Sepang paddock struck with Silly Season fever
With Renault, Williams and (apparently) Force India yet to confirm their drivers for the 2017 season, there are six highly coveted seats up for grabs which has triggered a bout of Silly Season fever as the Formula 1 circus sets up tent for the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend.
At Silverstone earlier this year, Force India management were adamant (and still are) that their drivers – Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg – would be retained for 2017.
The team’s sporting boss Otmar Szafnauer told Auto Motor und Sport, “We don’t have to announce anything. We have contracts with Hulkenberg and Perez.”
But it is well known that Perez and his backers are exploring alternatives. Williams and Renault are attractive options for the Mexican who is getting impatient regarding his future.
He told journalists at Sepang, “At the moment I am just considering one team. There are some other options on the table, quite interesting options but at the moment I hope that it works out with one team.”
“If it doesn’t happen by next week we will have to look at something else. Obviously I want to keep my career in Formula One going so I cannot wait much longer,” added Perez.
Now GMM reports that Hulkenberg is also being linked with a switch to Renault, which the German denies, “There’s nothing to it. As far as I know, Checo and I will be at Force India next year.”
The Renault seats have been a focal point of the Silly Season, with many pundits believing that pay driver Jolyon Palmer is on his way out at the end of the year, while Kevin Magnussen has hardly been stellar in his return to the F1 grid with the French team.
Esteban Ocon has until the end of this month (yes just a few days) to take up an offer to ditch his Mercedes deal and sign-up for Renault. If the young Frenchman opts for this then one seat still remains with the team.
Also very much in the frame for a Renault seat is Carlos Sainz. Despite denials from the Spaniard and Red Bull, there is reason to believe a deal has already been struck. The switch back to Renault power by the Red Bull owned Toro Rosso apparently played a role in the deal.
Sainz moving to Renault would pan out well for Red Bull who could then retain Daniil Kvyat and promote highly rated junior driver Pierre Gasly onto the the F1 grid. Alternatively, Sainz staying with the team would force Helmut Marko to choose between Kvyat and Gasly.
Meanwhile, Perez and his backers are said to be in talks with Renault, with Hulkenberg apparently also in the picture as well as Magnussen and Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn admitted this week to ESPN that he did not know what colours he would be wearing in 2017, but added, “One thing is for sure, I know I am going to be racing, but for which team is not sure yet.”
Williams look more than likely to confirm teenager Lance Stroll, son of billionaire clothing magnate Lawrence Stroll, who will bring with him a bundle of useful cash for the team.
The second seat appears to have Bottas’ name on it, but should this not transpire then the Finn is said to have an option to join Renault.
“It’s a fact that I am going to have new teammate whatever happens,” Bottas told media in Sepang. “But I can’t say much more than that really. I’m pretty pleased with how things are moving forward.”
Bottas moving away from Williams is likely to trigger Perez moving to the Grove outfit, which in turn will free up a seat at Force India.
The team has an uncertain future right now, with owner Vijay Mallya deep in all sorts of cash draining trouble. Thus they will most certainly be looking for a pay driver or two.
Enter Giedo van der Garde, Alfonso Celis Jr and a host of drivers carrying loads of money bags or even Pascal Wehrlein with discounted Mercedes engines to barter.
Then of course there is the Kimi Raikkonen situation [Editor: yes this Silly Season is getting very goofy but we have to report what comes our way] which is that the Iceman is not a 100% certainty for 2017 with the Maranello squad.
Ferrari did announce a one year extension to his contract earlier in the year to stifle calls by Italian media to ditch the Finn, but it is now emerging that the deal is dependent on how Raikkonen performs this year. In other words, it’s not quite as sure as it seems.
Team chief Maurizio Arrivabene, a staunch Raikkonen advocate, is adamant that retaining the 2007 Formula 1 world champion was the right thing to do.
But then it is hardly certain that the Marlboro Man will still be in the saddle of the cavallino rampante come 2017 – ask Sergio Marchionne…
But that’s another story altogether!