With the 2016 season ticking down, and many eyes turning to next year, the seats on the grid are starting to dwindle. Laura Leslie and Rob Watts look at four drivers whose futures are still uncertain – Valterri Bottas, Esteban Ocon, Pascal Wehrlein and Kevin Magnussen – and give their views on who goes where for 2017.
Laura Leslie: A very capable young man who gradually got the upper hand on Felipe Massa over their three years together. Unfortunately with Massa at the late stage of his career, it doesn’t give a fair reflection on just how good Bottas may, or may not, be.
Williams team members really like Bottas. He’s friendly, trustworthy and likes playing the team game when required. A safe pair of hands indeed. Perhaps too safe?
He knows Williams and with Lance Stroll coming on board for 2017, it’s clear Williams need a driver with experience; Bottas fits the bill perfectly. However there are rumours that suggest, and they may be well wide of the mark, Stroll’s father Lawrence wants his son to have a team-mate who won’t threaten Lance like Bottas should.
Now with those kinds of rumbles going around it perhaps comes as no surprise that Bottas is still talking with Renault about 2017. He wants a works team deal as he knows that’s his best chance at a title in the coming years. Renault already have an experienced driver on board with Nico Hulkenberg so Bottas isn’t an essential piece in their puzzle. However, it would be daft of Renault to pass over on Bottas without at least some kind of negotiation with him. After all with Ocon still technically being a Mercedes junior driver, he isn’t the dead cert for the second seat some believe him to be.
Then there’s the Ferrari card. It was well known Bottas was gunning for Kimi Raikkonen’s seat in 2017. The get-out clause from Williams frightening the bank of Ferrari off for now. He could still be on the radar should Raikkonen, or dare I even say Sebastian Vettel, underperform next year.
Overall view? Bottas will stay with Williams on a one plus one deal, take an increased paycheck and thump Stroll in 2017. Dependent on Williams performance he may get another shot at a works team in 2018.
Rob Watts: Valtteri Bottas has grown to become a very safe pair of hands for Williams, but as his nine podiums have demonstrated, he can also be lightning quick on his day. He’s consistently beaten his more experienced teammate Felipe Massa over their three years together, but it’s difficult to say he has dominated him.
Bottas is both liked and trusted by the Williams team and with Felipe Massa moving on, it’s no surprise that they are keen for him to sign a new contract. But there lies the problem for Bottas; does he re-sign for another two years, or jump ship now?
It’s rumoured that he wants a one-year deal so that he’s still on the market should Ferrari part ways with Kimi Raikkonen at the end of 2017. He’ll be lucky to get such a flexible deal from Williams as they’ll understandably want some commitment from their lead driver.
With Williams expected to sign the well-financed Canadian rookie Lance Stroll, there is a risk that if Stroll beats Bottas, or even runs him close, his chances of driving for a front running team may be finished.
Right now, I don’t honestly see Bottas going to Renault, especially as they’ve now signed Hulkenberg. My gut feeling will be that Bottas and Williams will reach an agreement, possibly a one-year deal with a break clause if Williams are lower than third in the constructors’ championship at a certain point in the season. Whether he gets his dream Ferrari move after that, who knows?
Rob Watts: Esteban Ocon burst onto the F1 scene this year, and has done a respectable job in his short time alongside Pascal Wehrlein at Manor. Ocon has a number of admirers in the pit lane, but his contractual situation complicates things a little.
Ocon is a Mercedes junior driver, on loan at Renault and more recently drafted in at Manor. He was Renault’s third driver for the first half of the season before an opportunity to race came about due to Rio Haryanto’s sponsor troubles. Renault are known to be admirers of Ocon’s ability, but so too are Manor, Force India, and his employers Mercedes, with Toto Wolff describing him as “mega talented”.
Whilst many people assume that Ocon is nailed on for a Renault seat next season, I’m not so sure. I just don’t see him driving for a manufacturer team like Renault whilst retaining a contract with Mercedes. Mercedes will probably also be keen to retain some control over his career path after missing out on signing Verstappen a couple of years back.
I think a Renault offer may be on the table for Ocon, but the possibility of a Mercedes drive for 2019 might just see him remain at Manor for next year.
Laura Leslie: Ocon seems a far more simple man to place in silly season. He is a Mercedes junior, but Renault are interested in him. Then Nico Hulkenberg joined Renault. The vacant seat Hulkenberg has left behind at Force India could be rather lucrative. They are on course to finish fourth in the WCC as it stands and have already grabbed two podium placings in 2016.
It is understood that Mercedes could decide to place Ocon alongside Sergio Perez ahead of current Manor team-mate, and fellow Mercedes junior, Pascal Wehrlein. In 2015 Wehrlein did some testing for Force India and the word was the team were not as impressed with the young German as Mercedes had hoped they would be. On the other hand, they were far more impressed with Ocon when he tested for the team in Barcelona last year.
Should Mercedes let Ocon go from their junior programme, Renault would likely swoop in for the Frenchman immediately. They would be incredibly silly if they knew Ocon was available yet continued to pursue Bottas. Renault must look towards the future and a large number of paddock personalities would rate Ocon a better investment than Bottas if looking at the next decade. Let’s not forget Ocon has already tested for the Renault team numerous times so knows the car and knows the team members, Renault want consistency ahead of the big rule changes next year. Magnussen may still play a part but one imagines this would only be if Renault can’t tie Ocon or Bottas down.
