September 18th, 2012 (F1plus / Matt Somerfield).- Eddie Jordan put the speculation game into full swing by announcing he was privy to information relating to Lewis Hamilton making a move to Mercedes. However this rumour alone has not the only impacted Lewis Hamilton, McLaren & Mercedes but it will form the lynch pin in the whole driver market.
Red Bull shrewdly moved earlier in the season to resign Mark Webber for another season and with Sebastian Vettel already on board until the end of 2014 the team can concentrate on racing rather than PR.
Ferrari have Fernando Alonso signed until 2016 further showing his status as number one driver within the team. Meanwhile Felipe Massa's seat with Ferrari has been in doubt all season, a recent climb in form may be enough to warrant his seat for 2013 whilst Sergio Perez spends another season with Sauber. Felipe struggled to come to terms with the F2012 and Pirelli tyres at the start of the season and marked Monaco as a turning point in the season claiming that he finally understood the setup required. It could be no coincidence that Felipe's struggles could be down to Ferrari's decision to run with Front Pull Rod Suspension, with Fernando Alonso being the last driver to utilise it to his advantage in his maiden year at Minardi.
McLaren are obviously at the centre of a battle between themselves and Mercedes over procuring Lewis Hamilton's services for 2013 and beyond. Lewis signed a lucrative deal with McLaren just before the economic downturn and it's understood that McLaren are no longer in a position to fund the same or better deal. Further adding to his requirements are his image rights and the relinquishing of any trophies the driver may win. McLaren have a history of insisting on their drivers being intrinsically linked to the sponsors that McLaren have onboard these image rights alone can be worth many millions if carefully managed and so XIX Entertainment will be fighting to release these from any further contracts Lewis should sign.
Jenson Button meanwhile has already been in this position last year and easily manoeuvred his negotiations whilst also being put in the frame for Red Bull & Ferrari seats. Although the team always give the impression that they favour neither driver it could be argued over the last 2 seasons their development path has been more favourable to Jenson. Could this also be a catalyst in Lewis' thoughts about a switch to Mercedes?
There is a relationship between McLaren and Mercedes which leaves us wondering are the two working on a deal that sees both parties win in the battle for Lewis' signature?
Much has already been talked about the use of Mercedes global platform to catapult Lewis' image to a larger audience but, personally, I feel that if the negotiations are actually taking place he needs to decide if he is a racer or a celebrity.
Mercedes have Nico Rosberg signed for 2013 and beyond but with them courting both Michael Schumacher for a contract extension and Lewis Hamilton to sign on for the team could he be forced to leave the team? Using Rosberg as leverage in a multi faceted driver and engine deal / compromise could see the young German line up alongside Jenson Button for McLaren. Rosberg's driving style is not dissimilar to Jenson's and so could allow McLaren to focus their design process behind the MP4-28 solely on their more conservative attributes.
Michael Schumacher's impact since his return to F1 in 2010 has been low key, however this year has shown that the old dog still has some fight left in him. Schumacher's best chance of further glory lies in the regulation changes of 2014 at which point he will be 45. So can the German convince the board in Stuttgart he can still bring them success or is this why they are moving for Hamilton? I fear without Hamilton's signature either in place of Nico or Michael the German Marque may decide to cut their losses with their own team and re-focus their F1 aims at just being an engine manufacturer.
Lotus in my opinion made a shrewd move when signing Kimi Raikonnen although he had been out of the game for 2 years Kimi had remained competitive in 4 wheel sport. The Finn brings a certain character style that neither McLaren or Ferrari truly harnessed. Kimi's goals are not driven by the celebrity limelight that some require but instead lets his racing do the talking. He is signed with the team for 2013 that may be forced to rename as their sponsorship deal with Group Lotus expires at the end of the season. I have seen Kimi mentioned by McLaren fans as someone to return to the team should Lewis move but personally I cannot see that happening.
Romain Grosjean is undoubtedly a talent having succeeded at varying levels of open wheel racing however his F1 career is always under somewhat of a cloud. Whether it's his first attempt at F1 with the Renault team after Nelson Piquet Jnr was dismissed or his current drive with Lotus. Boullier however is sticking by Romain and although his contract expires at the end of the season I expect he'll remain with the team for 2013.
Sauber are a team on the up, typically Swiss they always seem to be the most neutral of all the F1 teams. However behind close doors they work away on relationships that allow them to keep a foothold in the sport. The use of Sergio Perez who is part of the Ferrari Academy allows the team to create a partnership with Ferrari who also supply their engines, KERS and drivetrain. Notably Checo has been able to use the Pirelli tyres to his advantage throughout 2012 bringing him to the attention of some of the top teams. As part of the Ferrari Academy Checo will undoubtedly have his career manipulated by the Ferrari team whilst Checo joins a long line of drivers drawn into the Hamilton to Mercedes battle as the Daily Mail today infer that McLaren are interested in the Mexican.
Meanwhile Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has said that Checo is not yet ready to join Ferrari and so the temptation of a top seat with McLaren could test his mettle if offered a contract. The largest stumbling block I forsee in a move for Checo to McLaren are his ties to Telmex. Although Telmex are largely a South American concern any deals he currently has with the brand would eliminate him McLaren's radars due to their own involvement with Vodafone. As we can see from the C31 the Mexican's sponsorship is displayed on virtually every corner of the car (Telmex, Claro, Visit Mexico) with the Billionaire Russian Abromovich fronting the rest with his Chelsea logo's. For a team like Sauber that relies heavily on funding from outside sources Checo must remain a driver for the team to continue in F1.
