Last year’s F1 silly season was one of the most fascinating for years but 2021 could prove even more intriguing given that half of the grid is out of contract at the end of the current campaign. 

Some teams will opt for stability with sweeping regulation changes on the horizon, while others will see the start of a new era as the perfect time to shake things up. 

As the highest-profile driver not yet signed up for 2022, Hamilton will undoubtedly be the key player in the driver market. Any decision the seven-time world champion makes is likely to have big repercussions further down the grid. 

Considering Hamilton’s latest comments about his future, the focus could instead soon shift onto who will join him at Mercedes next season. 

Russell will be a free agent at the end of the year and is viewed as the strongest candidate alongside Bottas for a drive at Mercedes. 

The 23-year-old Briton has long been considered as a star of the future by Mercedes - who signed Russell to its junior programme in 2017 - and his superb performances at Williams over the past two years have put him right in the frame. 

Russell raised eyebrows by outperforming Bottas and coming agonisingly close to a fairytale maiden F1 win when he stood in for Hamilton at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix. 

Indeed, Mercedes could decide to stick with its trusted current pairing, especially if Wolff does not want to risk upheaval on the eve of major rule changes. 

But could F1’s underrated star of 2021 thrust himself into the equation and make it a three-way scrap?

Esteban Ocon has enjoyed an impressive start to the season, having led the rebranded Alpine squad’s charge so far. 

Ocon has certainly done his reputation no harm by outclassing returning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso at the opening four races, with the Spaniard still working to get fully up to speed in his comeback year. 

The Frenchman, who claimed his maiden podium in Sakhir last year, has outqualified Alonso at the last three rounds and also recorded Alpine’s best result of the season so far with seventh-place at the Portuguese Grand Prix. 

Ocon followed that up with a stunning qualifying effort that saw him seal fifth on the grid in Barcelona. Although he ultimately slipped back to ninth in the race, Ocon was able to score further points for the team with a result that sees him hold ninth spot in the championship. 

And his performances haven’t gone unnoticed by Wolff and Mercedes. Ocon was a Mercedes junior when he started off in F1 at Manor and he later acted as Mercedes’ reserve driver in 2019 before signing a two-year deal with Renault’s works outfit to make his full-time return following his enforced spell on the sidelines. 

Ocon is currently considered an outside bet for a Mercedes seat in 2022 but Wolff refused to categorically rule him out of the running at last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix. 

When asked if the second seat will be a straight shoot-out between Bottas and Russell, Wolff replied: "Esteban is also one of the drivers that is connected to us, whilst being a full-fledged Renault or Alpine driver.

"We have a very good relationship with Alpine. So obviously Valtteri is the driver today, and Lewis is the driver today, and what will be next year, will be next year.

“He [Ocon] has impressed me,” Wolff added. “How well he qualifies and how well he races, and now it’s just about consolidating that position.” 

However, Wolff says it will ultimately be up to Ocon and Alpine to decide on their future first before Mercedes gets involved with his plans for 2022. 

"It's a little bit of a weird situation, because he's been a Mercedes junior for a long time, and he's an Alpine works driver now," Wolff explained. 

"That's a fact. I think the situation is good for him there. He's growing, he's putting in the performances. He's French. All that is very much the stars aligning.

"I think it needs to be Laurent [Rossi, Alpine CEO] and Esteban's call first, how to continue, before we start to give an opinion.”

Ocon insists that his current focus remains on continuing to deliver for Alpine and that he is not thinking about the prospect of landing a Mercedes seat for 2022. 

"What I'm focusing on is to do a good job here, at Alpine," Ocon said. "I think we have to be glad with our progress, and I'm glad with the progress I've made as well this year.

"I'm focusing on delivering the best I can at each single race, so you know, for sure if you perform, there will always be talks and things going on.

"But my aim is to deliver for the team that I'm racing at, and my home is here at the moment.”

Either way you look at it, the early signs point to Ocon being in a pretty strong position when it comes to the 2022 F1 driver market.

Should Ocon’s fine performances continue, Alpine will surely want to tie him down to a fresh contract, while Mercedes will be keeping a close eye on the situation and how he progresses. 

One thing is for certain, talk of who will drive for Mercedes next year is likely to dominate the paddock chatter over the coming months.

 

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