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Who should fill the second Williams seat?

Daniel Ricciardo of Australia . (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Expert
23rd July, 2015
5

So it’s a done deal, allegedly. According to reports, Valtteri Bottas will be replacing Kimi Räikkönen at Ferrari in 2016.

Apparently Williams will be paid handsomely to release him from his contract. Reportedly.

Italy’s Corriere dello Sport lobbed a grenade into the annual Formula One silly season by claiming that Ferrari will pay Williams €12 million ($18 million) to extract Bottas from his 2016 contract.

So reportedly, allegedly, apparently it’s happening. The question now is whom Williams will contract to partner Felipe Massa as it hurtles towards what it expects to be its next golden era?

Romain Grosjean
His 2014 and 2015 results may be forgettable, but no-one has forgotten the blistering pace of Romain Grosjean 2013. Not only did he shade Kimi Räikkönen, the man he may yet vie to replace, but he was also able to challenge the dominant Red Bull as much as his car allowed.

Grosjean has obvious incentives to leave the Enstone-based team. Its signing of Pastor Maldonado last season, coupled with the departure of team principal Eric Boullier, were admissions that all was not well financially inside the team.

Moreover, Lotus’ owners appear intent on selling the team, so much so that investment has slowed to a trickle and creditors are not being paid until they’re sufficiently offended to take the matter to court.

But the move is potentially risky for the Frenchman. Williams would immediately rocket him up the championship table, but it is still an independent team trying to compete with big manufacturers with independent team money – there’s no guarantee it will get the job done.

At the same time, rumours are intensifying that Renault could be poised to reinvest in the team as owners, bringing with it significant cash. Enstone was once great under Renault, and it could easily be great again in the short term. Does he stay or go?

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Nico Hülkenberg
Nico ‘Le Mans Winner’ Hülkenberg has, for so many, suffered great injustice in Formula One. Despite undeniable talent, the sport’s heavy hitters have consistently overlooked him as a genuine contender.

Do they know something we don’t? Hülkenberg can certainly switch it on at times, but are his stellar performances to few and far between? His Le Mans victory boosted his stocks, but perhaps they were so discounted to begin with that WEC glory did little to improve them.

The German is now a well known quantity and can at very least guarantee to mix it in with the front runners – but if Williams is building itself back to being a consistent top-three team, and with Felipe Massa bring significantly closer to retirement than debut, is Hülkenberg the man to lead the team to a constructors championship? Other teams have decided he is not…

Daniel Ricciardo
For a short while it seemed the Australian might win the coveted red seat when rumour spread like wildfire pre-British Grand Prix, but Ricciardo himself seemed more bemused than anything to hear of them.

In short, his contract with Red Bull is binding. He is a proven race winner with a track record of integrating well with the team, and saw off former Red Bull pin-up Sebastian Vettel to boot. Daniil Kvyat is improving but still inconsistent, while Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, though various levels of prodigious, are inexperienced.

Ricciardo is Red Bull’s bankable man.

But Ricciardo knows that Red Bull isn’t the powerhouse it formerly was, and the sheer quantity of threats issued by Red Bull heavies that a catastrophic withdrawal could be imminent has surely left him open to change.

But can Williams afford to buy his contract from one of the sport’s wealthiest teams? It seems unlikely.

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Jenson Button (et al)
Despite Ron Dennis’ attempt to quell press rumours and guarantee Jenson Button’s place with the team in 2016, the man himself was significantly less committal when asked.

McLaren is oversubscribed to young talent but with a dramatic shortfall in seat space. The team has already essentially burnt Kevin Magnussen by sitting him out for 2015 after a single season in the car, allowing fellow McLaren rookie Stoffel Vandoorne to make a near irresistible case with a wildly successful GP2 season.

It’s a difficult equation for McLaren. On the one hand it has two world champions on its books as lead drivers, but it must also reap the payoff for investing in two talented young drivers – after all, neither Button nor Fernando Alonso are the 20-somethings they once were. Button taking the jump back to the team that started his career would ease McLaren’s contract headache and tie up his career nicely and in competitive machinery.

Or could McLaren broker a deal to have one of its juniors race at Williams instead? Williams’ engine deal with Honda rival Mercedes makes such an agreement unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. Moreover, McLaren would take back its young driver within one or two years, leaving Williams back at square one.

The deciding factor
Williams needs to secure its future, making Daniel Ricciardo the ideal candidate – but Red Bull is likely to price Williams out of the opportunity to buy him.

Jenson Button brings experience, but it leaves Williams with no driver succession plan once he and Massa retire. A deal for one of McLaren’s young drivers has a similar effect meaning both paths merely put off the problem for a year or two.

Nico Hülkenberg and Romain Grosjean are the remaining options, but Grosjean must decide whether to risk a Renault buy-out of his team and the potential performance boost that would result while Nico Hülkenberg’s eye may wander towards the WEC rather than take a gamble on another team not yet in contention for race wins.

But an additional strategic option might take the decision out of Grosjean and Hülkenberg’s hands. Williams could sign a short-term deal with McLaren to cut Stoffel Vandoorne’s teeth before replacing Button in 2017 while it courts Ricciardo for his signature once his watertight Red Bull contract concludes at the end of 2016.

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Could happen, allegedly reportedly. Who would you choose?