Should Mercedes choose Ocon or Bottas? Making sense of the 2020 F1 driver market

Formula 1

F1’s summer break is traditionally the time when decisions are made over driver line-ups for the following year, and as F1 left the paddock in Hungary last weekend, there were as many rumoured changes as confirmed drivers for 2020. Below, we outline the situation at each team and attempt to cut through the paddock chatter to figure out who is going where next year…

Mercedes

2020 lineup: Lewis Hamilton, TBC

Mercedes holds the key to this year’s driver market as it makes a straight choice between incumbent race driver Valtteri Bottas and reserve driver Esteban Ocon. The team plans to make a decision over the summer break, while doing everything in its power to ensure the driver who doesn’t get picked finds a seat elsewhere.

There are strong arguments for either Bottas or Ocon racing alongside Lewis Hamilton next year. Ocon is clearly hungry for success and could score more points than Bottas, who has proved fragile under pressure at times this year. But with that extra hunger comes an edgier, win-at-all costs mentality that might upset Hamilton and team harmony. Mercedes had warring teammates once before with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and will not want to revisit the scenario. What’s more, Ocon, while clearly talented, failed to outscore Segio Perez in two years at Force India and has never dealt with the pressure of driving for a top team.

Add to that the potential for resurgent challenges from Ferrari and Red Bull in 2020 and it makes more sense to continue with the status quo and stick with Bottas. The Finn has clearly improved from last year despite suffering a degree of bad luck in the opening 12 races and is now often a match for Hamilton in terms of qualifying pace.

Hamilton would still be the driver Mercedes expects to win championships, while Bottas would continue as the understudy — capable of winning races and even a championship if the cards fall his way. It should also be noted that Bottas, not Hamilton, often took the lead in car setup earlier this year when the team was still figuring out how to maximize performance from the new regulations.

Another factor with Ocon is his age. At just 22 years old, he desperately needs to return to F1 next year, but it doesn’t have to be with a top-line team to continue the momentum in his career. Speaking in Hungary, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff hinted that if Ocon was let go at the end of this year, he might be kept on a very long piece of string to return at a later date.

“I think he must be given the opportunity in Formula One, either with us or with another team, and who knows what happens in 2, 3 ,4 years down the line? These guys [Ocon, Max Verstappen and George Russell] are all so young. They’re between 20 and 22 years old — which is the age Lewis was when he joined Formula One — so all the future is bright for all of these young guys.”

With that in mind, Wolff will also be keen to look beyond 2020 and the major shake-up expected in the driver market ahead of 2021. Hamilton’s contract expires at the end of 2020 and it would be silly for Mercedes not to explore other opportunities in case the five-time world champion decides to move elsewhere or retire. As good as Mercedes other drivers — Ocon, Bottas and Williams driver George Russell – are, a pairing in any combination for 2021 would lack the box-office appeal Mercedes and its partners have become used to.

As a result, a lot of the recent noise around Max Verstappen joining as early as next year (something that both Mercedes and Red Bull have now ruled out) could actually be early maneuvering for the 2021 driver market. As a result, whoever gets the 2020 drive is likely to be on a one-year contract and face an even bigger fight for the seat ahead of 2021.

Ferrari

2020 lineup: Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc

Despite murmurings that Sebastian Vettel could be on his way out of Ferrari at the end of the year, the four-time world champion still has another year on his contract and shows no signs of wanting to cut his career short. Two strong races ahead of the summer break have helped stem the flow of questions about retirement and, as things stand, Ferrari looks set to continue with its plan of a Vettel and Charles Lecerc line-up until the end of 2020.

Red Bull

2020 lineup: Max Verstappen, TBC

Ahead of Verstappen’s first win of the season at the Austrian Grand Prix, Red Bull team advisor Helmut Marko hinted that the 21-year-old might be able to get out of his contract at the end of the year with the help of a performance clause. The suggestion was that Verstappen would be able to leave the team if he was lower than third in the championship after the Hungarian Grand Prix — something Verstappen has since ruled himself out of with four solid performances — and the rumour mill inevitably linked him to Bottas’ seat at Mercedes. Asked for confirmation that the option had now closed, team principal Christian Horner said in Hungary: “Pieces of paper are confidential between the driver and the team, but you can rest assured that Max will be driving at Red Bull next year.”

Pierre Gasly’s position at the team is less certain. After scoring just a third of the points of teammate Verstappen in the first 12 races of 2019, there have been suggestions that he might even be replaced before end of the season — a question that has received the same stock response from Horner all year: “Our intention is to leave him the car until the end of the year” — the key word being “intention”. If the plan doesn’t go as intended, Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat would be best placed to swap with Gasly after the summer break.

But assuming Gasly does stay at the team until the end of 2019, Red Bull will have a number of options available for 2020. Within its own pool of drivers, it has Kvyat, who has made a strong return at Toro Rosso after a year out in 2018, and Alex Albon, who has impressed in his debut year after being plucked out of Nissan’s Formula E programme last winter. But promoting Kvyat would hardly represent progress for Red Bull’s driver line-up after the team dropped the Russian midway through 2016 to replace him with Verstappen. As for Albon, there is the risk that he could face the same problems Gasly has encountered this year by being promoted too early.

The only other option would be to look outside the Red Bull driver pool, but the last time the team did that was in 2007 when Mark Webber signed from Williams to partner David Coulthard. Bottas could be a target if he is cut from Mercedes, while Ocon seems less likely given his history with Verstappen. Nico Hulkenberg was mentioned earlier this year, but given Kvyat’s recent run of form and Hulkenberg’s mediocre start to 2012, Red Bull may now be keen to stick with what they know.

In Hungary, Hamilton cheekily suggested Fernando Alonso could be drafted back to F1 as Verstappen’s teammate, but his history with engine-supplier Honda suggests otherwise.

