It's never too early to talk about next year's driver pairings in Formula One. Speculation is always ongoing about who may go where even years in advance.
With that said, here is my take on the driver market for next year.
What We Know
Red Bull have confirmed that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber will be back for 2010.
Lewis Hamilton has a contract with McLaren until 2012, and there has been no indication that he will break with this contract or will move to another team. He’s even more certain to return now that the team have developed the dog of a car with which they began the championship into a race winner in the Briton’s hands.
Barring an unlikely offer from a better team, Jaime Alguersuari will keep his seat at Toro Rosso for 2010. Team Principal Franz Tost all but confirmed this in Hungary, saying that he was placed in the car for the rest of the year to log miles in a F1 car and prepare himself for 2010.
What Seems Likely
Nico Rosberg will not be back with Williams. The team have produced a good car for the year and have surprisingly kept the car well developed throughout the year while teams with more resources have fallen behind or not caught up to their pace. But they got a head start on this year’s car in 2008 and were one of the first teams with the double diffuser.
Rosberg can laud the team all he wants for its performance this season, but he shouldn’t expect anyone to believe that he will be back with the underfunded Williams team when opportunities with McLaren and BMW-Sauber are presenting themselves. Rosberg leaving Williams is the most certain change to happen on the grid.
The odds seem to be on a move to McLaren. Hamilton is said to be his best friend on the grid, and Mercedes has openly stated they are keen to have a German driver with the team. And with Mercedes owning 40% of McLaren and thus being a significant partner in the team, Rosberg can rest assured about his role within the team.
Nico Hulkenberg will take the seat at Williams vacated by Rosberg. He’s taken a stranglehold of GP2, winning the last three races and ascending to the top of the standings. Hulkenberg is the best driver prospect not in F1, and Williams will be keen to put him in the car next season.
Jenson Button doesn’t currently have a contract for next season, but barring the team being unable to secure sponsorship or a $30 million offer elsewhere, does anyone think he’s going to leave the team where he’s been for the last six (now seven seasons), formed deep relationships, and that is now living up to the promise of its engineering talent under leadership of perhaps the best F1 man in the business?
Button will stay at Brawn.
Rubens Barrichello, on the other hand, will not be back with Brawn GP next year, if he drives next year at all. The team simply cannot put up with his criticisms of the team at various points of the season, and he has not seriously challenged Button at all the whole season with a couple of exceptions.
At 38 years old, his best days are behind him. He still seems to have the desire to continue, but if he does, it will have to be in the capacity of a veteran driver aiding a developing team, much like David Coulthard’s role with Red Bull in the last few years of his career.
Whether or not Barrichello accepts this kind of role is up for question. I’m betting he won’t.
Renault will have Romain Grosjean in the car next season. He is their top driving prospect, and with a good season for him in GP2 this year, 2010 seems like the right time for his step up to F1. The move may happen as early as Valencia, as Nelson Piquet, Jr. may soon make way for him at Renault.
Complicating the driver market for next year is the status of Renault and Toyota. Both manufacturers are rumored to be pulling out of F1 next season, although both strongly deny they are.
Both teams lodged entries for next season, and both are sending out signals that they will be on the grid next season. Renault boss Carlos Ghosn has said that he “expects” Fernando Alonso to drive for the team in 2010, and Toyota reportedly are talking to Jarno Trulli about a contract for next season.
You wouldn’t expect this kind of noise to be made if teams were planning on exiting next year, but then again Honda lodged an entry for 2009 and later pulled out of F1. I’d put money on both teams remaining in F1 next season.
Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi are both rumored to have clauses in their contracts with BMW-Sauber and Force India, respectively, guaranteeing them race seats for 2010. Klien’s chances don’t look spectacular, as BMW seem happy with their drivers and there are current F1 drivers on the market who Beemer could snag. Liuzzi taking a seat at Force India seems more likely, but it should be noted that contracts in F1 seem to not be worth the paper on which they are printed these days.
And finally, everyone and all their acquaintances are saying that Fernando Alonso will leave Renault for Ferrari for next season. Credible reports indicate that the two sides already agreed to a contract starting in 2011, but recent rumors suggest that Kimi Raikkonen will make way for him next year.
