Next year’s F1 driver market is set to be the most open and enthralling in recent memory. Rob Watts looks at the big dilemma facing some of the key drivers as they decide whether to stay put or make a move for 2019.

Here’s a question for you, and be honest. When Lewis Hamilton announced four years ago that he was leaving McLaren for Mercedes, did you honestly believe he’d now be a three-time world champion with 60 Grand Prix wins to his name?

I suspect not.

At the end of 2012, Mercedes had just a single Grand Prix victory to show from three seasons back in F1, and many people, myself included, thought that the 2008 champion was on the verge of career suicide. Fortunately for Hamilton, he didn’t share that opinion and was prepared to take a risk.

Not only could he see potential in Mercedes, but he’d grown frustrated with life at McLaren and its inability to give him a consistently quick and reliable car. With some encouragement from Niki Lauda [Mercedes-Benz vice-chairman], Hamilton made the call to switch, and it turned out to be probably the best decision he’s made in his entire career.

On the flip side, let’s consider Fernando Alonso’s career path.

At the end of 2006, the then twenty-five-year-old had won fifteen Grands Prix and was a double world champion; all achieved in just four seasons in F1. He was the hottest property in world motorsport, and his move to McLaren for 2007 seemed like a dream move.

Surely, Alonso would now go on to dominate the sport much like Michael Schumacher had done so before him?

Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso has famously made some poor career choices during his career – Image: Octane Photography

Unfortunately for Alonso, things didn’t turn out as planned and the dream move to McLaren quickly turned into a nightmare. Unhappy with the team’s refusal to make rookie Hamilton his number two, Alonso fell out with the team and left after just one season.

Ten years on, he looks increasingly unlikely to add to his two world championship titles, and remarkably, it’s now 83 races since Alonso stood on the top step of the podium. A staggering statistic that at one time would have seemed unthinkable.

But that’s part of the beauty of F1. It’s a high-speed game of chess, and it’s crucial that you make the right move at the right time. In the years since Alonso last won a title, it’s rumoured that he turned down moves to Brawn and Red Bull. Had things worked out a little differently, Hamilton may have never added to his 2008 win, and Alonso perhaps could have been a five or six-time world champion.

As Murray Walker used to say, “IF is F1 spelt backwards”.

With many drivers’ contracts up for renewal in a year’s time, we could see a very different looking grid line up in Melbourne for the start of the 2019 season. For some drivers, their next move could define their entire career, but who will get it right, and who will look back with regret in years to come?

There are two drivers we can assume are staying put, and they are perhaps the two drivers in the strongest position in the driver market right now and able to dictate their own futures; Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

Sebastian Vettel has already made his decision, committing his future to Ferrari for another three years, thus removing himself altogether from the silly season conjecture. It would appear that winning just one world championship with Ferrari would mean more to Vettel than winning several elsewhere. His loyalty is admirable, but Ferrari hasn’t delivered a world drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen’s fortuitous win ten years ago, and it has ground to make up on Mercedes.

Hamilton and Vettel
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are expected to remain with their teams for the foreseeable future – Image: Octane Photography

Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, has yet to confirm his plans beyond the end of 2018, but with Vettel now staying at Ferrari, we can surely expect Hamilton to remain where he is too.

At 32, Hamilton may consider his next contract to be his last as it’s well known he has little desire to compete in F1 into his late thirties. An extra two or three-year extension seems likely, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Hamilton could walk away from F1 after that.

With Vettel enjoying number one status at Ferrari, his main concern now will be whether his team can provide him with the machinery he needs to take the fight to Hamilton and Mercedes. Ironically, his best chance to date to win a title with the Scuderia may actually have already come and gone. A disastrous race in Singapore has put Vettel on the back foot, 28 points adrift with six races remaining.

With Hamilton seemingly on course for a fourth world title, it now seems unlikely we’ll ever see him make the switch to Ferrari, and there’s almost certainly no chance of it happening while Vettel occupies one of those seats.

Hamilton vs Vettel is proving to be one of the fascinating rivalries in recent F1 history, but there are still a few drivers who could yet force their way into future title battles if the dice fall in their favour.

The hottest driver pairing on the grid right now can arguably be found at Red Bull. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are a close match for each other on their day, but with Verstappen’s woeful reliability record causing tension, and a divorce from engine supplier Renault on the cards, things are not running as smoothly as it once was for the four-time constructors’ champions.

Verstappen and Ricciardo
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are likely to be in demand for 2019 and beyond – Image: Octane Photography

According to Christian Horner, Verstappen has a solid Red Bull contract in place for the next two years, but there are rumours that his father Jos is trying to engineer a move to Ferrari for 2019.

You could argue that Verstappen, at just 20 years of age, has plenty of time to see how his career develops, but patience is not something he’s blessed with, and one or two cracks appear to be forming in his relationship with the team.

Ricciardo, on the other hand, has done fantastically well to slow Verstappen’s momentum within the team and has arguably enhanced his reputation since the two were paired as teammates last season.

The more mature of the pair, Ricciardo is now 27 and knows he must find his way into a regular race-winning car soon if he is to compete for championships while still in his prime. On his day, he is one of the best racers in F1 and has developed a canny ability to pick up wins when those ahead falter.

