Examining the Candidates to Drive for Manor Formula 1 Team in 2016
There will be 22 drivers on the grid at the start of the 2016 Formula One season, and the identities of 20 of them are already known. Only Manor, the smallest team in the sport, are yet to announce who will be racing for them in 2016.
The team finished last in the 2015 championship, and they are unlikely to finish much higher this time around. However, Manor will be using the all-conquering Mercedes engines for the season ahead—so a drive for the British team could give a young hopeful a genuine opportunity to impress.
Demand for the two seats is therefore high.
Manor ran three drivers in 2015, and two of them are in the running to return in 2016. Will Stevens was the team's only full-time driver, contesting 17 of the 19 grands prix, while Alexander Rossi drove in five races toward the end of the year. Both will need some degree of sponsor-backing to secure a seat, and both have at least some cash to offer.
Another name in the frame is that of Rio Haryanto. The Indonesian finished fourth in the 2015 GP2 championship; though his career record is not exceptional, he packs a formidable punch in terms of sponsorship.
Pascal Wehrlein, by contrast, has the stats to suggest he's ready to make the step up to F1—but his financial package, courtesy of Mercedes, is relatively small.
So who will Manor choose?
Here, we take a look at each of the four main contenders and assess what chance each has of driving for Manor in 2016. We also look at a few less likely candidates—like Kevin Magnussen or Sergey Sirotkin—who could yet spring a surprise.
Alexander Rossi has been in and around the paddock for many years; people know who he is and he has a good idea of how things work in F1. He did practice sessions for Caterham in 2012, 2013 and 2014, then became involved with Manor midway through 2014.
The connection appeared to break when the team almost went bust, but late in 2015, the American raised enough sponsorship money to take over Roberto Merhi's seat for five races. He performed very well—indeed, of the three drivers Manor used last year, Rossi was the most impressive.
However, his junior record is somewhat mixed. He was comfortably beaten by Esteban Gutierrez when the two were team-mates in GP3 in 2010, and though his rookie season in Formula Renault 3.5 the following year was decent, he wasn't impressive in 2012.
The 24-year-old's GP2 record is similarly patchy. He caught the eye in 2015, but he had struggled to consistently make a big impact in his previous season and a half in the series.
On the sponsorship side, Rossi will have a budget to bring to a team in 2016. The figures here are unknown, but he clearly does not have the sort of backing Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr take to Sauber—which the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson puts at a combined £25 million ($36 million).
If he did, his name would already be on the car.
However, his value to Manor could well be greater than the initial sponsor payment. He is, after all, American, and the world's largest economy is full of potential sponsors who may come on board once his position is secure.
Rossi hinted this could happen toward the end of last season. Chris Medland of F1i quoted him as saying, "It's much easier to try and put a prospect out when you're actually in a race seat versus the potential of being in a race seat."
He said in late December that he and his team (management, not racing) "look forward to sharing some exciting news soon." Will it be a full-time race seat in 2016?
Rossi's impressive five-race run for Manor in 2015 and his nationality should really be enough to swing it in his favour.
He may not bring as much initial sponsorship as some other candidates, but only he gives Manor the opportunity to pull in interest from the United States. There are no guarantees, but it'd be more surprising if he missed out than it would be if he got the seat.
Rio Haryanto would barely have registered on the radar of a GP2 team 12 months ago. Now, he looks to have a shot at making the step up to F1—and he has a bit of history with the Manor team.
The Indonesian arrived on the European-based racing scene in 2010 after a decent junior career in the Pacific region. Driving for Manor in the inaugural GP3 season, Haryanto was fifth overall with a single win and two further podiums. His prize was an F1 test for Virgin—as the F1 team now called Manor was at the time known.
But the years that followed saw the youngster—he had only just turned 17 when he made his GP3 debut—struggle. Team-mate Adrian Quaife-Hobbs beat Haryanto to the F1 test prize in 2011, and a step up to GP2 in 2012 brought little improvement.
This time he was shown the way by more experienced team-mate Max Chilton, and by the end of 2014, Haryanto had spent three years in GP2 without winning a single race. A switch to Campos for 2015 saw his fortunes change, but even then he was only fourth in the championship—over 200 points behind winner Stoffel Vandoorne.
It's not the sort of record that would normally suggest a driver had what it takes to move up to F1.
However, Haryanto has a very wealthy backer—the Indonesian government. And thanks to the country's Ministry of Youth and Sports' Twitter account, we know they're willing to offer €15 million (a shade over $16 million) for a seat.
Manor ran the 22-year-old at the Pirelli tyre test after the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, so they have a reasonable idea of what he's like to work with. The question is, will they want to work with him on a more permanent basis?
If Manor look purely at the finances, Haryanto will be given one of the seats. The $16 million offer is more than anyone else looks likely to stump up.
The only potential banana skin is that Manor—at least, the old Manor—like to pride themselves on bringing through real future stars. And the available evidence suggests Haryanto isn't one of those.