When Alonso most recently spoke on the topic, he did not rule out the possibility of a 2010 switch. Furthermore, rumors have started that he could be in a red car as soon as Valencia in four weeks, as Renault have been banned from the race and Ferrari have an open seat with Felipe Massa injured.
Further investigation of the matter suggests that the rumors leave out a very important factor: Raikkonen’s very expensive contract for 2010. Currently rumored to be the highest paid driver in F1, it’s estimated that his annual salary from Ferrari is well in excess of $20 million.
It’s rather unrealistic to think that Ferrari will buy Raikkonen out at that figure and pay another $20+ million in salary to Alonso for next season. The only way the deal could happen is if it is determined that Massa’s injuries are career-ending or will prevent him from being ready in time for the 2010 season. But Massa is a fighter, and team principal Stefano Domenicali recently said that his current seat belongs to him.
I’ve felt for the last year that Robert Kubica isn’t destined to remain with BMW-Sauber for very long. He openly stated last season that his dream is to drive for Ferrari one day, and he reportedly was very upset last season once BMW shifted development efforts to the 2009 car after he took his first grand prix victory at Montreal and took the lead of the driving championship. Kubica must be especially gutted now that BMW have given him a dog of a car as a result, and he surely has lost confidence in the team.
Look for Kubica to leave for the first opportunity that arises with a better team. He has a past relationship with Renault, and there may be openings for him at Brawn and McLaren, as well. However, he may find that he’ll have to wait another year for a better opportunity to present itself, and by this time the opportunity may be his coveted Ferrari seat.
His teammate, Nick Heidfeld, doesn’t seem very happy with BMW, either. He has recently stated that he negotiated with Honda/Brawn last season to take a seat alongside Button, but elected instead to remain at BMW. Heidfeld likely thought he would have a competitive BMW with which to fight for his long-awaited first grand prix victory, even going so far as to call himself a championship contender before the season started.
Comments like these reveal a rift between the German and the team and indicate he’s looking around for 2010. His options will probably be limited, as the top teams are looking for drivers younger than him. If he gets the chance to jump to a more or equally competitive team, however, I do believe he’ll take it.
A chance may open again for “Quick Nick” at Brawn, but they will likely want a younger driver to pair with Button. He has been linked with Toyota in the past, and such a move could make sense given that the team is based in Germany and likely won’t attract top young drivers. He drove for Williams in 2005 and delivered strong performances there, and the team may want a veteran to pair with young Hulkenberg.
Timo Glock is doing well for his reputation as a racing driver and his prospects for 2010. He has struggled with qualifying this season, but his race pace has been absolutely superb, with numerous strong performances after poor grid positions.
Glock will have an opportunity to move to a better team very soon, perhaps as early as 2010. Mercedes are known to be coveting a German driver. While he may not beat out Rosberg for a seat at McLaren, there may be a ride open for Glock at Mercedes customer Brawn if Barrichello makes way.
Grid Predictions, by Current Constructors Standings
Brawn GP- Jenson Button and Timo Glock. Brawn will come up with the money to stay on the grid and remain competitive. Button stays, and Barrichello leaves the team, making way for Glock.
Red Bull- Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Confirmed.
Toyota- Jarno Trulli and Nick Heidfeld. Trulli has delivered the goods for Toyota this season, and he’ll remain for another year.
Ferrari- Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa/Fernando Alonso. Raikkonen will be back with Ferrari in 2010. Despite rumors he’ll make way for Alonso by embarking on a rally career, his inner circle remain adamant he’ll be in F1 with Ferrari next year. More performances like his inspired drive in Hungary will secure his seat. Ferrari will have little reason to spend lots of money to buy out his contract if the Iceman is motivated, as he’s arguably the very best in F1 when he’s inspired.
The other ride all depends on Massa’s condition. If he’s able to race, he’ll have the seat. If he isn’t, then look for Alonso to make the long-anticipated move.
