Ranking the Drivers Most Likely to Leave Their Current Race Seat by 2015

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Ranking the Drivers Most Likely to Leave Their Current Race Seat by 2015

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    Only 11 of 22 drivers remain with the same team they raced for in 2013.
    Only 11 of 22 drivers remain with the same team they raced for in 2013.Associated Press

    Unlike most professional sports, Formula One does not have a free agent period or transfer window—a defined period where athletes can sign with a new team.

    This means that as soon as a driver is confirmed for a season with a particular team, the speculation can (and usually does) begin as to where he will be the following year.

    Another unique aspect of F1 is the very limited number of race seats. Currently, there are only 22 places on the grid, so a driver moving from one team to another often starts the dominos falling and ends up affecting a number of teams and drivers.

    So, in the time-honoured tradition of F1 driver carousel speculation, we are going to rank each driver who will start the 2014 Australian Grand Prix based on the likelihood that they will be in the same seat in Melbourne in 2015.

    A number of criteria were considered in the following ranking, although not all of them apply to each driver:

    • Does the driver have a contract with his current team in place beyond 2014?
    • How comfortable does the driver appear to be with his current team?
    • Have there been credible rumours linking the driver with another team?
    • Does the team have a viable replacement lined up who could fill the driver's seat in 2015?
    • How much funding does the driver bring with him?

    That being said, this is by no means a scientific enterprise. The percentages for each driver represent a best-guess for how likely each is to switch teams before the 2015 season.

    There are also many intangibles that also must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

    For example, in Lewis Hamilton's case you might ask "Does the Mercedes motorhome kitchen staff provide doggie treats?" Whereas, one criterion for determining whether Fernando Alonso remains at Ferrari for 2015 might be "Can he handle being beaten by a teammate who was still sleeping off a hangover 20 minutes before the start of the formation lap?"

    With that in mind, here are the drivers, ranked from least- to most-likely, to leave their current teams before the 2015 season begins.

22. Lewis Hamilton

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Although Lewis Hamilton surprised everyone with his decision to leave McLaren, which had nurtured his career from his karting days, for Mercedes after the 2012 season, the Brit seems to have found a new home.

    In his BBC column last November, Hamilton wrote, "I look back on joining Mercedes as absolutely the right decision to make. I've really enjoyed working with the team and I'm confident we are going to do well in the future." He also seems to have a good rapport with his teammate, Nico Rosberg. 

    With a three-year contract that runs through the 2015 season, Hamilton is not going anywhere.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: One percent

21. Jenson Button

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Does it seem like Jenson Button's 2009 title happened a long time ago? Consider this: He is the last man not named Sebastian Vettel to win the Drivers' Championship. 
    At age 34, Button is certainly nearing the end of his career, but he is not done yet. According to The Guardian, in March 2013 he said of McLaren, "I feel very at home. I feel like I'd like to end my career here. I'm not saying that's going to happen soon."
    Another disappointing year like 2013 could certainly stifle Button's enthusiasm for the sport but early returns on the McLaren MP4-29 suggest that will not be the case.
    Button also seems like an ideal teammate for the young Dane, Kevin Magnussen. He will provide continuity and experience at McLaren while Magnussen learns the ropes. So long as there are no major hiccups in 2014, the two should be paired together again next season.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: Two percent

20. Nico Rosberg

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Only Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have been with their current teams longer than Nico Rosberg has been at Mercedes. Rosberg has slowly improved over his eight years in F1 (four with Mercedes), and he has won three grands prix in the last two seasons.

    Although he has been paired with two former world champions during his Mercedes years—Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton—he has not been outshone by them.

    Rosberg has also proven he can be a good team player. At the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, he repeatedly asked the team to let him past Hamilton, who was holding him up. The team said no and Rosberg held his position—unlike his countryman in a Red Bull.

    Hamilton and Rosberg feels like a pairing that could last for quite a while and as long as the team keeps improving, they would have no reason to leave.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: Two percent

19. Daniel Ricciardo

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Since taking over the Jaguar team in 2005, Red Bull has favoured consistency. In nine seasons, the team has only had six different race drivers—only three since 2007.

