10 Sept 2013
Formula One's driver market is always a hive of activity but with 2014 looming its never been more crucial to get the right balance.
Felipe Massa has started the domino effect that could see the Brazilian driver without a decent drive next year. So let's look at what we know and speculate a little on what we don't.
Red Bull have once again made a shrewd decision and locked in their line up early on. Ricciardo was the obvious choice, as installing a driver from outside their young driver academy would be like admitting defeat.
This of course paves the way for another of their young drivers to fill the vacant spot at Toro Rosso with JEV already continuing with the Italian branch of the junior team. Powered by Renault and now under the watchful eye of James Key the team could make an advancement up the field next season. Choosing their next driver will be crucial not only for the longevity of the 'B' team and young driver programme but with 14 representing such a huge challenge Vettel could suddenly find himself with 3 'wing men' rather than just Daniel.
Da Costa, Sainz Jnr and Kyvat are all in the frame for the second seat. Da Costa is perhaps the obvious choice but I'm left wondering is it a year too early for all of these drivers? Especially with the challenge the new powerplants represent, another year doing simulation work focused on the changed characteristics might not be such a bad thing?
But where does that leave Toro Rosso? As budget doesn't seem to be an issue for them they could tease someone like Kovaleinen to take the seat for a year with a performance clause that he gets to stay on for 15..
Ferrari of course have Alonso and although their relationship has been strained throughout this campaign the two were made for one another. Massa's announcement of course paves the way for what many (including myself) have been saying some time now: Kimi Raikonnen will return to Ferrari.
I'd expect a rather rapid announcement from Ferrari now Felipe has let the cat out the bag. The question now is, is it Kimi or will the team sign someone like Hulkenberg or Di Resta?
The logical choice you'd think would be Nico or Paul as they offer longevity but Kimi offers more experience and is a known quantity. Taking Kimi would also represent less future commitment paving the way for Jules Bianchi who will also use Ferrari power next season for Marussia.
Ferrari will realise that whatever their choice they must choose the strongest driver even if it means confrontation from Fernando. This is because they need to stop the stranglehold that Red Bull have on the Constructors championship, returning their team to former glory.
Mercedes & McLaren will both retain their line up as all drivers are either under contract or will have their options taken up. This provides both teams with great continuity going into a difficult season technically.
Lotus have already of course made their intentions clear and are trying to retain Kimi. The problem is that both financial issues and a question mark over their technical team going forward have cast doubt over whether they can appease Kimi.
I'd suggest Grosjean is a safe bet to retain his seat with his connection to Total and the money that brings. Furthermore he is managed by Boullier and so he will be championed by the Frenchman.
Hulkenberg is perhaps the strongest candidate should they be unable to retain the services of Kimi but the news of Massa's severance from Ferrari may sway their decision too.
A rank outsider for the potential spare Lotus seat could be Charles Pic, championed by Renault he too has ties to Total so could bring a welcomed financial boost along with a firm re alignment to Renault.
Force India have yet to confirm their line up but the team have gone as far to say that should Di Resta get a favourable offer they wouldn't stand in his way. This very public admission suggests that they have either grown weary of Paul's vocal damnation or they've been approached by other teams to speak to him.
If Di Resta were to make way I'd suggest Massa would be their best choice as a replacement.
Sauber show all the signs of a team requiring the financial support of 'pay drivers'. The team have already said they are willing to field Sergey Sirotkin should he be able to gain a super license. The Russian money he brings to the team should be enough to secure the teams future but the question remains, do they need Esteban's money too?
Massa could return to the Sauber fold either alongside Esteban or Sergey with either of them taking the reserve drivers role now vacated by Robert Frijns.
Williams will likely retain their 2013 lineup of Maldonado and Bottas with the former bringing plenty of money to a team that will now use Mercedes power. With Pat Symonds now leading the technical team we wait to see if they can rekindle the glory of years gone by.
Caterham and Marussia are of course left at the tail end and will once again rely heavily on the technical partnerships they are trying to forge. Marussia's lineup will remain unchanged but their aspirations could get a boost with the team using the Ferrari powertrain.
Meanwhile Caterham obviously have their links with Renault through the Alpine connection. The placement of Pic with the team was supposed to be a stepping stone and I've already alluded to a potential option for him at Lotus. Should they lose Pic the team will likely need a driver that brings further funding essentially ruling out a return for Heikki.
On the fringes:
Heikki Kovaleinen, testing with Caterham, has spent time with Renault and McLaren before trying to propel Caterham up the grid. The Finn doesn't have financial backing and so now struggles to convince teams on his talent alone.
Kamui Kobayshi, AF Corse WEC driver has often been touted as the next big thing as he burst onto the scene in 09. Another driver that has to rely solely on his talent it now seems he must work outside F1 for a while.
Vitaly Petrov, ex Renault/Caterham driver does have some financial backing and with F1 going to Russia in 2014 could be used as a mule to further that agenda.
Sam Bird, Mercedes test driver has impressed many this season at the wheel of his Russian Time GP2 car but can he get an F1 drive?
Robert Frijns, ex Sauber test driver has also impressed in all the categories he has raced in. His problem like many though is he lacks funding and remains the key reason why he has been dropped by Sauber.
There are of course many other drivers that could be considered worthy (think of the drivers that have been lost over the last few years or sit on the sidelines: Di Grassi, Senna, Piquet Jnr, D'Ambrosio, Heidfeld, Glock, etc etc but with only 22 slots on the grid it's not always about talent...