Williams- Nico Hulkenberg and Heikki Kovalainen. Williams bumps their next German ace into the F1 race seat. Kovalainen gets a seat with a team showing potential for the future and doesn’t present the pressure of competing with Lewis Hamilton as a teammate. Barrichello will be offered the ride, but he chooses retirement rather than taking the role of veteran guide for the team and Hulkenberg.
McLaren- Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. The most seemingly inevitable pairing for next year aside from Red Bull’s. If Alonso moves to Ferrari next season, we could be shaping up for a titanic battle for the drivers’ championship among driver uber-pairings for McLaren, Ferrari, and Red Bull.
Renault- Fernando Alonso/Robert Kubica and Romain Grosjean. The highly-rated young Frenchman gets a seat with the French team in a well-publicized move, perhaps as early as Valencia in four weeks.
The other seat all depends on whether or not the opportunity for Alonso to move to Ferrari in 2010 opens. If not, then he’ll be back for what may be one more glorious ride with the team if they can continue their development progress.
If Alonso makes the move to Ferrari, look for Kubica to take the seat.
BMW-Sauber- Robert Kubica/Adrian Sutil and Sebastien Buemi. BMW will obviously do all they can to keep Kubica, who many believe to be perhaps F1’s most talented driver. He will be looking for a better ride, and if Alonso leaves for Ferrari, then he’ll take the seat with Renault, who have been much more competitive. If not, then he’ll be back with BMW for lack of better opportunities.
Buemi’s quick but inconsistent form at Toro Rosso this year is enough to help the talented 20 year old land a ride in one of the Beemers. He has a past relationship with BMW, having competed in German Formula BMW on his way to F1. Buemi is Swiss, which is the next best thing to being German if he wants a seat with a German manufacturer.
As for who will take the other seat, BMW won’t be able to beat McLaren for Rosberg. However, Adrian Sutil, who has been quick but error-prone in the underperforming Force India, could be a candidate.
Toro Rosso- Jaime Alguersuari and Giancarlo Fisichella. With preparation time and miles in the F1 car, Alguersuari has his first year of fully-competitive form. Fisichella gets dumped by Force India for Liuzzi, but he has delivered strong performances this season in the underperforming car and has done enough to get someone’s attention. STR elects to put a veteran in the seat who provides the added benefit of representing the team’s nationality.
Force India- Adrian Sutil/Bruno Senna and Vitantonio Liuzzi. Sutil has been aching for a chance with a better team, but his way of screwing up great runs has gotten the better of him so far. Still, he’s been competitive enough for Force India to keep, which they will if they can. If he gets a shot at a better car, he’ll take it, though.
If Sutil doesn't take the other seat, look for Bruno Senna to get it. Senna won't get an offer from a top team since he hasn't competed in anything this year and will likely need more seat time to get up to form. Flamboyant Team Principal Vijay Mallay, though, will look to make a splash and generate buzz by adding the Senna name to his roster.
If Senna performs well in the seat, the team's connection to McLaren, Brawn, and potentially Red Bull through Mercedes may pay off for him down the road.
Fisichella is making a fighting effort to keep his seat next year, but all the rumblings indicate his younger compatriot Liuzzi will get the seat. Furthermore, Fisichella may have the opportunity to take a slight step up with Toro Rosso, which he would surely take.
USF1- Alexander Wurz and ???. The idea that USF1 will employ two American drivers next season is naïve, at best. Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson aren’t stupid, and they know they’ll need to employ an experienced driver to help the team in its developmental phases. Windsor has admitted to speaking with Wurz, and his recent comments suggest that they’re going in the direction of bringing him on.
The driver for the other seat is a complete mystery right now, however, as there really isn’t an American driver who’s ready to step up to F1 next season. Something tells me the name will be a surprise.
Campos- Pedro De La Rosa and Lucas di Grassi. DLR is arguably the best test and development driver in F1, and the opportunity for a Spanish team to bring him on is too good to pass up. Di Grassi did a phenomenal job with Campos in GP2 last year, being arguably the quickest driver on the grid with them, and I’m sure they haven’t forgotten it.
Manor- ??? and ???. This team is such a mystery at this point that anything can happen.
Update: Now that BMW may be out of Formula One next year, I think it's safe to say we'll see Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld with new teams.