There is a certain vacant seat in a certain race car in a certain Red Bull garage for 2014.
Everyone has thoughts, on which driver it will be that fills it with his race suit, and there are whispers around the paddock, but the cagey PR personnel of Formula One are keeping everything under wraps for now.
Christian Horner has acknowledged that Red Bull are spoilt for choice when it comes to Mark Webber’s replacement – everyone wants a piece of the car that has been the benchmark for the last three years.
But he has hinted that he has his favourites among the many contenders, immaterial of their contractual status at the end of the year.
With the summer break approaching after the next round in Hungary, here is a list of probables:
The Finn is favourite to be Sebastian Vettel’s teammate for next year. As usual, the 2007 world champion isn’t saying too much about his future, but his consistent form since his return to Formula One last year has been undeniably good.
With five podiums last year, another five already this year, and 26 consecutive points finishes, “The Iceman” has been extremely competitive and provided some fantastic results in a car largely viewed as a dark horse.
His friendship with Vettel may also provide some welcome rest to the elephant in the Red Bull garage: the issue of team orders. Although it is hard to imagine Raikkonen being happy playing second fiddle.
As the other potential beneficiary from the Toro Rosso team, Daniel Riccardo has made a compelling case for replacing Webber.
Riccardo is a better qualifier than Jean-Eric Vergne, having made Q3 three times this year to his teammate’s one (while he also leads the overall battle 6-3).
This one-lap pace would be a real asset to Red Bull, and continue their high success rate in qualifying. While his race pace is his weak point, Riccardo has flashes of brilliance on a Sunday. His strong race in Britain was ruined by a bad tyre call and could have easily been further up the field.
He also makes himself a presence on the race track and does not allow his STR8 to be passed easily. But more consistent points finishes are probably needed before the big boys come knocking.
Based on his current placing in Red Bull’s junior driver program at Toro Rosso, Vergne is in a great position to make a case for the drive with the big boys.
He currently sits just above his teammate in the driver’s championship, and is a more consistent finisher, but four retirements this season alone are a concern, and while not all of them were his own fault, they do stand out to the judges.
However when he does finish races, his consistent results probably make him appear as the more favoured of the two Toro Rosso drivers to make the step up. But it must be noted both Toro Rosso boys lack the experience of Raikkonen.
Yes, Romain Grosjean is inexperienced with his ‘in again, out again’ status in Formula One. And let’s be honest, it shows – especially on lap one.
Anyone who’s watched Formula One in the last 18 months will be familiar with the accident-prone antics of Frenchman; a quality that would not be tolerated at Red Bull.
But he does have another quality that would be embraced with open arms – his speed.
Grosjean is quick and can get the best out of a car as he did in Germany last weekend. And when the conditions suit him and everything comes together, as it did in Bahrain, he can challenge for a race win.
He can set fastest laps, and has qualified on the front two rows six times. He has five career podiums to his name, all of which have come during his drive at Lotus.
And with experience, you would imagine the accident problems would start to become less frequent.
But it must be said that 11 DNF’s from 35 starts is alarming, and without more race wins and podiums, that’s probably enough to turn Red Bull’s attention elsewhere this time around.
Admittedly, it’s unlikely “The Hulk” would be offered a deal with the Renault manufacturer, at the end of the year.
But Horner has said Red Bull “wants to put the best drivers in our cars,” and Hulkenberg has demonstrated he does have speed and talent in his short Formula One career – particularly during his time at Force India in 2012.
In a midfield car, he was consistently making Q3, and finishing in the points, and at one stage it looked as though he was going to win the Brazilian Grand Prix.
While his stint at Sauber has dropped him off the radar a little, he is still scoring occasional points in a car that really hasn’t lived up to expectation in 2013, and may be looking for an alternative next season.
Perhaps not a Red Bull driver next year, but expect to see him among the front runners in the years to come.