The 2017 Formula One grid is still yet to be mostly set, with Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren the only teams to so far confirm their drivers for the forthcoming season. Force India and Toro Rosso have confirmed at least one driver while Haas, Renault, Manor and Sauber currently have no drivers under contract.
So who is going to fill these rather large gaps? There are still 12 spots on the grid up for grabs, but it is understood some of those are already filled. Firstly at Haas, it has been reported that Romain Grosjean will stay put for another season at the new American outfit, which is highly likely. Secondly, at Williams, it’s extremely likely Valtteri Bottas will remain their for his fourth season with the team and his first as team leader.
Speaking of Williams, it’s still hotly contested as to who will occupy the last seat following Felipe Massa’s retirement announcement in Monza. However, the man who has been tipped for the job is 17 year old, Lance Stroll. The well backed Canadian is currently competing in European Formula 3 whilst serving as Williams official development driver. He’s been a face in Formula One before as he also served as the development driver for Ferrari in 2015. In terms of F3 performances, he’s in a great position to win this years championship, notably ahead Serge Sette Camara and Nikita Mazepin who have both tested in Formula One (Toro Rosso and Force India respectively) this year.
The other potential option for Williams is Alex Lynn. Like Stroll, Lynn has worked alongside Williams as a development driver since 2015. He is currently competing in GP2, but a less-than-satisfactory 2016 season appears to have led Williams favor Stroll over himself.
Other than Stroll and Lynn, there are only limited choices for Williams. Felipe Nasr, who currently drives for Sauber, previously served as a test driver for the team in 2014 and could be a potential option as he has showed distaste previously toward Sauber this year. Sergio Perez was also rumored briefly, but given Force India generally outperforming Williams in the past few months, it’s unlikely he would look to them over Force India. Mercedes young driver program member, Pascal Wehrlein, has also been linked to Williams given Mercedes supplies their engine. This move is realistically the most plausible of the three in this paragraph – but I imagine Williams would go for Stroll or Lynn ahead of the German.
Moving on, and Renault is still the most prolific contested seats on the market with drivers left, right and center all being rumored for contention. With current drivers, Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer out of contract at the end of season – it appears at the minimum, only one will still be driving with the Enstone team in 2017.
The most viable choice for one of the Renault seats appears to be their current development driver, Esteban Ocon. The thing that will stop Ocon is his relationship with Mercedes-Benz. It’s still unconfirmed whether the German giants would allow the 19 year old to sign a full race contract with Renault – their effective opposition. Mercedes are responsible for giving Ocon his current race seat with Manor, who are customers of Mercedes. If this problem is overcome, it’s highly likely Esteban Ocon will occupy one of the 2017 Renault seats.
In terms of the 2nd, I think it would be pretty stupid to pass on Kevin Magnussen. Keeping him guarantees Renault a bit of stability. He has proven his talent with his 2014 season at McLaren and performances in 2016, notably Russia. His timely 10th place at the recent Singapore Grand Prix only further helped his chances.
Sergio Perez was also rumored to move here, but again I think it would be silly for him to leave Force India with no guarantee of success at Renault in 2017. Sebastien Buemi was also linked earlier, but it’s too late now for a move that big to materialize. Renault haven’t really expressed a large interest in any other big name drivers who could beat the value of Kevin Magnussen, and thus I would lock him into that seat for another year at the minimum.
Moving onto Manor, the phoenix of all Formula One teams. It’s an interesting choice for who Manor will choose. Their first seat depends on Ocon’s 2017 career decision. If he doesn’t move to Renault as discussed above, then he should keep his current seat at Manor.
Pascal Wehrlein is also likely to keep his seat despite not yet signing for another year. He has well-in-truly proved his worth in 2016 with a brilliant drive to 10th in Austria best summing up his undeniable talent. With Williams the only other option for Wehrlein (given their ties with Mercedes), it appears unlikely in my mind that Wehrlein would move as he’ll be chasing a works Mercedes seat for 2018. I would lock him into a 2017 Manor seat.