Renault

2020 lineup: Daniel Ricciardo, TBC

2020 will be the second season of Daniel Ricciardo’s lucrative two-year contract with Renault and, despite recent results not going to plan, he remains committed to the cause. Hulkenberg will be out of contract at the end of the year, but speaking ahead of the German Grand Prix two weeks ago, said “I think it’s quite likely that I’ll remain with the team”.

Nevertheless, Renault will want to consider all their options before committing to another contract with Hulkenberg, and that means waiting on the fallout of the Mercedes decision. Had it not been for Daniel Ricciardo’s surprise decision to join Renault from Red Bull last year, Ocon was being lined up as Hulkenberg’s teammate for 2019 and Renault may still be an option for the Frenchman should he fail to get the Mercedes drive next year.

Haas

2020 lineup: TBC, TBC

Haas’ tricky 2019 season has been compounded by regular collisions between its drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. That has raised questions over the team’s 2020 line-up, although Magnussen claimed last year that he is on a two-year deal that extends until the end of 2020.

Nevertheless, Haas is in no rush to confirm or deny any driver for next year. In a recent press conference, team principal Guenther Steiner would not rule out Ocon or Hulkenberg and said his team is waiting on events to unfold elsewhere before committing to its 2020 line-up.

“Somewhere some domino has to fall and then all the other ones get in place, because there’s a lot of non-movement at the moment and until everybody knows who is the first one to move, then the other ones have to wait to fall in place.

“Maybe nothing moves and then nothing falls in place, but at the moment nobody has moved, and until something moves, there are a lot of things going on. There are quite a few drivers with a contract is up for renewal, and if they are all confirmed, it’s very difficult that a lot of things move.”

However, Steiner has made clear that whoever he signs for 2020 must be in a position to commit to at least two years at the team and that he is not interested in taking on a driver who is under contract to a bigger team. As a result, Mercedes would have to cut its ties with Ocon, or at least let him commit for two years, if he is to join as Magnussen’s teammate.

McLaren

2020 lineup: Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris

Ahead of the British Grand Prix, McLaren confirmed it would continue with the same driver line-up for 2020. It came as little surprise given the upward trajectory in the team and the positive relationship between the two drivers. The only other thing it confirmed, although it wasn’t really a surprise, was that Alonso would not be returning with McLaren next year.

Racing Point

2020 lineup: TBC, TBC

Although nothing has been announced, there is no reason to believe Racing Point will change its driver line-up for 2020. Lance Stroll, the son of team owner Lawrence, will not leave and Sergio Perez has hinted that he is closing in on a contract renewal. Speaking in Hungary, team principal Otmar Szafnauer added: “Well nothing’s done until it’s done, but we’re well on our way. I think in due course, not that far into the future, we’ll make the announcement.”

Alfa Romeo

2020 lineup: Kimi Raikkonen, TBC

The 2020 season will represent the second year of Kimi Raikkonen’s two-year contract with Alfa Romeo and there is no reason to believe either side will bail out of that agreement. However, Antonio Giovinazzi’s future at the team is far less certain and will likely depend on Mick Schumacher’s progress in Formula 2 over the rest of the year.

Alfa Romeo is ultimately owned by the same parent company as Ferrari and its sponsorship deal of Sauber means Ferrari has a say over who occupies the second seat alongside Raikkonen. Schumacher, the son of seven-time champion Michael, is the most high-profile name in the Ferrari Driver Academy and, after testing for both Ferrari and Alfa Romeo in Bahrain, appears to be destined for F1.

But Schumacher’s debut year in F2 has been underwhelming so far and it took until the sprint race in Hungary for him to secure his first win — largely thanks to a reverse grid pole position. In Formula 3 last year, he kicked on in the second half of the season to secure the championship, but he faces a much bigger challenge in F2 and would likely benefit from a second year in F1’s feeder series to hone his skills.

That could result in a stay of execution for Giovinazzi, although Pascal Wehrlein, who last raced in F1 for Sauber in 2017, is also looking for a way back into the sport and is currently a Ferrari simulator driver.

Toro Rosso

2020 lineup: TBC, TBC

Toro Rosso would happily continue with its two drivers, Kvyat and Albon, in 2020, but its line-up will all depend on Red Bull’s decision (see above). Red Bull’s young driver programme has struggled to deliver drivers with enough F1 superlicence points of late (drivers earn points in junior categories to build towards the 40 they need over three years to race in F1), and of the current crop on nine Red Bull juniors, Juri Vips will be the only one with the necessary 40 points, assuming he retains his current second place position in the F3 championship.

Former IndyCar driver Patrico O’Ward was drafted into the Red Bull Junior Team earlier this year as a potential option for Toro Rosso in the belief he already had enough superlicence points to make the jump to F1. However, his 2018 Indy Lights title is not eligible for points as the series did not meet the minimum requirement of 12 cars at all races and he is unlikely to make up the difference after being dropped into Super Formula midway through the year.

Williams

2020 lineup: George Russell, TBC

In Hungary, Mercedes confirmed it will honour the second year of George Russell’s contract at Williams, meaning the reigning F2 champion will stay put in 2020. Wolff wants him to learn his trade at the team, even if it means driving at the back of the grid for another couple of seasons, and at 21 years of age he has time on his side.

Speaking about the second seat, Claire Williams recently said Robert Kubica is “doing what he needs to do” and stressed that there are “no frustrations” within the team despite Kubica’s underwhelming performances so far this year. However, reserve driver Nichloas Latifi is on course to secure the necessary superlicence points to move up to F1 next year and has the potential to bring a weighty financial package with him. He is currently second in the F2 championship with more race wins than any of driver this year, and could present a more competitive and lucrative option than Kubica for 2020.

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