As Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton streak away towards their respective sixth Formula One world championships, the 2019 season at the front has largely been a tale of contrasting fortunes for rivals Ferrari and Red Bull.
With Formula One now entering its monthlong hiatus after twelve races featuring the typical twists and turns, the time to look ahead at the driver market has come, as the Silly Season is set to well and truly begin.
It was Daniel Ricciardo’s shock move from Red Bull to Renault that triggered the market this time last year, and while big names are already sewn up their respective teams for 2020 – there is still potential for some reshuffling on the grid.
The key player on the market this time round is Valtteri Bottas, whose seat at the world champions Mercedes AMG is far from secure for 2020. Having been under the cloud of uncertainty ever since he joined the team in 2017, following Nico Rosberg’s sudden retirement – the Finn has never been a surety at the Silver Arrows.
2018 was a less than ideal season for the 29-year-old, having been unable to win any races while at the same time his Mercedes team won the driver’s and constructor’s championships for a fifth consecutive year. Regardless, Bottas was to stay on for 2019 despite Mercedes protege Esteban Ocon without a drive.
Bottas did come out of the gates firing, taking a commanding victory at the Australian Grand Prix and silencing his critics afterwards on the team-radio, with his ‘to whom this may concern,’ message. A redemptive win in Azerbaijan meant that the Finn held a 1-point lead in the championship over teammate Lewis Hamilton – though from there onwards, it has been largely a one-sided affair as the Brit continues to dominate.
Reigning world champion Hamilton has won eight races thus far, in comparison to Bottas’ two and has only been outraced by his under-fire teammate once since his Baku win. The British Grand Prix did see Bottas on pole position and fend off the challenge of Hamilton in the early stages of the race, only to fall on the wrong side of a Safety Car which gave the Briton the advantage.
The last two races in Germany and Hungary though, could be what defines the future of Bottas at Mercedes, which even the Finn himself has admitted. Crashing out of a challenging German Grand Prix and then making contact with Charles Leclerc on the opening lap in Budapest, compromised his race. The best he could achieve was eighth.
“When contract-wise you’re on the limit it never helps. Some people might think that some drivers perform better under pressure, when things are on the limit, but for me it doesn’t help,” Bottas said in Hungary.
With Ocon waiting in the wings and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff under pressure to secure his junior driver a seat on the grid for 2020, the possibility of Bottas being replaced suddenly a whole lot more probable.
Bottas has still shown consistency throughout his tenure at Mercedes and has been reliable set of hands in securing the last two constructor’s championships for the Silver Arrows. If that seat within the team is purely just as a supporting role to Hamilton, then there’s weight to retaining the Finn for 2020.
The situation seems a lot more dire at Red Bull though, with the young Pierre Gasly having recorded a less than impressive season to date and the onus heavily on that he’ll be replaced at the end of the year.
23-year old Gasly is only in his second full-time season in Formula One and after a strong rookie campaign with Toro Rosso, was parachuted into the senior Red Bull team as replacement to the outgoing Ricciardo.
It had been questioned all along, whether it was too early for Gasly to be promoted or not to Red Bull, remembering full well the termination of Daniil Kvyat early on in his career with the Milton Keynes squad.
With Red Bull in a winning position now with their new engine partner in Honda, Gasly has been nowhere near the same level of his teammate Max Verstappen – who has already won two races this year.
A best finish of fourth at Silverstone, sees Gasly a distant sixth in the championship well behind the drivers that he is expected to be mixing it with. In fact, the Frenchman is only five points ahead of the midfield’s leading driver in Carlos Sainz.
Failing to adapt to the race winning RB15 after 12 races might mean Gasly is yet to find his feet and another season of nurturing at Toro Rosso wouldn’t have hurt. Though it is the circumstances of the Red Bull junior programme and their lack of drivers at the moment, which meant upon Ricciardo’s departure – there was no one else in a position to inherit the seat.
Given that Red Bull are in a position where they have a car to challenge Ferrari for second in the constructor’s championship, what is letting them down is not having a second driver alongside Verstappen to be scoring those big points. So unless Gasly can make inroads immediately after the break, he may find himself in the same position Kvyat was in 2016 and it would be ironic if the Russian found that he was indeed promoted again back to Red Bull.
Another lacklustre campaign to date for Romain Grosjean means that he too is on the chopping block and despite Haas enduring a rotten season so far on the car front – the Frenchman’s performances have been less than desirable.
Numerous run-ins with teammate Kevin Magnussen also point to disharmony between the drivers and with the Dane outperforming the ten-time podium scorer in Grosjean, it is a foregone conclusion who Haas would retain in 2020.
The fairy-tale that was supposed to be Robert Kubica’s return to Formula One, has also been entirely a damp squib – coinciding too with a horror campaign for the Williams team. The former race winner has been comprehensively beaten by rookie teammate George Russell and despite registering the team’s first point of the year – the likelihood of seeing Kubica on the grid in 2020 looks very slim.
Another fascinating Silly Season awaits and there could yet be some surprises waiting around the corner.