The 2014 driver market might be the most hectic in recent years. Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi are the top names you can read about on twitter these days. Several teams are chasing these drivers for next year, and it’s worth analyzing who has a chance where, which are the facts and which are the downright ridiculous speculations.
1. Jules Bianchi
Bianchi is Marrusia’s star driver. Even though he’s sitting in an inferior car and drives his first season in F1, there’s a lot of interest from the top teams already. Marussia has a certain technical partnership with McLaren. They are allowed to use their wind tunnel for aerodynamic tests and analysis. While the team is running Cosworth engines this year, from 2014 they’ll switch to Ferrari V6 turbo energy, linking the team to the Italian squad as well. Bianchi was also a Force India protege, the team that got him access to his first F1 experience. It’s no wonder then that the main teams interested in Bianchi’s services are Ferrari, McLaren and Force India.
Joining Ferrari: 20% chance. There have been rumors circulating around the paddock that Felipe Massa is a goner. Bianchi was one of the drivers reported to replace the Brazilian, but there’s a very small chance of that happening. He’s running his first season and despite his excellent driving, he’s rather inexperienced. Ferrari are not known to employ inexperienced drivers, especially in a year with so much technical uncertainty.
Joining McLaren: 10% chance. McLaren have just signed Perez and are still evaluating his performance. Jenson Button is the leader of the team after Hamilton’s departure, so having two rookies in a top team is not an option. Therefore, Bianchi is almost certainly not joining McLaren, despite the strong link to Marussia.
Joining Force India: 70% chance. Paul di Resta is almost certain to stay at Force India next year. Adrian Sutil has shown little to prove his worth, but it is his comeback year, and the team will almost certainly give him another season. However, beyond 2014, Bianchi is in hot contention for the seat.
2. Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg has proven his skills on track during his drives for Williams with pole in Brazil, and Force India after being close to winning in Brazil again last year. The German has received words of praise from several top teams and is one of the drivers who is expected to move from Sauber, after the team has been weakened and severely plagued by financial issues. Russian investors taking over the team also means that we are set for a Russian driver washout at Sauber, leaving Hulkenberg and Gutierrez without a drive. The top teams Hulkenberg can end up driving for are Ferrari, Force India and Lotus.
Joining Ferrari: 50-60% chance. Ferrari have been pressuring Massa since 2012 to up his game. The Brazilian is again not scoring enough points for Ferrari to challenge for the WCC this year so 2014 might be the season his firing actually happens. In that case, Hulkenberg is the top candidate. He has the experience and the skills to go against Fernando Alonso and with his current team running Ferrari engines, the link is strong. Finnish media were reporting that Hulkenberg could partner Raikkonen at Ferrari next year, but he’s fighting Jules Bianchi and Massa for the seat.
Joining Force India: 10% chance. Hulkenberg has admitted to his mistake of leaving Force India for a weaker team. While Force India would probably like to have him back, the German is less likely to make the move. He spent 4 years of his career driving for midfield teams, and it’s certainly time to raise the bar.
Joining Lotus: 30% chance. Should Raikkonen’s departure occur or should Eric Boullier decide Grosjean must leave (highly unlikely due to Total providing the main financial resources to Lotus as Grosjean’s sponsor), Hulkenberg is there for the taking. Lotus have become a top team recently and a seat would certainly appeal for both Hulkenberg and Lotus, the latter needing a consistent driver in case Raikkonen decides to call it a day.
3. Fernando Alonso.
Alonso’s relationship with Ferrari has been on a downward spiral since the Hungarian Grand Prix when the Spaniard publicly humiliated the car and admitted (as a joke) that he wanted a faster package for his birthday. Ferrari didn’t find it that funny. Luca di Montezemolo, for the first time, rebuked his own driver in public, suggesting a hugely awkward situation in Maranello, The events have started an avalanche of rumors, linking Alonso to Red Bull after his manager was seen having talks with Christian Horner.
Joining Red Bull: 20% chance. If Vettel has any word regarding who will get the seat, he’ll definitely wish against the Spaniard. The German admitted he would rather have Raikkonen alongside him than Fernando Alonso. Red Bull would know better not to have two chefs in one kitchen: it’s a team principal’s nightmare to have the kind of inner tension Alonso had with Hamilton at McLaren. The situation would be worse with Vettel. It’s unlikely to happen.
Staying at Ferrari: 80% chance. Ferrari and Alonso’s relationship might be tense for the moment but one thing is clear: Alonso wants a championship with Ferrari and Ferrari want a championship with Alonso. A slight dip in form will be no cause for panic and rushing decisions. The Spaniard knows it’s his team and that James Allison’s arrival will make the difference in the next 1,5 years. In the long run, it’s the smart choice, and certainly better than walking into the lion’s den.
4. Kimi Raikkonen
The hottest topic of the driver market is the Finn world champion. Raikkonen has shown exceptional driving since his comeback, being in contention for the world championship this year and finishing a remarkable third last season. It’s no secret that most top teams want him. But which are smokescreens created by his managers and which are the real deals? Let’s look at the options.
Joining Red Bull: 40% chance. Negotiations have reached a boiling point in Hungary. Paddock rumors suggest that Adrian Newey and Christian Horner are pushing for Raikkonen to get the seat, while Helmut Marko (team adviser) wants Daniel Ricciardo. The situation seems to drift towards Ricciardo’s favor the more time passes. Raikkonen’s managers are supposedly negotiating a complicated long-term partnership with Red Bull, including a sponsorship package for the Finn’s Ice One Racing team, his motocross and hockey ventures. If they can’t reach an agreement on time, the deal is off and Ricciardo gets the drive. They have one month to sort out the details, as Helmut Marko returns from holidays at the end of August, presents the options for team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who will analyze the situation and make a final decision and announcement after the Belgian Grand Prix.
Joining Ferrari: 20% chance. Strong rumors were reported by German and Finnish media that Raikkonen was offered a seat by Ferrari and later signed a deal to rejoin his former team. While the reports regarding Ferrari’s offer are coming from credible sources such as Bild and Auto Motor und Sport, less credible and reputable Finnish sources claimed that the deal is signed. It’s one thing to have the offer on the table and an entirely different thing to have it signed already. The latter is less likely because of two reasons: Luca di Montezemolo’s relationship with Raikkonen and Santander’s contract buyout from 2009. While Alonso claimed he’s comfortable to have Kimi alongside him, the boss is less thrilled. Santander, Ferrari’s title sponsor and Alonso’s golden ticket, would agree. Despite all the negativity though, having two extremely strong drivers in one team would counter Mercedes’ pair, who are on their way to secure the WCC this year. The deal makes sense, but the least likely to happen. Rumors are that it’s just a smokescreen to pressure either Red Bull or Lotus to up their game and deliver a better deal.
Staying at Lotus: 40% chance. Lotus have been late to pay Raikkonen’s salary but have promised that the new investor, Infinity Racing, is on the way. That would solve all the financial troubles. Still, there’s no James Allison, which will certainly show in 2014. Raikkonen knows that, and he’s also been informed about the financial situation. He knows he has No. 1 status, and has all the conditions he needs to be comfortable. However, the car is not entirely up to his liking as it’s not fast enough to challenge Red Bull for the world title just yet. That will surely be a deciding factor.