spending an unusually large of money to move up the field, so drivers bringing sponsorship are to be expected at this point.

Heikki Kovalainen’s refusal to become a pay driver may hurt his chances, but he’s still a solid driving talent. Otherwise, Alexander Rossi might move up from the Caterham GP2 team, or Will Stevens might impress the team enough from his performances in FR3.5.

Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde may be kept on, but all cards are still on the table at this point.

Marussia

Possible: Jules Bianchi, Robert Wickens, Tio Ellinas, many GP2 drivers

Outside chance: Max Chilton, Rodolfo Gonzalez, Raffaele Marciello, Daniel Zampieri, Mirko Bortolotti

For Jules Bianchi to stay at Marussia for another year would be a disappointment, but if he can’t find another drive, it’ll have to do. Test drivers Robert Wickens and Tio Ellinas may also be considered for a drive, and these rumours have been further encouraged by their participation at the Young Drivers Test for Marussia.

Of course, slower pay drivers may be required to keep the team afloat. If this is the case, Max Chilton may be called upon again for a second year, or he may be switched out for Rodolfo Gonzalez, although his performances in GP2 last year don’t inspire much confidence. Many of the drivers in GP2 this year may be able to muster up some sponsorship, depending on how well they perform in the last 3 races of their season.

With an engine deal with Ferrari in place, they may opt to tie in a driver as part of their deal. Raffaele Marciello, Daniel Zampieri and Mirko Bortolotti are all nominations here, seeing as they are all part of Ferrari’s promising young driver academy, although Marcielli is probably too young for a seat at this stage.

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