With a number of top Formula 1 drivers out of contract at the end of the year, the 2021 driver market was expected to be a thriller, but the situation has changed dramatically.

Some big-name deals have already been agreed over the winter, while the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has complicated the picture by delaying the start of the 2020 season until mid-June at the earliest.

Ferrari announced just before Christmas that it had handed Charles Leclerc a new five-year contract until the end of 2024 following his impressive first season at the Italian team, in which he beat his four-time world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel in the championship.

The second big domino fell a few weeks later at the turn of the year when Max Verstappen committed his future to the Red Bull-Honda project by penning a new deal until the end of the 2023 season.

Both announcements marked significant moves in the driver market and effectively stagnated the chance of any major surprises occurring this year.

The remaining big players

The key protagonists left to resolve their respective futures are Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo.

For Hamilton, the situation appears clear from the outside at least; the six-time world champion looks set to extend his successful spell at Mercedes into 2021 and beyond, and there is little reason to suggest why he would do otherwise, despite some rumours of the winter linking him to Ferrari.

Negotiations with Mercedes are yet to begin but neither party has reason to rush through talks given their current standing. It is also hard to see Mercedes not sticking with Valtteri Bottas for at least another year.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto has insisted that Vettel remains the Scuderia’s number one choice to partner Leclerc and has downplayed any links to Hamilton. In fact, Binotto recently revealed he has already started talks with the German over a new deal.

Arguably, the biggest question mark out of the aforementioned key players is Ricciardo. The Australian endured a frustrating first campaign with Renault as the French manufacturer slipped to a disappointing fifth in the championship in 2019.

Renault has long been targeting 2021 as the year it would finally return to a competitive-enough state to be able to challenge for race wins again, but the decision to delay the introduction of the planed technical regulation overhaul until 2022 has muddied the picture.

Approaching 31, Ricciardo may no longer have the patience to sit out another two years of middle-of-the-pack mediocracy when there is potential for a more competitive seat to open up - possibly at Ferrari - as this writer considered in another piece earlier this week.

What else needs sorting?

The seat alongside Verstappen at Red Bull also remains far from secured. Alexander Albon heads into his first full-season at the Milton Keynes squad with plenty of pressure on his shoulders after joining mid-way through 2019 as replacement for the underperforming Pierre Gasly.

Albon knows better than most just how important it is that he not only performs well, but gets closer to the level of Verstappen this year, if he is to retain his drive beyond the end of the season.

He must deliver to ward off interest over his seat from the AlphaTauri pairing of Gasly and Daniil Kvyat, as well as the increasing number of promising young talent in the Red Bull junior ranks that will be vying for any opportunities that might fall their way.

At McLaren things look pretty stable and it is likely its strong partnership consisting of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris will continue with the team beyond the end of 2020 with little suggestion of any change coming at McLaren in the near future.

Renault will be waiting on Ricciardo’s decision before making any calls on who to replace him with, though team boss Cyril Abiteboul refused to rule out a move for Vettel in the event Ricciardo joined Ferrari. Esteban Ocon is a great fit for Renault and the Frenchman is understood to be part of the team’s long-term plans.

If needed, a ready-made replacement for Ricciardo in 2021 could come from within Renault’s driver academy, with the likes of its F2 pair Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard impressing in the last few years, despite having a long way to go before they are at the same calibre of the seven-time grand prix winner.

AlphaTauri’s line-up will be heavily influenced by what happens upstairs at Red Bull, but the most likely scenario would see the solid combination of Gasly and Kvyat continuing into 2021. Only a nightmare for Albon, or a stunning campaign from the likes of one of Red Bull’s juniors such as Yuri Vips, Jehan Daruvala or Sergio Sette Camara would sway any form of shake-up.

Sergio Perez is one of a handful of drivers already signed up to 2021, having agreed a new three-year deal with Racing Point that runs through to 2022. Only an unexpected opening at one of the top teams would surely prize the Mexican away from the comfortable position he has found himself at. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he is most likely to be joined by Lance Stroll, given the investment his father, Lawrence, has made into the Silverstone-based outfit and its impending transformation into Aston Martin.

The Alfa Romeo situation is perhaps one of the most intriguing. Kimi Raikkonen initially signed a two-year deal at the Swiss squad following his Ferrari exit in 2019. The Finn, by far the oldest on the grid at 40 years of age, finds himself out of contract at the end of the year.

While he has given no indication of any impending retirement from the sport, Raikkonen may call it quits if he does not fancy another year driving the same 2020 Alfa Romeo car that did not look particularly inspiring during pre-season testing.

He well may have been tempted to extend his spell in F1 to try out the new 2021 cars, but that delay means he would have to keep racing beyond 42 to do so now.

Raikkonen waving goodbye to F1 would leave Alfa Romeo with a big hole to fill given his vast experience, which perhaps might throw an F1 lifeline to Nico Hulkenberg, who has been left without a drive this year following his Renault exit.

In the second Alfa seat, Antonio Giovinazzi is in need of a strong season to avoid any question marks over his future, with Ferrari proteges Mick Schumacher, Marcus Armstrong, Robert Shwartzman and Giuliano Alesi all waiting in the wings in F2.

Uncertainty remains at Haas given the team’s owner Gene Haas is currently weighing up his side’s future in the sport beyond the end of the year. Assuming the US outfit decides to continue, will it want to ring the changes after running an unchanged driver line-up of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean for the past three years?

Team principal Guenther Steiner got increasingly frustrated with his drivers at times last year amid the team’s struggles, as highlighted in Netflix’s Drive to Survive. However, Magnussen and Grosjean do offer Haas a known and stable option. A replacement could come in the shape of Hulkenberg, or one of its test and reserve drivers Pietro Fittipaldi or Louis Deletraz.

Williams are the team most likely to be hit hardest by the current lack of racing, given it operates at a much smaller budget compared to the leading contenders.

George Russell seems pretty nailed on for a 2021 drive in normal circumstances, unless Mercedes wish to pluck their junior driver from the team and put him in the works squad, while Nicholas Latifi brings a cash injection with him thanks to his personal sponsors. It remains to be seen whether the British squad will require additional funds going forwards.

Amid the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, it seems we will have to wait longer than usual for the 2021 driver market puzzle to become clearer…