Thursday in Singapore yielded two important announcements that will help define how the final few pieces of the Formula 1 driver market puzzle will fall into place for 2020.

Confirmation from Haas that it would be retaining Romain Grosjean for next season was followed by Robert Kubica’s announcing his exit from Williams at the end of the year, acting as the latest two dominoes to fall.

It may be a far cry from last year’s driver market madness, but how will the rest of the grid be filled out in the coming weeks and months?

The biggest loser from Grosjean’s confirmation at Haas was Renault exile Nico Hulkenberg, who has lost his most realistic chance of remaining on the F1 grid for 2020.

Haas F1 boss Gunther Steiner stressed the importance of continuity for the team heading into next season after significant struggles with the VF-19, casting doubt on whether adding a new element – ie a new driver – would actually bring any improvements or only make things worse.

Steiner claimed no offer was made by Haas, but Hulkenberg suggested otherwise on Thursday, saying talks were “serious”. He also stressed the need for a deal that worked for him on more levels than simply being on the grid for next year, saying he was “not desperate” to stick around for the sake of it.

But the chances of Hulkenberg finding such a deal look slim. Just five seats remain free – two at Toro Rosso; one apiece at Williams, Red Bull and Alfa Romeo – and only two of them are realistic options.

Despite being linked with Red Bull as a possible replacement for Pierre Gasly earlier this year, Hulkenberg said on Thursday that it was not a realistic option for 2020, leaving Alfa Romeo and Williams as his only outs.

Antonio Giovinazzi may not have excelled during his time with Alfa Romeo this year, but team boss Frederic Vasseur spoke on Friday of the need to give the Italian time. “We are focused with Antonio. Antonio had a tough weekend at Spa, but had a strong recovery the week after in Monza, and we want to help him to pick up and continue to improve,” Vasseur said.

“I’m really focused on Antonio, I think he is doing step by step a good job. The speed is there for sure. He is matching Kimi in qualy since the first one. Absolutely nothing to complain about on the speed. I just want to score more points, but so does everybody.”

Vasseur and Hulkenberg do have history, the German having raced for ART Grand Prix in junior formulae. Vasseur was also instrumental in the signing of Hulkenberg to Renault for the 2017 season, calling him “a perfect match” for the team at the time.

But the influence of Ferrari could put paid to hopes of Hulkenberg joining Alfa Romeo. It holds a say in the seat Giovinazzi currently holds, acting as the entry point for any future Ferrari junior drivers to join the F1 grid. Unless faith in Giovinazzi has dwindled at Maranello this year, it is unlikely Ferrari would be happy to jettison him in favour of Hulkenberg.

Hulkenberg himself conceded he may no longer control his destiny. “I think you see and understand for yourself what is still available, which seats are and which are not,” Hulkenberg said. “I think that’s pretty obvious. Right now, I don’t know. I think to an extent it is out of my control now, out of my hands.”

Options outside F1 are limited, particularly with the FIA World Endurance Championship season already underway and the Formula E grid filling up, but Hulkenberg is refusing to consider any alternatives until he knows his chances in F1 are over: “My head is very much here still. And it would only be something I’d consider a little bit down the line if I knew that things were not going ahead here.”

One thing Hulkenberg would not entertain is IndyCar, on account of the ovals. “Generally ovals for me is not something that attracts me, that strikes me,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that but it is just not my thing. So I would count that out.” McLaren boss Zak Brown told F1.com after today’s press conference that Hulkenberg had been spoken to about the team’s vacant IndyCar seat for 2020, only to be rebuffed.

With his options so limited, is Williams the only chance Hulkenberg has of saving his F1 career?

It may not be a level he wishes to stoop to. It was a question about a potential return to Williams that led Hulkenberg to say he was "not desperate" to stay on the grid next year. While there would be an element of romanticism in rejoining the team he started his F1 career with back in 2010, Hulkenberg would be stepping down to a low level. For a driver like George Russell, who is gaining experience, it’s not so bad. What would Hulkenberg have to gain from the move, though?

Asked if he could take a year out from F1 for a second time and still return (having done so in 2011), Hulkenberg said: “It’s very different. That was right at the beginning of my career, that was right after my first year. They’re all very hypothetical questions.

“Who knows if I would want to come back? Maybe I would enjoy time off as well.”

As attractive as Hulkenberg may be for Williams, Nicholas Latifi looks on course to land the seat alongside Russell for 2020. While he may miss out on the Formula 2 title, he should still pick up enough Super Licence points to be able to join the F1 grid. He’s been working closely with Williams this year in a development role, taking part in several free practice sessions, and would benefit from the experience in a similar way to Russell.

Attention then turns to the three Red Bull-held seats – one at the senior team, two at Toro Rosso – but there will be no outside interference, making it a non-event. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said there was no need to rush into a decision on who would partner Max Verstappen next year, giving Alexander Albon plenty of time to prove himself against known-quantities Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat.

“We don’t need to be in any rush,” Horner said. “All the drivers that are under consideration are under contract. We’re in a unique position where we don’t need to rush anything, so we’ll take the fullness of time to look and evaluate more the progress of Alex, and measure it against Dany and Pierre.”

Barring any major changes late in the year, it seems the major acts of silly season have now played out and been completed. We may not get the complete grid through until after Abu Dhabi, particularly as Red Bull and Alfa Romeo look to give their drivers time to prove themselves, but there appear to be safe bets on where the final puzzle pieces will fit.

And then will come silly season for 2021, when the majority of the grid is out of contract. That is when the real fun will start.

 

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