At Mercedes, the contractual situation of their drivers is straightforward. While Lewis Hamilton’s existing deal – the three-year extension he signed in May 2015 – runs until the end of 2018, Valtteri Bottas was only hired last winter on a one-season deal. The Finn will almost certainly be retained for 2018, but how long will his new deal be?
“It is almost a no-brainer,” said Toto Wolff in July. “I would just like to put the puzzle together, it is not only about 2018. It is about looking forward in 2019 and 2020.”
As for Hamilton, Mercedes will not open talks with their star asset about a new deal until the end of the current season, although their bargaining position has been strengthened by Sebastian Vettel’s extension at Ferrari all-but closing the door on Hamilton driving in red until 2021 at the earliest, by which time he would be 36.
As detailed above, Vettel’s new three-year deal with Ferrari ties him to the team for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. There are, however, likely to be performance-related clauses in the deal, similar in type to the exit clause which enabled Vettel to leave Red Bull for Ferrari three years ago.
As for Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn has, for the third year in a row, signed a one-year extension with the Scuderia for 2018. For future reference, all of Raikkonen’s extensions have occurred at the same time of year: mid-August in 2015, early July in 2016 and mid-August again this year. So if we reach Monza in 12 months’ time without any news of Raikkonen’s retention, expect change.
Were Raikkonen to leave – and almost certainly retire, aged 39 – at the end of 2018, the leading candidate to replace him will be Daniel Ricciardo simply because the Red Bull driver is currently a free agent for 2019.
Max Verstappen? Unlike Ricciardo, the young Dutchman has two years still to run on his existing deal rather than one.
“He has a contract for 2019,” said team boss Christian Horner. “Then after 2019 he’s on the open market.”
Although there has been speculation that his contract contains opt-out clauses – again, similar to what Vettel used to exit the team in late 2014 – Red Bull are adamant Verstappen’s deal is absolute.
“The only driver who had a clause was Mr Vettel,” Horner told Sky F1 in Baku. “They are on junior driver contracts whereas Seb was able to renegotiate after his second world championship which had a bit of performance in it which gave him the trigger when Fernando made his move from Ferrari. These drivers don’t have that trigger.”
Nor, it seems, does Carlos Sainz at Red Bull’s junior outfit Toro Rosso. While the youngster has made it clear he would like to move up the grid, Red Bull have been equally that Sainz is under lock and key. “Sainz has a contract with Red Bull and there are two years left on that contract,” said Horner at the British GP. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Sainz will stay with the team until the end of 2019 with Horner acknowledging Sainz, a reputed target for Renault, could be available at the right price.
Red Bull also hold an option on Daniil Kvyat to keep the Russian for 2018. The team haven’t, however, taken it up yet.
“The driver line-up will be decided by Red Bull in the next months,” said Toro Rosso chief Franz Tost last week.
At Williams, Lance Stroll was announced only with reference to the 2017 season but his deal is likely to be long-term in nature – not least, of course, because of the funding he brings to the team – and only one potential vacancy at Grove for next year is being talked about given that Felipe Massa re-signed on a single-year deal in January just three months after his first official retirement from the sport.
Renault also have one driver under contract for next year and one potential vacancy for 2018. “It’s well reported that Nico [Hulkenberg] has a multi-year contract when Jo [Palmer] has a one-year contract. So obviously we have one driver to decide for next year,” confirmed Cyril Abiteboul in Belgium.
Although Renault have been at pains to insist Palmer could yet be retained, they have also been strongly linked with Sainz and have given Robert Kubica three separate test outings in a bid to evaluate the feasibility of the Pole making a full-time return to F1.
Haas have also been publicly transparent about their driver arrangements. Echoing the announcement of team owner Gene Haas that it was a “given” Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen would be retained, team boss Guenther Steiner clarified in Belgium that Grosjean “two years ago now [signed] a three-year contract and Kevin last year [signed] a two-year contract”.
Force India’s plans, meanwhile, may well have been fast overtaken by events – and specifically their drivers’ struggles to stop colliding into each other. Sergio Perez’s current deal expires at the end of the season and although the Mexican told reporters upon his arrival at Spa he was close to agreeing a new contract, his collisions with Esteban Ocon during Sunday’s race, the latest in a series of on-track confrontations between the pair this season, makes it extremely unlikely Force India will field an unchanged line-up.
Strictly speaking, Ocon is under contract having signed what was described by Force India as ‘a multi-year contract’ in November. But it’s eminently Mercedes will reach an agreement with Force India to move Ocon on, almost certainly to Renault in the eventuality he does depart, at the end of the year and look to fill the vacancy with another of their young driver graduates.
And that young graduate would, of course, be Pascal Wehrlein. In the wake of Ferrari’s new beefed-up deal with Sauber, Wehrlein conceded to Sky F1 in Belgium he doesn’t expect to stay at Sauber for 2018.
The team’s official line is they are yet to make a decision on their driver line-up, but newly-installed team boss Fred Vasseur said at Spa “the driver issue is also a point for discussion with Ferrari” and few in the paddock believe that those discussions – to be taken “in the next couple of weeks” won’t end with Charles Leclerc partnering Marcus Ericsson.
Which brings us, last but by no means least, to McLaren.
The team announced on the Wednesday before Spa that Stoffel Vandoorne would be kept on ‘as planned’.
What’s more, McLaren also have another driver, world champion by status, under contract for next season.
No, not Fernando Alonso, whose three-year deal, signed when he re-joined from Ferrari at the end of 2014 expires at the end of the year, but Jenson Button.
The Formula 1 Gossip column
Lest we forget what was announced at Monza almost exactly a year ago, Button was stood down for the current season while simultaneously signing a new deal for 2017 and 2018. As the team put it themselves: ‘Jenson Button has signed a new contract to extend his relationship with the McLaren-Honda team, is now contracted for two more years’.
Most saliently of all, the new deal and ‘innovative three-driver strategy’ included a stipulation that McLaren retained a contractual option on re-appointing Button as a race driver for 2018.
A year on, however, there appears to be little or no prospect of Button returning to McLaren if Alonso departs (something the Spaniard has reputedly told McLaren he will do unless they abandon Honda).
After all, and despite just writing 1,332 words to the contrary, an F1 driver contract is usually only worth the paper it’s written on.
Which teams have drivers under contract for 2018? Mercedes Lewis Hamilton Ferrari Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen Red Bull Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen Force India Esteban Ocon McLaren Stoffel Vandoorne Toro Rosso Carlos Sainz Haas Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen Renault Nico Hulkenberg
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