    Daniel Ricciardo is the seventh driver for the Milton Keynes-based team and, with a three-year contract in his pocket, he looks to be settling in for the long haul. Barring a disastrous season or irreparable falling out with Sebastian Vettel, Ricciardo will be on the grid for Red Bull in 2015.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: Five percent

18. Felipe Massa

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    Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

    After eight seasons with Ferrari, Felipe Massa will be driving for Williams in 2014. According to the team's website, he has signed a multi-year deal.

    His experience will be very valuable for the Grove-based team, and there is no reason why he should not be with the team in 2015, as well.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: Five percent

17. Sebastian Vettel

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    Vettel and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner (left).
    Vettel and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner (left).Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    In case you missed it, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have won the last four Drivers' and Constructors' Championships. Their partnership has been nearly on par with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari's domination of F1 in the early 2000s.

    Last June, Vettel signed a contract extension with Red Bull until the end of the 2015 season. With that deal in hand, he is almost certainly not going anywhere in 2014, although his former teammate, Mark Webber, told Sky Sports last September that he believes Vettel will eventually end up with Ferrari. 

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: Seven percent

16. Kevin Magnussen

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    Andrew Hone/Getty Images

    Former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh thought he had a deal in place with another team to give Kevin Magnussen a race seat for 2014. When that fell through, Sergio Perez was given the boot from McLaren and Magnussen slid into the Mexican's seat, per the official F1 website.

    While Magnussen does not appear to have a contract in place for 2015, he has already impressed the team with his form during preseason testing, according to Mark Hughes of Motor Sport Magazine. And the last time McLaren signed a rookie driver, it worked out pretty well.

    Although Stoffel Vandoorne is waiting in the wings—he is McLaren's reserve driver for 2014 and finished second to Magnussen in Formula Renault 3.5 last year—Magnussen will probably be at McLaren for more than one season, barring an extremely poor performance in 2014.  

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 10 percent

15. Romain Grosjean

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    Ker Robertson/Getty Images

    After several first-lap accidents in 2012, it looked as though Romain Grosjean might be on his way out of F1. Lotus took a chance, bringing him back for 2013, and the team was rewarded.

    Grosjean scored six podium finishes in 2013, including second at the United States Grand Prix. Now, with Kimi Raikkonen leaving for Ferrari, Grosjean has been thrust into the role of team leader.

    If he continues the strong form he showed at the end of the 2013 season, Grosjean should be set for either a long-term deal with Lotus (if the team can get its finances in order) or possibly even a step up to one of the top teams, should a spot become available.

    For now, though, he seems comfortable at Lotus and the team seems comfortable with him as its lead driver. Expect that relationship to continue at least into 2015.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 10 percent

14. Sergio Perez

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    Ker Robertson/Getty Images

    Sergio Perez, and almost everyone else, expected that he would be driving for McLaren in 2014. When he was unceremoniously dumped before the United States Grand Prix, the Mexican was left scrambling for a race seat.

    Force India seems like a good fit, particularly as Perez will be paired with another strong driver, Nico Hulkenberg. If Perez can produce strong results, as he did at Sauber in 2012, Force India should consider keeping him around—particularly if Hulkenberg moves on.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 15 percent

13. Kimi Raikkonen

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Kimi Raikkonen's return to Ferrari caught the F1 world by surprise. He was shuffled out of Maranello in 2009 to make way for Fernando Alonso. Now, they will partner together in the strongest driver line-up on the 2014 grid.
    Raikkonen's contract includes an option for 2015, according to BBC Sport. Whether it will be exercised depends on how well the Iceman gets along with his new Spanish teammate. There is potential for greatness with two former world champions paired together, but there is also potential for friction (see Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2008).
    If it does not work out, the Ferrari Driver Academy is developing replacements, including the highly regarded Jules Bianchi. However, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali has already stated he is impressed with Raikkonen's maturity, per the official Ferrari website.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 20 percent

12. Daniil Kvyat

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    Ker Robertson/Getty Images

    No Toro Rosso driver has ever been given less than a season-and-a-half behind the wheel.

