The Formula 1 driver market took another twist ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix, with Haas announcing it will field a brand-new driver line-up for 2021. 

Haas’ decision to drop both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen after four years means it now needs to find two new candidates to fill its spare seats for next season, having only ever run three different drivers since it joined the F1 grid back in 2016. 

So, what has changed and led to this dramatic shake-up? 

The thinking behind Haas’ double drop 

The decision to dispose of the services of Grosjean and Magnussen reflects a shift in the team’s priorities heading into 2021. 

Having committed itself to F1 by signing the Concorde Agreement, Haas can now look towards the future. 

The American outfit is fully focused on capitalising on the major regulation change coming in 2022 and wanted to make changes now so that it can approach the sport’s new era with a stable driver situation. 

Team principal Guenther Steiner said it decided to drop both drivers at the same time because it has “nothing to lose” with fielding an all-new line-up in its current competitive status, which is unlikely to change in the short-term given teams will carry over their current cars into next year.

Steiner also revealed the decision was made “two or three weeks ago”, with the drivers informed last week in order to provide Magnussen and Grosjean as much time as possible to firm up their respective plans for next year.

“Next year I think it will be better, I hope it will be better, we work to be better – but the chances that we are back to our 2018 form next year is pretty low,” Steiner explained.

“We need to be realistic as well. So, if you make a change, you better make it like now that we have got something to build up again and not go into [a situation] where you have something to lose.

“At the moment, next year we have nothing to lose. We just have to gain. We cannot lose a lot more from where we are now.

“What we want to do is have the same drivers in 2022 when the new regulation comes out because there is a new car. So next year is also an opportunity. It’s a challenge because our package looks like it will not be wonderful.

“The opportunity is to build up the rest of what we have got for 22 when we hopefully are better again, or back to where we want to be.”

Another significant factor behind the decision was financially-driven, particularly in the current uncertain times globally that have been posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Haas has run to a tight budget ever since it entered F1, and those resources have been stretched further this year, not helped by the salaries Grosjean and Magnussen command. 

Both drivers acknowledged the fact that neither of them being in a position to bring big sponsorship to the team was something which ultimately hurt their chances of retaining their seats.

Asked if the news had come as a surprise to him, Grosjean replied: "Yes, a little bit. 

"I knew probably one of us will be out at the end of the year, just because of the situation around the world, and how COVID has made it very hard financially for a lot of companies around the world.

"So I knew one of us would go out, and that's why I said to Gunther on the call when he called me that I was expecting one of us, and he said, 'No, for financial reasons, I need both of you out.’

"So fair enough, I fully understand. I know it's been a tough year with COVID in a lot of industries or companies that suffer from it. The team is going a different path, and I wish them luck and the best for the future.”

The key candidates Haas in the frame 

At one stage, Haas’ shortlist for 2021 comprised at least 10 drivers. While Steiner refused to name the drivers the team is considering for the vacant seats or give a definitive number, he did indicate that “we are down to a lot less people now.” 

Heading the front of the queue of candidates is understood to be Ferrari Academy Driver Mick Schumacher, who has also been linked to Alfa Romeo as the current Formula 2 championship leader. 

Steiner said Haas would consider running two rookie drivers, meaning that its believed top target Schumacher could be joined by another Ferrari junior in the shape of Robert Shwartzman or Callum Ilott, although the latter is not considered to be in the race for a seat at this stage.  

Both Schumacher and Shwartzman have commercial backing, and bringing the Schumacher name back into F1 would undoubtedly enhance Haas’ marketing value and potentially open the door to new sponsorship opportunities. 

Another F2 frontrunner Nikita Mazepin has been heavily linked and is believed to be a real contender thanks to the support of his billionaire businessman father, Dimitry, who had been rumoured to be the subject of a potential buyout of the team, though such speculation has been strongly refuted by Steiner. 

Steiner has not ruled out the prospect of taking on a pay driver, saying that “money and talent” are Haas’ preferences when it comes to selecting its new drivers. 

“We could be, as well. Money and talent,” Steiner replied when asked if Haas was looking for at least one driver who could bring financial backing to the team. 

“Talent always needs to be there, not only money. Talent is very important or more important. But some people have got sponsorship they bring with them, so we are looking at all the options out there as well.”

Haas appears to be favouring the youthful approach at this time, with experienced free agents Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez not believed to be in the frame. 

Antonio Giovinazzi, whose future at Alfa Romeo remains uncertain, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate given the team’s Ferrari links, but the Italian said the decision would ultimately not be up to him. 

“I think it’s not my decision,” he explained. “Like I always say, I am focused on my job that is driving, and then for the rest it is not my decision. We need to see what happens with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo and then we’ll see.

“First of all, I hope a decision will come soon and for me the target is to be on the grid next year. I would like to be with Alfa Romeo because for me it’s an important team – it’s the team that I started my career with, in Formula 1.

"I would like to continue with Alfa Romeo but like I say, it’s not my decision, there’s talking going on and hopefully soon we can have the answer.”

With a host of attractive options available, there is no wonder that Steiner believes his side has “lucked in” to the driver market this year. As such, the team is in no mood to rush such an important decision for its future. 

With Haas set to bide its time before making a final call, don’t expect any quick-fire announcements just yet…

 

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