Kamui Kobayshi is a driver that will have warmed most people's hearts when he burst onto the scene with Toyota at Interlagos in 2009. He famously took on Jenson Button who needed to finish well at Interlagos to secure the 2009 Championship. Although Kamui has scored more points already this season than that of 2011, he has been overshadowed by Checo and I'd imagine like many others is struggling with the Pirelli rubber. Kamui is a solid driver and I see no reason for him to be replaced unless the cash strapped Sauber outfit do indeed lose Checo and need to balance the books with 2 sponsored drivers rather than one.
Williams acquired the services of the Venezulean driver Pastor Maldonado for 2011 and retained his services for 2012. I was recently at Williams for the FOTA forum where Sir Frank Williams lauded his driver for his dedication and skill set. I see no reason why Williams would want to replace Pastor as he brings plenty of money to the team and previously had success in GP2 with the Rapax Team.
Bruno Senna joined Williams having previously had arduous seasons behind the wheel of the HRT (2010) and replaced Nick Heidfeld for the end of the 2011 season for Renault. The Brazilian brings his own array of sponsors to the table for Williams and although going almost unsung hasn't had a dissimilar season to Pastor. Rumours are abound that he will be replaced for next season, however unless a driver of much higher talent or one that can bring much more money were to be available I see no reason for him to depart.
Force India have both of their drivers contracted for the 2013 season but have already stated they won't stand in the way of either making moves to higher teams. Both Di Resta and Hulkenberg have been linked with Felipe Massa's Ferrari seat and as possible replacements should Michael Schumacher decide to retire once more. Di Resta has more recently been linked as a replacement for Lewis Hamilton at McLaren should the latter make a switch to Mercedes. This may be fuelled by Di Resta's new management who also looks after Jenson Button.
Toro Rosso have already proven that their driver programme comes first when they ejected both Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguesuari from the 2012 plans. The Red Bull brand use the Toro Rosso team as a platform to find new talent for their senior team with Sebastian Vettel being the benchmark. Daniel Ricciardo jumped the queue during 2011 by being place with HRT in order to access his abilities in advance. With neither Ricciardo or Vergne showing the type of pace that Vettel did in his Toro Rosso days it will be a surprise to no-one if the team start with a fresh line up next season. This will leave the current drivers looking for drives in 2013.
Caterham have had the services of Heikki Kovaleinen throughout their various guises over the last 3 years. It does however seem that Heikki is done with his share of trying to help the team elevate through the grid and rumours have linked him to both Sauber and the seat potentially being vacated by Lewis Hamilton. Heikki has already been part of the McLaren team once in his career and so McLaren and/or himself may be reluctant to revisit the partnership.
Vitaly Petrov found his way to a Caterham seat after a lacklustre performance for the Renault team. I've heard rumour that some of his sponsors are becoming disillusioned by his and Caterham's performances and may withdraw their support at the end of the year. I personally never understood why the Russian didn't find his way to a Marussia seat in the first place but he looks destined for there should the rumours hold firm.
Marussia may well be a further force throughout 2013 with their technical partnership with McLaren bearing fruit. The team have also announced they will run KERS for the first time during 2013 which will give them a much needed boost in order to chase the teams in front. Timo Glock is the lynch pin in the Marussia team and is signed on a multi year contract, however Charles Pic is rumoured to be unhappy and reports have him linked to Caterham, Force India and Sauber for 2013 drives. Marussia could well place Max Chilton in the second seat in place of Pic (Thanks to @MarussiaF1Will for his fan perspective)
HRT the team if they are wanting to progress surely need to recruit some young talent in order to inject both life and money into the team. However De La Rosa's Spanish connection and years of technical experience inside McLaren may well see him keep his seat. Both Dani Clos and Ma Qing Hua have connections with the HRT team and could see their way to at least one of the seats. Meanwhile Antonio Liuzzi still has some connections to the team and could take up one of the seats again. (Thanks to @Lundo888 for an insight who is a HRT fan)
On the fringes – There are plenty of drivers out there that still either warrant a seat or warrant a shot at one but the most likely candidates would be:
Adrian Sutil – Was dispatched by the Force India team but has been touted to be talking to quite a few teams including Ferrari and a return to Force India
Jaime Alguesuari – Toro Rosso driver for 09-11 and currently keeping himself busy with the Pirelli test drivers role.
Lucas Di Grassi – Ex Virgin Racing driver and the previous Pirelli driver has now aligned himself with a test role with FormulaE.
Karun Chandhok – Ex HRT and test driver for Team Lotus in 11 Karun never really had the opportunity to show the talent he may have.
Jerome D'Ambrosio – Currently a reserve driver at Lotus and drove at Monza in place of the banned Grosjean
Sebastien Buemi – Currently a reserve driver for Red Bull Racing
Lewis Hamilton holds the key to a driver market that will unravel when he puts pen to paper and why shouldn't he hold all the cards? Afterall he is a once in a generation driver who transcended the need to start his F1 career at a lower tier team and won a title in his second year (He should really have clinched the title in his maiden year too, although we'll let him have that one)
You have to wonder if his desire to win races and titles can be matched by the Mercedes team. Their only win in 3 years came at a time when almost any team from 7/8 could have won a race as they all battled over understanding the Pirelli tyres.
Lewis' decision needs to be one made from the heart of a racer and not one from the brain of a branding house.