Crash.net takes a look at the trio of key players in the driver market that will determine the grid for the 2021 Formula 1 season, with a dramatic shake-up possible.

Only Charles Leclerc (2024), Sergio Perez (2022), Esteban Ocon (2021) and George Russell (2021) have contracts locked in for 2021 and beyond, meaning we could be in store for one of the craziest driver markets in history amid a host of technical, sporting and financial regulation changes.

Here are some of the drivers who are most likely to have the biggest influence on setting off a chain reaction of moves to form 2021’s line up…

Lewis Hamilton

The man who holds the key to the 2021 driver market is reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton.

The Briton, soon to turn 35, is heading into the closing stages of his remarkable F1 career but has given strong indications of his intent to extend his spell in the sport into 2021 and beyond in his quest to eclipse Michael Schumacher’s all-time records.

Hamilton’s current contract with Mercedes runs until the end of the 2020 season and he likely has one - or possibly two - deals left to sign before he ultimately retires, placing even greater emphasis on his next call.

Speculation linking Hamilton to a potential sensational move to Ferrari escalated during the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend when Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said knowing that Hamilton is available in 2021 “can make us only happy”. Reports then surfaced in Italian media that Hamilton had met with Ferrari chairman John Elkann on more than one occasion throughout 2019.

Hamilton asserted his authority as the class of the field by notching up his sixth world title with his latest triumph in 2019, putting him on the verge of matching Schumacher’s record haul of seven championships - a feat he could achieve as early as 2020. With Mercedes remaining the dominant force in F1 as it wrapped up a historic sixth consecutive championship double, would Hamilton really make the switch from silver to red?

A Maranello move certainly poses an attractive proposition given Ferrari’s illustrious position and history in F1. Most drivers will tell you they dream of driving in the famous scarlet overalls one day, though it would not come without risk.

Despite a resurgence in recent years, Ferrari has been unable to usurp Mercedes and continues to endure its decade-long wait for any form of championship silverware. At Mercedes, Hamilton has found a comfortable environment in which he continues to extract the best out of himself while knowing he will be provided with a car strong enough to maintain his current level of supremacy.

However, the lure of potentially delivering Ferrari its first drivers’ title since 2007, becoming a champion with three different teams and the subsequent impact on his legacy by surpassing Schumacher’s records in the process might be tempting for Hamilton. Should Hamilton shock the paddock and depart Mercedes, Esteban Ocon and George Russell would both be among the drivers in consideration to fill his vacated seat. 

In all likelihood, Hamilton will remain at Mercedes. He finds himself in a win-win situation and such paddock talk will only help strengthen his bargaining power when he comes to negotiate his next contract.

Either way, the decision Hamilton makes will have a bearing on how hectic or calm the driver market chain reaction of dominoes turns out to be, with the majority of drivers waiting to see what he does before looking to resolve their respective futures.

Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel is another driver who finds himself at a career crossroads. Multiple times the German had to fend off suggestions he was considering retirement during another frustrating F1 campaign having seen his 2018 title bid collapse in disastrous fashion.

Vettel won just once in 2019 and was often out-performed by his younger teammate Leclerc, who claimed two victories and seven pole positions en route to beating Vettel to fourth place in the championship. A stunning first year at the Prancing Horse resulted in Leclerc receiving a fresh five-year contract running until the end of 2024, effectively confirming he is the future for Ferrari.

Vettel has been non-committal over his desire to remain in F1 going into the championship’s new era post-2020, though he repeatedly stressed there would be no Nico Rosberg-esque bombshell retirement at the end of 2019, confirming he would still be a Ferrari driver come the start of 2020.

With his contract due to expire at the culmination of the upcoming season, Vettel’s decision is likely to be swayed by Ferrari’s performance this year. While Vettel’s 2019 season was ultimately underwhelming, he showed glimpses of his brilliant best in Canada (until his costly late error), Germany, Singapore, Sochi and Japan, of all which acted as a reminder that he remains a force to be reckoned with when at one with his car.

Should Vettel recapture the sort of form that saw him storm to four successive titles in the early 2010s, and if Ferrari can build on its promising gains and fight it out with Mercedes for the title, he may well decide to stick around for a little while longer.

Such a scenario in which Hamilton continues his long-term affiliation with Mercedes would make Ferrari’s decision that much easier. Despite flashes of intra-team tensions between its drivers that flared up throughout 2019, Ferrari knows it has a fast and formidable pairing in Vettel and Leclerc.

A Hamilton-Ferrari 2021 collaboration might result in Vettel trading seats with the Briton at Mercedes, or in him retiring altogether.

Ferrari will also be paying close attention to any developments with Max Verstappen’s future, while the likes of Valtteri Bottas, who earned another one-year deal at Mercedes for 2020, or Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, could emerge as potential candidates to replace Vettel if required.



Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen is arguably the hottest property on the driver market as F1’s standout rising star and another stellar season in 2019 has only further ramped up his value.

Red Bull made substantial gains with new engine suppliers Honda as the year went on and Verstappen picked up three victories on his way to finishing third in the drivers’ standings, though neither he nor Red Bull were ever truly in championship contention.

Just like fellow frontrunners Hamilton and Vettel, Verstappen is out of contract at the end of 2020, putting rival teams Mercedes and Ferrari on red alert.

But Red Bull’s strong end to 2019 has kept Verstappen satisfied, with the Dutchman pleased by Honda’s progress. Honda concluded the year with a power unit that appeared to be on par with Mercedes and not too far behind Ferrari at some of the later rounds, leaving Verstappen and Red Bull’s hierarchy confident about mounting a sustained title push this year.

Further gains over the winter should thrust Red Bull into a possible three-way championship fight, providing it can avoid a slow start to the season, something which has proved to be its Achilles’ Heel in recent years.

At the end of 2019, Verstappen admitted Red Bull’s start to 2020 will be a factor in making a decision over his F1 future, while Hamilton suggested at the FIA prize giving gala in Paris in December that Verstappen was among a number of his rivals to have directly contacted Mercedes boss Toto Wolff about a possible future opening at the reigning world champions. However, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has repeatedly stressed he expects his star driver to stay at Milton Keynes.

Honda’s long-term commitment to F1 is also set to play a major role. The Japanese manufacturer agreed a new one-year deal to supply both Red Bull and its sister squad Alpha Tauri for 2021, with its performance in 2020 and the progress of the 2021 regulations likely to influence any decision taken at Sakura.

 

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