There are only six races to go this season, but not fewer than five seats remain unaccounted for in the 2023 driver market.
This has been one of the more chaotic silly seasons of recent years. From Sebastian Vettel’s retirement to Fernando Alonso and Oscar Piastri’s sudden defections and Daniel Ricciardo’s sacking, it’s twisted and turned with abandon, keeping even the most experienced paddock watchers on their toes.
But at last it feels like it’s entering its end game, with the final candidates being just about aligned. And yet no-one is pulling the trigger.
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What’s the hold up?
Alpine, as the most competitive team with a seat available, now holds all the cards, and it’s fielding three drivers in a private test this week in Budapest to try to decide which one it will play first.
Featuring in that test are expected to be Australian F2 rising star Jack Doohan, Formula E champion Nyck de Vries and former F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi.
But Nico Hulkenberg, Mick Schumacher, Nicholas Latifi, Logan Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu are also in play. With only four seats available — or five including Pierre Gasly and his will to move — some are going to miss out.
With less than two months until the end of the season, this is the state of the driver market.
This driver market impasse has its roots in a fight over Pierre Gasly, who is attempting to take the vacant seat at Alpine but needs Red Bull’s approval to break his contract, which he renewed only a few months ago to the end of 2023.
Alpine is keen to form a French super team with him and Esteban Ocon — despite the fact the pair don’t get along thanks to a long-running feud dating back to their karting days.
Snatching a driver of Gasly’s quality would also allow Alpine to escape the catastrophe of its driver roster mismanagement with some face saved.
In many respects it makes sense for AlphaTauri too. The team has been set up specifically to nurture young talent for promotion to Red Bull Racing, to which the door is closed for the next two seasons after Sergio Perez signed a deal until the end of 2024.
Gasly has already accumulated the most starts of any driver to race for Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri and has already been blooded in the senior team.
By definition he should no longer belong there.
And there’s a growing feeling in the paddock that Gasly’s exit from the team has gathered enough momentum to be inexorable. He hasn’t signed a contract with Alpine yet, but the desire for a French union is apparently mutual.
And so there’s a clear impetus for AlphaTauri to find a replacement. The entire driver market hinges on whether it can find one.
WHY THE COLTON HERTA GAMBIT FAILED
Colton Herta was where the team thought it would find his replacement, but the FIA appears to have decided against granting him a super license, and Red Bull has now dropped him as a live option.
“I can understand the FIA’s position,” Herta told Motorsport. “I just feel that IndyCar is under-represented in the superlicence points structure.
“But from their point of view, with the current points structure, I get it. And I don’t want to come in as an exception.
“At the end of the day it is the FIA’s decision. They listen to the teams a lot, but it’s the FIA’s call over superlicences.
“They don’t want to piss off all their team owners and current manufacturers just to accept one more person. It’s a big puzzle with a lot of moving parts.”
There was an opportunity for Herta to potentially enter some racing series during the F1 and IndyCar off-season, but the plan to race among juniors didn’t appeal given his status as an established professional racing driver.
“I didn’t fully consider it,” he said.
There is a bigger argument to be had here about whether IndyCar should command more influence in the superlicence system. As a spec series at the apex of American motorsport, it’s harder to dominate than European single-seater categories are, and arguably consistent finishes in the top 10 should warrant more points.
But given sport is really just an arbitrary set of rules anyway, changing them retrospectively makes a mockery of the entire system, and so the door remains closed to Herta for next season.
THEY VRIES TO THE RESCUE?
But as one door closed for AlphaTauri and Gasly, another almost instantly opened.
Nyck de Vries’s sensational last-minute debut at the Italian Grand Prix, where he dominated established teammate Nicholas Latifi and scored points at his first time of asking, blew up the driver market and made him the key piece of the puzzle.
After finishing ninth in Monza, De Vries was instantly put at the head of the queue to replace Gasly.
But he was also put on the list at Williams and — funnily enough — Alpine.
One impasse was cleared, and another was instantly created.