Pascal Wehrlein has taken a somewhat unusual route to the brink of an F1 career, having spent the last three years away from single-seaters.
Following a two-year spell in the ADAC Formel Masters series, where he won the championship in 2011, Wehrlein made his Formula Three bow in 2012. Success did not come instantly, but one win and a string of podium finishes saw him end up fourth in the European Championship and second in the Euro Series.
The German made a flying start to his second year of F3, taking a win, a second and a third place from the opening three races of the year. But his career—which had to this point followed the standard single-seater route—took a sudden detour.
Wehrlein is part of the Mercedes young driver programme, and they like to train their kids a little differently. The then 18-year-old was placed at Mercedes "B-team" Mucke for the 2013 DTM season. Where before there was nothing but air, Wehrlein now had a roof over his head.
A string of promising drives saw him promoted to HWA for 2014, where he became the series' youngest-ever winner. The following year he clinched the title days before his 21st birthday, becoming the youngest-ever DTM champion.
Now satisfied he is ready, Mercedes want him to move into F1—and they're willing to pay for it. But they're not prepared to break the bank.
Autosport reported in December that the figure floating around was in the region of €4 million ($4.29 million)—far less than others are offering.
Of course, running a driver backed by their engine supplier could be worth a great deal to Manor in areas outside the balance sheet. And Wehrlein looks the most talented driver of the four front-running candidates, so he would probably get them the best results.
But he's unlikely to make any difference to where the team finishes in the constructors' championship, and therefore won't earn them any more prize money.
So it'll come down to what Manor want (or need) the most. Will they take the money and run, or opt for the most talented driver—and a bit of goodwill from Mercedes?
In December, Phillip van Osten of F1i reported Mercedes boss Toto Wolff felt Wehrlein's chances were not good. The astronomical sums being offered by other candidates—in particular Rio Haryanto—looked like they were going to tip the balance.
Wehrlein deserves the seat and, in an ideal world, he would get it. It really hinges on whether or not Mercedes can offer additional sweeteners. If they can, maybe he'll be on the grid. If they can't, he'll be back in DTM.
Will Stevens is the only driver of the main candidates with a full season of F1 experience behind him. Having made his racing debut in a one-off outing for Caterham at the end of 2014, he drove full-time for Manor last year.
In the 12 races in which they competed together, Stevens tended to have the upper hand when compared to regular team-mate Roberto Merhi. The Brit had a significant weight advantage over the Spaniard, and how much difference this made is unclear, but credit should be given where it is due.
The first goal of any racing driver is to beat his or her team-mate, and Stevens achieved that.
However, Merhi also had his moments, and when Alexander Rossi arrived for five races near the end of the season, Stevens didn't look as impressive. The American beat him in three of the four races both finished, and the score was 3-2 in Rossi's favour in qualifying.
It wasn't too surprising, because Stevens doesn't have a great junior career. He's certainly good enough to be an F1 driver, but it was his financial backing that got him the seat—and it will be finances that determine whether or not he keeps it.
How much the 24-year-old has is unclear, but as with some others in this list, he would already have the seat if it was enough. Stevens is still seeking potential sponsors (pdf), but there are a lot of young British drivers out there and relatively few companies willing to put big money into supporting them.
Stevens was quoted by Motorsport.com in December as saying that he was "100 percent confident" of landing the drive. But are Manor really 100 percent committed to keeping him?
If this was a contest of pure driving ability, there is nothing in Stevens' record—recent or otherwise—to suggest he would beat Pascal Wehrlein or Alexander Rossi.
He looks better than Rio Haryanto, but the Indonesian has more money.
At this stage, it appears more likely Stevens will miss out, but the world of F1 finance is a murky one. If he can pull in a big backer at the last minute, his career could well be prolonged into 2016.
Outside the four most obvious candidates there exists a sea of potential picks. With the benefit of experience mated to his undoubted talent, Kevin Magnussen would almost certainly perform better than any of the names already mentioned.
However, the Dane doesn't appear to pack any significant punch in the world of sponsorship.
The same can be said for a number of other drivers—Jean-Eric Vergne and Robin Frijns, for example.
Stoffel Vandoorne would be an ideal fit, but a Mercedes-powered team are unlikely to be keen on a McLaren-backed driver—and it's hard to imagine McLaren digging up multiple millions of dollars and giving them to a rival.
Roberto Merhi doesn't have the financial backing to be considered for a second season with the team, while rising stars like Esteban Ocon, Alex Lynn, Mitch Evans and Pierre Gasly are all either connected to other teams, lacking the required sponsorship cash, or both.
Sergey Sirotkin, who is finally growing into his talent having been pushed too hard far too soon, is also looking set to step up sooner or later. But, per GP Update, a testing role in 2016 is more likely for the 20-year-old Russian.
Though it would be very surprising if any of the drivers listed above found their way into the Manor seat, nothing is impossible.
Magnussen could suddenly find a few million dollars down the back of his sofa, or Sirotkin might acquire a new and very wealthy backer willing to push him forward again.
But it's probably not going to happen.