Ocon could also be forced into staying at Manor for a full season in 2017, the team like him and it would keep him within the Mercedes family for now.
My prediction for Ocon? He’ll sign with Renault for 2017. Ocon seems to be the one thing the entire Renault management team agree on, he could be the gel that finally binds a wandering team together.
Laura Leslie: The Mercedes junior driver has had an up and down first season with Manor. A point in Austria was a fantastic highlight for the young German and he handily showed Rio Haryanto the door early in the year.
However, his pace against new arrival Esteban Ocon hasn’t been quite as impressive as perhaps you’d expect. Ocon out qualified Wehrlein in Malaysia and Japan, and he also outraced him around Suzuka. The pressure is on Wehrlein for the remainder of 2016 to prove he is still Mercedes best junior prospect.
There are two options for Wehrlein in 2017; Manor or Force India. Mercedes will ultimately decide where he goes but the rumour is Force India don’t want him after being unimpressed with his technical feedback following his tests with them last year, and that they would prefer Ocon.
I think we’ll see him stay at Manor in 2017 unless Force India can be persuaded by Mercedes to take him. I haven’t been convinced completely so far and another year at Manor could be the making of him. A year alongside an established and confident Sergio Perez at Force India may result in disaster for an unsure Wehrlein.
Rob Watts: Pascal Wehrlein has done a solid job in his first year in Formula One, and scored the team’s only point this year with a tenth place in Austria. That may not sound a lot, but if it means they finish ahead of Sauber, it could be worth several million in prize money.
Like Ocon, Wehrlein has a long-term contract with Mercedes and was originally part of their DTM programme before moving to F1 with Manor. He seems un-phased by Ocon’s arrival at the team and has impressed me with his pace for the majority of this season.
It’s well known that Wehrlein has been talking to Force India recently and my feeling is that a deal will be agreed for him to partner Sergio Perez next season. It’s worth remembering that he’s well known to the team having tested for them in 2015, and through his Mercedes links, Force India seems a good fit for him.
In fact, there have also been rumours of Force India being offered a discount on their Mercedes engine deal should they take Wehrlein, so right now, the signs suggest that Wehrlein will be moving up the grid next year.
Rob Watts: Kevin Magnussen’s situation is a difficult one. He’s proved on occasions that he has tremendous speed, but once again, that doesn’t seem to be quite enough to ensure his long-term future in the sport.
When Magnussen was let go from McLaren, Ron Dennis explained that Kevin “hadn’t met their objectives” despite fairing well on track during his debut season, and if he loses his seat a second time, you have to wonder whether F1 is going to work out for him.
Many drivers don’t get a second chance in this sport, and for him to be given a third would be surprising. In fairness to Magnussen, the 2016 Renault is a very poor car and it’s been difficult for him to fully display his ability, but it won’t help his cause that Jolyon Palmer has upped his game and begun to outpace him in recent months.
Magnussen’s commitment has been questioned and his laid back approach may not lend itself too well to being a team leader. My feeling is that Magnussen’s career is at a crossroads, but he may just get one more chance to prove himself. I’d expect to see him re-sign to partner Nico Hulkenberg at Renault for 2017, but if that doesn’t materialise, I fear Kevin Magnussen’s F1 career may be at an end.
Laura Leslie: After a difficult spell at McLaren, Magnussen joined Renault this year with a lot to prove, in my opinion. He didn’t challenge Jenson Button as much as expected in 2014; if anything Button gradually began to thump the Dane late in that season. The last thing he needed was the year on the sidelines Ron Dennis dished out to him in 2015.
Renault handed him a lifeline alongside Jolyon Palmer for 2016. He started the season well and looked well on his way to roasting Palmer in their head-to-head. However in the last few races, particularly since Hungary, Magnussen seems to have either fallen down to Palmer’s performance or he has no answer to the Brit’s improvement. This would appear to have hurt his chances of staying at Renault in 2017; after all, it’s no secret that the team don’t rate Palmer as a future prospect.
A few weeks ago it seemed fairly clear that Magnussen would probably scrape into a second season in yellow, probably alongside Esteban Ocon who Renault desperately want to snatch away from Mercedes clutches. However, the recent signing of Nico Hulkenberg has thrown a rather large spanner in Magnussen’s works.
The Dane has fallen from a second choice seat at the team for 2017, all the way down to fourth choice behind Hulkenberg, Esteban Ocon and Valtteri Bottas. Talks are still ongoing between Renault and Bottas. Presumably Mercedes have tightened their hold on Ocon and, as a result, Renault feel they have to consider other options.
How all this crinkles out depends on Ocon at the moment. If Renault want him enough then they will buy him out of his Mercedes junior contact. If not then Magnussen must wait on the Bottas talks, although personally, I think Bottas will stay with Williams in the end.
Prediction for Magnussen? If Ocon falls off Renault radar he’ll get a one-year deal to partner Hulkenberg in 2017. Renault need consistency as they strive to get themselves up the order. A Hulkenberg/Magnussen pairing would be solid, if unspectacular, perfect for a team like Renault right now; think of them like Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button were to Renault in 2002.
If Renault pick Ocon, then Magnussen may be left chasing a pay drive at Manor or Sauber. This is the stage I would advise he chase that rumoured IndyCar deal. Better a decent, and permanent, drive in America than a fairly poor one in Formula One.