Never before have we gone this late in the season without knowing very much about the look of the grid for next season. But the game seems to have changed greatly over the last few weeks. Going team-by-team, in order of Constructor Standings:
Everything that Team Principal Ross Brawn is saying about next year indicates that he wants to bring back the current driver lineup of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. And why not? Both drivers have delivered this season, and they appear to have a friendship and good working relationship.
The only issue that Brawn needs to consider is the unique driver market in 2010. Only five drivers on the grid—Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, and Felipe Massa- have confirmed race seats next season.
As such, there has never been such an abundance of talent on the market at one time, especially young talent. Brawn may feel that, in order to secure a young talent for the future, he may need to dump Barrichello to make way for one.
But if Ross Brawn is anything, it's patient and forward-thinking. He knows how well his current team is gelling now, and with Barrichello still on form and having plenty of juice left in the tank for another go or so, there's not really much of a reason to dump him. There will surely be opportunities in the future to sign young talent, especially if the team builds on its success this season.
Predicted Drivers Button and Barrichello.
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are confirmed for next season.
Ferrari have confirmed Massa will be ready for the start of next season and will be with the team.
The Fernando Alonso-to-Ferrari rumors just will not die, even though they should. Ferrari have maintained throughout that both Massa and Kimi Raikkonen are contracted for next season, and they have done so without waffling.
Furthermore, Raikkonen has come alive since Hungary, with three-straight podiums and a win. He's done something for the first time in his career that many people didn't think he was capable of doing: taking leadership of a team during a difficult time.
Ferrari would be stupid to dump Raikkonen at this point, given that the Iceman has shown he still has it and that he and Massa have a good working relationship. They would be taking an especially high risk with Alonso, who, regardless of what one thinks about his driving ability, has shown he's willing to blow up a team if things don't go his way.
Furthermore complicating the "Alonso-to-Ferrari" plot is a report that the team made an aggressive approach to Vettel before he signed an extension with Red Bull, apparently offering him a seat beginning in 2011. This just happens to be the year that both Raikkonen's and Massa's contracts expire, as well as the year by which Alonso is supposedly guaranteed to be in a red car.
If this is true, then it calls into question what interest they really had in Alonso, who surely wouldn't approve of having to go up against another young super-talent.
Predicted Drivers Raikkonen and Massa
Martin Whitmarsh has finally signalled McLaren's intent in the driver market, and that intent has a familiar ring to it when it comes to the team's strategy in hiring drivers:
Hire the best driver they can.
The persisitent rumor is that Mercedes' thirst for a German driver will sway McLaren to hire Nico Rosberg, the young German ubertalent. But if Whitmarsh's recent comments are any indication, talent will come before other concerns.
Whitmarsh stated in Valencia that his greatest regret is that McLaren did not manage the situation with Alonso properly in 2007, indicating that his desired situation is to have two championship drivers in the team pushing each other.
He has also publicly backed Raikkonen in the media in a variety of situations. When David Coulthard questioned Raikkonen's car development ability, Whitmarsh retorted that the Iceman's contribution to development was very valuable.
He furthermore praised Raikkonen's performance publicly in Valencia, all in the context of firing the "improve your race pace, or else" warning to Heikki Kovalainen.
Whitmarsh's comments may be intended as a signal to the Raikkonen camp that Macca wants him, as does his statement that he will wait and see what happens with Alonso before Woking makes their driver move. But every sign from Maranello points to Raikkonen being in a red car next season.
If McLaren are going to hire the best man can, which they have signalled to be their intent, then it appears they need to decide if they think Rosberg or Robert Kubica is better.
Rosberg has shown promise in many moments in his F1 career, and this season he has displayed consistency perhaps unmatched by any other driver on the grid. It is also apparent that he has high technical savvy, as he scored the highest ever on the technical aptitude test that Williams gives to its drivers
On the other hand, Kubica is perhaps the more skilled driver of the two. While Rosberg has not particularly shown in wet races, Kubica has thrived in them with an array of impressive rain drives from the moment he entered F1. Furthermore, Kubica is the one who has achieved a grand prix victory and proved he can contend in the thick of a championship campaign.