    Scott Speed and Sebastien Bourdais were both dumped halfway through their second seasons with the team. Sebastian Vettel took over for Speed midway through the 2007 season and spent all of 2008 with the team before his promotion to Red Bull. Every other Toro Rosso driver has had at least two full seasons to prove themselves.

    Daniil Kvyat is only 19 years old and will need some time to get his feet wet before he can show his true F1 potential. However, given that history, it would seem very likely that he will be back with Toro Rosso again in 2015.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 20 percent

11. Fernando Alonso

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    Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

    Fernando Alonso is now seven full seasons removed from the second of his two Drivers' titles. In four years at Ferrari, he has won 11 races and finished second in the championship three times, nearly winning it in 2010 and 2012.

    But Alonso did not join the most successful team in F1 history to finish second. Red Bull has consistently produced a faster car than Ferrari over the last few years and, in 2013, Alonso criticized his team for this shortcoming. This earned him a rebuke from Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and started the rumour mill churning.

    Despite reports linking the Spaniard with a return to McLaren, per Jonathan McEvoy of the Daily Mail, di Montezemolo has said he expects Alonso to remain at Ferrari at least until his contract ends in 2016, according to Autosport's Jonathan Noble.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 25 percent

10. Pastor Maldonado

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Pastor Maldonado brings a lot of sponsorship money with him. That will always be attractive to the many F1 teams currently struggling to finance their seasons.

    Somewhat less attractive was the way the Venezuelan accused Williams, his former team, of sabotaging his car at last year's United States Grand Prix.

    Maldonado does have talent, though. He won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, as well as the 2010 GP2 championship over the likes of Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi.

    If Maldonado can get along with the team and produce some decent results in 2014, Lotus will be happy to keep taking PDVSA's cheques in 2015. If this shotgun marriage does not work out—remember, Lotus publicly courted Nico Hulkenberg before settling on Maldonado—no doubt another team will be willing to accept his money. 

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 30 percent

9. Marcus Ericsson

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    Andrew Hone/Getty Images

    Marcus Ericsson is another new face for 2014. He first tested an F1 car in 2009 for Brawn GP, but he has been driving in GP2 ever since.

    According to the official F1 website, Ericsson impressed Ross Brawn at that test. Now, he has a chance to do the same for his Caterham bosses with a full-time race seat.

    He will need to be impressive if he hopes to retain his drive beyond 2014. Caterham has had five different drivers in the last three seasons. Ericsson and Kobayashi have the potential to form a strong pairing but much will also depend on whether Caterham's car can make a leap forward.

    As we have not even seen Ericsson in one grand prix yet, it is very difficult to make a prediction on whether he will be around for 2015. For now, we will give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 30 percent

8. Esteban Gutierrez

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Esteban Gutierrez nearly lost his race seat for 2014 to Sergey Sirotkin. Luckily for the Mexican, Sirotkin was unable to attain his super license, nor did his Russian funding come through, according to F1 expert James Allen.

    Backed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, Gutierrez has the funding to remain in F1 beyond 2014. Whether it will be with Sauber is up in the air. Along with Sirotkin, he will also be vying with Simona de Silvestro and Adrian Sutil for two race seats with the Swiss team.

    Much will also depend on Gutierrez's form in 2014. In his rookie season, he only had one finish in the points and was thoroughly beaten by Nico Hulkenberg. He will need to show significant improvement this season to stake a claim on a 2015 race seat at Sauber or elsewhere.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 40 percent

7. Kamui Kobayashi

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Kamui Kobayashi is an interesting case. In three years with Sauber, he showed that he has the pace to compete in F1. Yet in 2013, he was unable to find a race seat, largely due to a lack of sponsorship dollars.

    Instead of giving up on F1, Kobayashi set up a crowdfunding website and was able to raise enough money to buy a Caterham race seat for this season. 

    Looking ahead to 2015, Kobayashi's future is not clear. It is unlikely that he would be able to raise enough money through crowdsourcing to buy a seat again.

    With an impressive season, though, he might attract corporate sponsorship. As well, Honda will return as an engine manufacturer in 2015 and may be keen to have a Japanese driver on the grid. 