If you’re Nyck de Vries, Williams is your third priority as the least competitive car on the grid.
AlphaTauri reportedly has a contract already drawn up for him, with Dutch media reporting that the 27-year-old has already traveled to Austria to meet Helmut Marko, who controls the Red Bull junior driver roster.
But Alpine offers the most competitive of the available seats, and it’s also seriously considering the Dutchman — so much so that he’s been invited to the team’s private junior test this week.
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While Alpine had its heart set on Gasly, the team surely knows that a Gasly-Ocon line-up is a risky proposition given their history.
Furthermore, while De Vries has flown under the radar for much of the year, there is no ignoring his pedigree as a Formula 2 and Formula E champion who comes with three years of Mercedes test and reserve driver experience. He’s a valuable asset.
If he can back up his impressive debut race with a solid test in Budapest, where he’s being measured against known quantities, he may just snatch the market’s most coveted seat and close the door to Gasly’s promotion.
WHAT ABOUT WILLIAMS?
That would of course be bad news for Williams as well as Gasly. The backmarker has reportedly firmed in his decision to remove Nicholas Latifi at the end of the season despite the Canadian’s camp rumored to have put together a more attractive financial package in pursuit of an extra year.
There are two clear options if De Vries is off the market.
The first is that it promotes its junior driver, Logan Sargeant, from Formula 2. The American was an outside shot at the title until a string of DNFs shortly before the mid-season break took him out of the running.
Conventional wisdom suggests he should complete another year to consolidate a strong campaign and then make the argument for promotion for 2024, but Williams’ boss Jost Capito told Motorsport that he’s willing to take a risk on the 21-year-old.
“I think he’s ready,” he said. “I’m confident that he’s ready.”
But Sargeant must first ensure he finishes in the top five in the F2 standings to secure a super license — no guarantee given he’s currently third and the drivers in fourth, fifth and sixth are tied just nine points behind him with one round to go.
If he doesn’t qualify, Jack Doohan has already qualified for a super license and is currently fourth in the standings.
Doohan has come along in leaps and bounds this year, but it’s only his first full-time season in the junior category and he’s still rough around the edges.
Although he’s on Alpine’s short list if it somehow manages to lose both Gasly and De Vries — not out of the question given the team’s form — it’s thought more likely that he’ll be loaned to Williams for a year to establish himself, as was to be the plan for Oscar Piastri.
It would be a risk for Doohan given Sargeant could be only a year away from promotion, but it would then be in his hands to make a case for himself to stay beyond 2023 either at Williams or another team.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE GRID?
Two other seats are still nominally available, one each at Alfa Romeo and Haas.
Incumbent Zhou Guanyu expected to have a contract extension announced ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix next week, closing the door at Alfa Romeo after a convincing rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, Haas is yet to decide on Mick Schumacher’s fate, and despite earlier reports, Ferrari hasn’t axed the German from its junior driver roster.
“With Mick, as we said at the start of the season, it’s important for him this season to improve,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said, per the F1 website. “We will in a few races sit down with him, make a balance of the season, and we’ll do that as well together with Haas and decide his best future.”
It’s hardly a vote of confidence, but with his form improving in the second half of the year, his retention isn’t out of the question.
But Nico Hulkenberg has entered the frame as the team’s preferred alternative, with ESPN reporting that Kevin Magnussen has even endorsed the idea given the experience the 181-start veteran would bring to the team with ambitions to move to the head of the midfield.
Giovinazzi, who entered FP1 for the team in Italy and will do so again in the United States, is also o the short list though thought less likely, with his on-track appearances more about Haas’s relationship with Ferrari than they are an evaluation for 2023 .
And despite Haas boss Guenther Steiner having reached out to Daniel Ricciardo before the mid-season break, the Aussie doesn’t appear to be seen to play any further role in the driver market this season without another seismic twist.
With Alpine having him low on its list of options after his sudden walkout in 2020 and with the rest of the midfield’s prospects apparently not taking his fancy, a year on the sidelines is firming as his most likely course of action for 2023.