Both Red Bull drivers believe they have what it takes to become world champion, but right now, besides staying put, there are only really two seats that will be of interest to them – a potential vacancy alongside Hamilton at Mercedes, and an opportunity to partner Vettel at Ferrari.

Both Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari are on one-year contracts to the end of 2018. Perhaps intentionally, both Mercedes and Ferrari have kept their options open knowing the driver market is about to open up.

Valtteri Bottas
Bottas has done a good job of taking points off Ferrari but is not guaranteed to stay with Mercedes beyond 2018 – Image: Octane Photography

Neither Bottas or Raikkonen have career security right now. Raikkonen has been fortunate to see his Ferrari contract extended over the past two years, and is unlikely to attract interest elsewhere should Ferrari decide he’s no longer required. Bottas, on the other hand, would likely be in demand, but he’s yet to prove he’s significantly more than a solid number two, and no longer appears to be on Ferrari’s radar as he was a few years back.

Stranger things have happened, but it would be surprising to see both Bottas and Raikkonen stay with their respective teams into 2019, so at least one seat is likely to open up.

Red Bull’s hopes of keeping its two drivers lie in the prospects of the team enjoying a fruitful engine partnership for 2019 onwards. Renault has said it will be ending its deal to supply the team at the end of 2018, leaving Honda as the team’s only realistic option until the new engine regulations come into play for 2021.

If Honda fails to deliver – or worse still, quits F1 altogether – then Red Bull may have a problem on its hands. Its position as Mercedes and Ferrari’s primary challenger will almost certainly come under threat from teams such as Force India, and perhaps even McLaren, if it’s new deal with Renault catapults it up the grid.

Of course, it’s entirely likely that Red Bull will find a solution to its engine woes and will remain a force at the front of the grid, but right now, it will need to prove that that is likely, if not a certainty, to have any chance of keeping both its drivers.

Should Red Bull slide down the grid, then it’s likely that Ferrari will make a move for Verstappen, or perhaps the Verstappens may make a move for Ferrari, such is the way they like to go about their business.

Christian Horner
Christian Horner faces a fight to keep both of his star drivers with the team – Image: Octane Photography

At just 20, Verstappen is ambitious, impatient, and has shown that he is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way. Should he become available, then he’ll certainly not be short of offers. Mercedes chief Toto Wolff has expressed his admiration for Verstappen many times in the past, and it’s widely known that Mercedes tried to sign him before Red Bull swooped in and offered him the Toro Rosso drive.

On the other side of the garage, Ricciardo is equally as ambitious, but certainly a little more patient, and more likely to play the long game. He is unlikely, however, to accept a new contract if the team slide into the midfield but his career options are somewhat less flexible than Verstappen’s.

Despite possessing Italian heritage, it’s difficult to see Ricciardo gelling with Ferrari’s businesslike culture, so a Mercedes move is more likely to be on his radar. His personality would appear to fit with that of Hamilton’s, and he’s certainly proved himself worthy of going head-to-head with one of the sport’s greats. Just ask Sebastian Vettel.

Whatever happens, Red Bull face a fight to hold onto its drivers, and to remain near the front of the grid. In my eyes, Verstappen and Ricciardo are key to next year’s driver market, but they aren’t the only drivers looking to move further up the grid.

Force India pair, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, are the pick of the midfield drivers at present and have both targeted 2019 as the year they secure a promotion.

Perez and Ocon
Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have been closely matched at Force India this year – Image: Octane Photography

As we’ve seen this year, competition between the pair is fierce with neither driver leaving an inch on track for the other. Perez, the older of the pair at 27, knows time is running out for him to find his way into a race-winning car. He thought he had been given the opportunity back in 2013, but a badly-timed move to McLaren coincided with the beginning of the team’s downfall.

Perez has spoken to both Williams and Renault in recent months, but it became clear that he has no interest in switching teams unless he inherits a car capable of fighting for wins. Perez has for some time made no secret of his dream to drive for Ferrari, and his new one-year deal coincides perfectly with the end of Raikkonen’s contract.

Verstappen aside, Perez’s main rival for a Ferrari seat could well be a driver who’s yet to make his Grand Prix debut. Charles Leclerc is the star performer in Ferrari’s young driver academy and is currently dominating F2. He’s expected to make his F1 debut next year with Sauber, but a seat with Ferrari is unlikely anytime soon as the team rarely consider drivers under the age of 25.

Perez’s teammate and rival, Esteban Ocon, has a bright future ahead of him and plenty of time to keep developing. He’ll be staying put at Force India for 2018 but has a long-term contract with Mercedes as part of its young driver program and remains an option for them in the future. His performances this year have led many to believe he will be considered to partner Hamilton in 2019, but at 21, Mercedes may see it a risk to promote him that soon.

The summer of 2018 looks set to be the most open and enthralling driver market in recent memory, with more than half of the grid potentially looking for a move elsewhere.

It’s easy to think the grass appears greener on the other side, but in the case of some drivers, such as Alonso in recent years, and going even further back, Jacques Villeneuve, that isn’t always the case.

The $100m question facing many drivers next year; do they stick or do they twist?