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 45 percent

6. Adrian Sutil

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    After a year out of F1, Adrian Sutil had mixed results in his return to the track in 2013. He finished a strong fifth in Monaco, but he was beaten by his teammate, Paul di Resta, in the championship, 49 points to 28.

    But while di Resta was unable to find a drive for 2014, Sutil traded places with Nico Hulkenberg, landing at Sauber.

    His stay may be short, though. Sauber recently announced that current IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro is being prepared for a race seat in 2015. Sergey Sirotkin, the current reserve driver is also in the mix, along with Sutil's 2014 teammate, Esteban Gutierrez.

    Sutil's experience gives him an advantage over those three drivers, but there is still a decent chance that he will be looking for a new team again for 2015.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 50 percent

5. Max Chilton

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Other than becoming the first driver to finish every race in his rookie season, Max Chilton was not particularly impressive in 2013, his rookie season.

    He was retained by Marussia for 2014 in part, no doubt, thanks to his substantial funding. Whether he remains with the team past this season probably comes down to whether or not a better option becomes available for Marussia: A better driver or someone with more money—or both!

    Without significant improvement, Chilton will likely not be moving up from Marussia, either. At this point, it might be 50/50 whether he is on the grid at all in 2015.

     Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 50 percent

4. Valtteri Bottas

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Valtteri Bottas is one of the rising stars in F1. He outperformed his more experienced teammate, Pastor Maldonado, in 2013. This year, he will get a chance to measure himself against 11-time grands prix winner Felipe Massa.
    Bottas has a contract in place with Williams beyond 2014, according to the team's website, but it is no sure thing that he will still be there after this year. If he continues the trajectory that saw him finish eighth at the 2013 United States Grand Prix, there will no doubt be interest from the bigger teams.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 60 percent

3. Nico Hulkenberg

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Nico Hulkenberg has demonstrated his immense talent over four years seasons in F1. He has yet to find a top race seat where he can really shine, though.
    Instead, he has bounced around the midfield teams, from Williams to Force India to Sauber and back to Force India. On that basis alone, one would have to assume that he will not be at Force India in 2015. He does, however, have a multi-year contract, extending beyond 2014, according to Force India's official website.
    F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone told the Indian news agency IANS (via ESPN F1) that he is confident Force India can win a race this year. But Ecclestone would probably tell a Russian newspaper that Marussia has a chance this year, too, so that comment should not necessarily be taken literally.
    If Force India do take a big step in 2014, Hulkenberg's contract provides him with security. If not, or if one of the top-tier teams comes calling, expect to see him with yet another new team in 2015. 

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 70 percent

2. Jean-Eric Vergne

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    Ker Robertson/Getty Images

    When Jean-Eric Vergne was passed over for Mark Webber's vacant seat at Red Bull, it seemed like his days might be numbered at Toro Rosso. This, despite nearly matching Red Bull's choice, Daniel Ricciardo, for their two seasons together (Ricciardo: 30 points; Vergne: 29 points).

    Instead, the Frenchman was given a third year with the Red Bull junior squad. Maybe he is being kept as insurance in case Ricciardo bombs with the big team. More likely, though, the team wanted an experienced partner for the very young Daniil Kvyat.

    Just as no driver has raced for less than one-and-a-half seasons for Toro Rosso, no driver has spent more than three years with the team, either. One way or another, 2014 is probably Vergne's last in Faenza.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 75 percent

1. Jules Bianchi

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Despite being stuck in one of the slowest cars on the grid, Jules Bianchi had an impressive rookie season. His 13th-place finish in Malaysia clinched Marussia's first top ten finish in the Constructors' Championship.

    Bianchi is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and could eventually be in line for a seat with the Scuderia. Depending on how much he improves in 2014, that opportunity could come as soon as 2015. It is more likely, though, that Ferrari would want him to get more experience further up the grid before he joins the Italian team.

    Either way, as long as the Frenchman continues to impress this season, there is very little chance that he will still be with Marussia in 2015. He is just too good.

    Likelihood of switching teams for 2015: 90 percent

    Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert


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