In terms of replacements, Jordan King would be the first plausible option for Manor as he has spent 2016 as their test driver. Alongside those duties he has competed in GP2 with mixed success, 3 podiums with 2 sprint race wins in Austria and Silverstone. He currently sits 5th in the championship, 62 points adrift of series leader, Pierre Gasly. Rio Haryanto is the other rumored option for a race seat. After spending the first 11 rounds of 2016 occupying a race seat, Haryanto’s Indonesian money dried up and he was dropped in favor of Ocon. Haryanto stepped down to the reserve driver role. However it’s been rumored that this stream of money has returned and will be ready for 2017. But the simple fact of the matter is the 2017 Manor drivers will be chosen on what Ocon and Wehrlein do with their futures.
Next up, Toro Rosso. They currently have one driver signed for 2017, Carlos Sainz Jr. He is set to become just the third man, alongside Jean-Eric Vergne and Sebastien Buemi, to spend 3 seasons with the Red Bull Junior Team.
Realistically, there is only two options for the 2nd Toro Rosso seat in 2017: keep Daniil Kvyat or promote Pierre Gasly. Kvyat has had a dismal 2016 season after being demoted from Red Bull Racing to Toro Rosso for the Spanish Grand Prix onwards. Since then, he’s scored a mere 4 points to Sainz’s 26 and hasn’t looked like a driver who could deal with the demands of Red Bull Racing. Because of this, keeping him at Toro Rosso is simply wasting space.
The better option is Pierre Gasly who currently leads the GP2 series. He’s proven his worth by winning three main races in the 2016 GP2 series and taking a total of seven podiums. If he wins the series this year, he won’t be allowed to compete in it for 2017 and thus he’ll need a new job (GP2 champion is permitted to re-race in the series). Being a member of Red Bull’s Young Driver program means Gasly has already tested with both Red Bull and Toro Rosso in 2016. He would be my pick for Toro Rosso’s 2nd driver in 2017.
The next item on the agenda in the 2017 grid is not a team, but a person, Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver has been rumored to almost every team that has an available seat given his simply incredible and shockingly stunning talent showed in 2016. He’s a master at managing the tires and that has awarded him and Force India two podiums in 2016 at Monaco and Baku.
At the 2016 British Grand Prix, Force India’s Team Principal, Dr Vijay Mallya, stated that he had signed Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez for 2017, something which the latter denied. His sponsors said they were looking elsewhere and since then he has been the most talked about driver in Formula One. He’s been linked to Williams, Renault and Ferrari before Raikkonen was resigned. However, I think now with Raikkonen staying at Ferrari for another season, Perez would be taking a massive leap into the unknown by leaving Force India. He will be best to stay and with each day that passes it appears more and more likely this is what he’ll do, but we still eagerly await.
The last team with two available seats is Sauber. The team was recently bought by Longbow finance in a move that saw the team saved from certain bankruptcy. These backers have been linked to the same company that sponsors Marcus Ericsson, Sauber’s current driver. So it appears Marcus Ericsson has effectively bought himself his own Formula One team, and for me this almost solidifies his 2017 seat – despite recent rumors he was looking elsewhere.
His team mate Felipe Nasr is likely to stay, unless he, surprisingly, can get a move to Williams. Other than the historic British team, Nasr doesn’t have many career options. It’s likely he’ll stay with Sauber. If he did leave, it’s very hard to say who would replace him. In 2016, Sauber have not had a reserve driver because of the strain with money – they couldn’t afford one. This leaves little in my of who could replace him. Raffaele Marricello (who previously worked with the team in 2015) or a Ferrari development driver would be the only people who spring to mind.
So 2017 looks like an interesting year for the driver market. It promises to be an exciting few months as careers of future World Champions begin. But let us know what you think? Is there any reasoning you disagree with? Who do you think will fill those 12 available spots?
By – Steven Walton