The state of F1’s silliest season
Whereas last season Mercedes announced the ultimately unnecessary extension of Nico Rosberg’s contract with a silent hotel lobby YouTube video, in 2017 the reigning constructors champion played with a much straighter bat.
Valtteri Bottas’s one-year contract extension was announced via press release and with little fanfare — illustrative of how little doubt there was of his retention and how little tension there was in the driver market in the first place.
With Kimi Räikkönen confirmed at Ferrari and Bottas locked down at Mercedes all the in-doubt front-running seats have been sewn up — but the silly season lives on in one of the most complex political webs to dictate the driver market in recent times.
The state of play ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix comprises something of a stand-off between a number of teams and drivers, with none so far willing to blink first and allow the remaining pieces to fall into place.
Indeed most of the remaining moves — if any moves are to be made at all, of course — depend on the resolution of McLaren and Honda’s terminal partnership, the dissolution of which is expected on Friday in Singapore.
Confirmation of McLaren dropping Honda in exchange for Renault is a key test for Fernando Alonso putting pen to paper to extend his stay at the Woking team after the expiry of his current deal at the end of the season.
“There are many options out there that I am studying,” Alonso warned on Thursday. “At the same time I want to give time to my team after the last three years with some struggles we went through together.
“I want to stay loyal at least to that and not make any decisions without them making first their decision.”
McLaren’s complex deal to ditch Honda inducted Toro Rosso and the Renault works team into its machinations. Toro Rosso had to break its power unit supply contract with Renault, in exchange for which Renault demanded Carlos Sainz.
That deal is understood to be complete, with Sainz set to replace Palmer in 2018 and in turn being replaced by 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly at Toro Rosso.
“I cannot really comment until there’s an announcement — if there is,” Sainz said. “If there is something signed, when there is, it will be time to talk, but at the moment it is for me just not worth it. It just takes energy talking about something that has not happened yet.”
Speculation was rife ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix that Palmer would be replaced as soon as Malaysia, but Palmer rubbished claims that this weekend would be his last in F1.
“I have a contract,” he said. “I’ve got seven more races this year. There have been suggestions for the past 35 races that I might not be at the next one or in the next few, so this is nothing new for me.
“I’ll be in Malaysia. I’ll be racing until Abu Dhabi.”
Intriguingly Palmer suggested he is already certain of his 2018 plans.
“I know what’s happening,” he said. “I think there will be an announcement at some point in the future.
“I’m excited about the future. I haven’t thought too much, but I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Williams has been raised as a possible new home for Palmer, hitherto pointless in 2017, but likewise Alonso was linked earlier in the year to Felipe Massa’s Williams seat.
It would have been a surprise move for the Spaniard given Williams’s ongoing struggles to recapture the top-three form it boasted in 2014 and 2015.
“As I have said any times, whatever I do next year is because I want to win,” Alonso said. “I will not be around in any series to be fighting for top 10 or top 15, nothing like that.”
As it stands, Massa’s seat is the second most competitive on the grid yet to be signed to a driver for 2018, outranked only by Sergio Perez’s drive at Force India.
Perez is becoming renowned for his protracted contract negotiations, but the 27-year-old is keen to align his deals with those of drivers at top teams to keep himself in the frame for a promotion.
“Looking at the opportunities that are around, there is not really a seat at a top team or to move up the grid,” he admitted, however. “It’s difficult to figure out what to do given that the driver market is not moving too much at the moment.”
“There are two options, to be quite frank, but I don’t want to comment too much on those,” he added, before noting that, “I’m really close to signing the contract.”
Perez suggested he would be driving for Force India next season, though emphasised that, “If it’s not signed, you never know in Formula One, so right now I have nothing to comment about”.
A move to Williams may tempt Perez despite his current team outranking the historic English squad in the constructors standings — it would offer him a way out of his acrimonious relationship with teammate Esteban Ocon for one.
Mercedes, too, might incentivise the move given it would open a Mercedes-engined seat for Pascal Wehrlein, who looks likely to lose his Sauber seat at the end of the season to Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc.
However, Williams must find a driver over the age of 25 if it intends to replace Felipe Massa in order to satisfy the requirements of title sponsor and major alcoholic beverage company Martini given its other driver, Lance Stroll, is only 18 years old.
Throwing a spanner in the works is that Force India is understood to have similar restrictions on its driver line-up due to sponsor Johnnie Walker, and with Esteban Ocon on the cusp of 21 years old, losing Perez could cause difficulties for that relationship.