And with cars having similar performance levels relative to the rest of the grid in 2006, Kubica outperformed Rosberg in the brief period at the end of the season in which he raced that year.
Both drivers came through the the development path with Hamilton and are well-acquainted and friendly with him, suggesting that the working relationship at McLaren would be harmonious.
While Kubica is linked to Renault and Rosberg has said that staying at Williams is a possibility, both are in prime position to move themselves into more competitive cars and teams for next season. In Formula One, such a chance doesn't come often, if more than once or even ever.
McLaren is the team with the most resources and promise of consistent competitiveness season-to-season. If either Kubica or Rosberg get the call, you can bet they'll answer.
Predicted Drivers Hamilton and Kubica or Rosberg
It has long been rumored that Toyota is on the way out of Formula One, but a recent reports indicate that they will remain but with cost cuts.
Toyota is probably in the worst position of signing drivers of any team currently on next season's grid, as their budget for next season reportedly will not be approved in Japan until after the 2009 championship is over. This puts them likely not only at a development disadvantage next season, but also with less leverage in the driver market.
Compounding the problem for them is that, despite reportedly spending more money than any other team for a long time in Formula One, they have yet to win their first grand prix or have a sniff at the championship. They blew their one chance at a win this season with a poor strategy in Bahrain, a weekend in which they had the quickest car.
Toyota has signalled that they want Timo Glock back. But Glock will likely have offers from teams whose competitive future looks brighter than Toyota's, so keeping him will be a task.
They have signalled that they will part with Jarno Trulli, who didn't help himself with his botching of what looked to be a shot at victory in Spa with his poor start. Odds are he will have to deliver a win, and soon, if he's to keep his seat.
Toyota won't contend for young drivers like Rosberg and Kubica, who will surely have their pick of more competitive seats to fill. As large cost cuts are expected, it's more like they will sign at least one affordable veteran driver to replace Trulli.
One strong possibility for the seat is Kovalainen, who appears to be exiting McLaren. It is reported that many teams think he is better than the form he's shown with Macca, and he would be an affordable hire who has previously shown competitive form in a midfield car.
Another possibility would be Nick Heidfeld, who is looking for a team more competitive than what will be left of the BMW-Sauber team. Heidfeld would also be affordable, and he has been credited with good technical aptitude.
Predicted Drivers Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen
Pencil in GP2 Champion-to-be Nico Hulkenberg for one seat. Everyone in the paddock knows how good he is, and Williams would be flat foolish to let him walk to another team (who would most likely be McLaren). Frank Williams isn't an idiot.
Williams is in a fantastic position to select the driver for the other seat. They have shown competitive form this season, and in an era of cost-cutting, what many feel to be the best-run team on the grid will be in prime position to compete with a lean-and-mean operation.
While nearly everyone is reporting that Rosberg will go to McLaren, it's by no means a guarantee. Rosberg has praised Williams' form many times this season, and as perhaps the smartest driver on the grid, he likely sees the direction in which they are headed for the future.
If Rosberg signs with McLaren, then Williams' choice seems to be between the current BMW-Sauber drivers, Kubica and Heidfeld. Kubica is younger and quicker, but Heidfeld performed well with the team in 2005 when it was the BMW works team and would provide valuable experience to the team.
Williams is back in competitive mode, though, and they'll elect the quickest driver available.
Predicted Drivers Hulkenberg and Rosberg or Kubica
Renault, for some reason, are a hot destination in the rumor mill. This is a shock, considering their uncompetitive form for three seasons straight, the controversy in which they have continuously involved themselves, and the perception in the paddock that it is Alonso's play den.
For starters, Alonso should be expected back at Renault next season. All signs point to Raikkonen staying with Ferrari in 2010. BMW are pulling out, and Toyota look set to be uncompetitive next season.
Unless lots of unheard noise is being made about him among the likes of McLaren, Brawn, and Williams, there really isn't a better team on the grid than Renault for whom he can drive next season. Furthermore, it is quite apparent that he will always be Flavio Briatore's backed driver, so why leave such a secure position if a better one isn't available?
Rumors are that Renault wants Kubica. But it's doubtful that Kubica will select them over teams like McLaren and Williams, who are currently more competitive and look to be more competitive in the future.
Renault will certainly give Romain Grosjean the rest of the season to prove his worth. He has performed decently in his first two races, and odds are good that he'll have the second seat next season.
Predicted Drivers Alonso and Grosjean
Fresh off an amazing performance for the team in Spa, it looks as though Force India may indeed one day become competitive. They will not sign a major name for next season, but the future looks bright for the team.
Adrian Sutil looks set to return. Team Principal Vijay Mallya thinks highly of him, and rightly so, as Sutil has impressed quite a few times while nonetheless failing to close the deal.
Giancarlo Fisichella's seat is now open, as Fisi fulfills his dream to drive for Ferrari for the rest of the season in relief for Felipe Massa before becoming the reserve driver in 2010. Current reserve driver Vitantonio Liuzzi has been rumored to be in line for the seat, and he is reportedly scheduled for a straight line test before Monza.
Mallya has said that he wants an Indian driver with the team, but given the progress it's showing, he surely realizes it's no time to install a pay driver who doesn't have the talent to deliver and help the team progress.
The critical piece in Force India's development has been Fisichella's input for the last season and a half, and he is an asset who will be sorely missed. Look for the team to turn to a veteran driver on the market who can help the team with development.
Their pace in Spa has greatly increased their stock among such drivers. The performance of the car on low-drag circuits indicates that perhaps the team may have a car worthy of victory next season at places like Spa or Monza. If this is the case, then the direction seems aimed toward Heidfeld.
Predicted Drivers Sutil and Heidfeld
The team have said flat out that Jamie Alguersuari's time this season is preparation for next season. He'll be back.
As will Sebastien Buemi, whose inconsistent form has shown he needs more seasoning before he is ready to step up to a more competitive drive.
Predicted Drivers Alguersuari and Buemi
The Team Currently Known as BMW-Sauber
Their future is completely up in the air. However, they have Christian Klien on the roster as a reserve driver itching for a chance at a race seat. He's a good bet to take one of the seats.
Trulli likely won't find anything better than this seat on the market if he wants to stay in F1. He'll certainly get a call from USF1, as Peter Windsor does his best every grand prix weekend to make the American F1 audience very uncomfortable with his impromptu fawning over the Italian's driving. But I doubt Trulli will stoop that low.
Predicted Drivers Trulli and Klien
USF1 will definitely higher a veteran development driver to help the team in its first year or so. And they're going to need him in fine form, as reports are that the Cosworth engine they will be using could be up to three full seconds off the pace. Alexander Wurz seems the strongest contender.
Jonathan Summerton is rumored to have visited the team's base recently. He seems to be the favorite for the "American" seat.
Predicted Drivers Wurz and Summerton
Pedro de la Rosa, longtime test driver for McLaren and one of the best as such, looks set for a ride with the young team. Surely, Campos is smart enough to realize the impact the Spaniard could have on the first-year Spanish team.
As for the other seat, the main contenders appear to be Lucas di Grassi, Bruno Senna, and pay driver Vitaly Petrov.
Petrov is the weakest of the three, but reports are that he brings up to $15 million in sponsorship from Russia with him. Clearly, he's a strong contender for a seat with a team that needs cash to get it off the ground.
The ultimate journeyman of the young GP2 series, di Grassi has performed solidly throughout his GP2 and entire F1 development career, if unspectacularly. It's pretty hard to imagine what the former winner of the Macau Grand Prix has to do to just get a Formula One seat.
Senna has perhaps permanently doomed his chances of a Formula One career by choosing not to race this season. Another year in GP2 with a competitive team could have seen him smooth some rough edges and possibly contend for the title, boosting his credentials.
Predicted Drivers DLR and di Grassi
Manor Grand Prix
OK, so we know they'll have Virgin as the title sponsor.
Now, what? Is Richard Branson going to drive the car, too? Isn't skydiving enough for Mr. Mid-life Crisis to get his kicks?