5 Ways Kimi Raikkonen's 2016 Ferrari Deal Could Affect Formula 1 Driver Market
The news will come as a surprise to many after the 2007 world champion's substandard performances alongside Sebastian Vettel in 2015, with the Finn currently sitting fifth in the drivers' standings with 76 points, 84 adrift of his new team-mate.
Despite producing a couple of strong displays—particularly in Bahrain, where he secured his first podium since 2013, and Hungary, where he offered Vettel protection before reliability problems robbed him of another top-three finish—Raikkonen has driven like a man approaching the end of his career for much of this season.
Due to his position at Ferrari, who are currently the second-fastest team on the grid behind world champions Mercedes, Raikkonen was widely thought to hold the key to "silly season," and the Prancing Horse's decision to keep the 35-year-old for a third season will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the field.
Here are five ways Raikkonen's contract renewal will affect the driver market.
Sebastian Vettel's No. 1 Status at Ferrari Is Secure
When they chose to retain Raikkonen, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene were not just deciding the future of the 2007 world champion, but also that of his current team-mate.
Sebastian Vettel has established himself as Ferrari's latest hero in the opening 10 races of the 2015 season, winning in Malaysia and Hungary and returning a positive atmosphere to a team who had become extremely volatile toward the end of the Fernando Alonso era.
Vettel's public support of Raikkonen no doubt aided the Finn's cause and, as we recently noted, meant Ferrari's decision was set to provide an early indication of the four-time world champion's influence within the team.
If they were to sign, say, Valtteri Bottas or Daniel Ricciardo—in other words, someone who would be considered a genuine threat to the German—Ferrari's long-term commitment to Vettel would have been in serious doubt, and talk of him following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher would have been premature.
Keeping Raikkonen, though, has solidified Vettel's status as team leader and offered him the opportunity to write his own chapter in the story of F1's most successful team, as well as offering a glimpse into Ferrari's transfer policy.
As long as Vettel remains a Ferrari driver, the team will seemingly refrain from signing elite or up-and-coming drivers and instead lure those who will settle for a support role.
2016 Will Be Kimi Raikkonen's Farewell Tour as Ferrari Assess Several Options
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Raikkonen's stay at Ferrari is the fact that the man himself didn't expect to race in F1 in 2016, having told ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson as long ago as July 2014 how he intended to retire at the end of the current season.
If he thought he was going to call it a day at the close of this year, he almost certainly will retire at the end of next season, by which point he will be 37.
Raikkonen's long goodbye in 2016, nine years after his championship triumph, should allow him to approach next season with a degree of freedom, which should have a positive impact on his performances and, crucially, afford Ferrari plenty of time to identify his successor.
The 2016 edition of "silly season" is already shaping up to be hugely absorbing, with any number of drivers including Bottas, Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Felipe Nasr, Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz Jr., Jenson Button and even Nico Rosberg all potentially available.
Raikkonen's personal commitments—according to F1 journalist Peter Windsor, he returned to Europe between the Australian and Malaysian grands prix to spend time with his newborn son—should mean one more season will be enough before he brings an end to his career.
Ferrari will have a big decision to make in 12 months' time.
Valtteri Bottas a Mercedes Man Once Again
Bottas was the driver most strongly linked to Raikkonen's seat, with Corriere dello Sport (h/t Sky Sports) claiming Ferrari had agreed to a €12 million fee to release the Finn from his Williams contract in July.
Ferrari's reported interest in Bottas was bizarre for a number of reasons, not least because the 25-year-old had been regarded as a Mercedes driver-in-waiting almost since his Formula One debut two seasons ago.
Bottas' relationship with Toto Wolff, the Mercedes motorsport boss, who is a member of his management team and a former colleague at Williams until 2013, meant the Finn was always likely to earn a promotion to the Silver Arrows whenever Lewis Hamilton or Rosberg moved on.
At the beginning of 2015, Wolff told Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Sky Sports) how Bottas, along with Alonso, would be a front-runner to join Mercedes in the coming years, and recently questioned the wisdom of moving to Ferrari, per the same source (h/t Motorsport.com).
It was unclear at that point whether Wolff was innocently offering his friend some career advice or trying everything possible to stop him becoming a threat to Mercedes, but Ferrari's decision to keep Raikkonen should leave Bottas in no doubt where his future really lies.
A future Mercedes seat, surely, is his to lose.
Haas Now Nico Hulkenberg's Best Bet for Future Success
After years of sideways steps and hopping between midfield teams, joining a brand-new outfit had seemed like an unnecessary risk for a driver of Hulkenberg's calibre.
Indeed, even the team owner of Haas, who will arrive on the grid at the start of next season, admitted Hulkenberg—and for that matter, any existing F1 driver—may be unwilling to sign up when there is no guarantee the team can provide instant results, per Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley.
Yet with Raikkonen signed up for another season at Ferrari and with Bottas almost certain to remain with Williams (thereby blocking Hulkenberg's return to the team), joining Haas may represent the German's best chance of salvaging something from his grand prix career.
And Haas' technical partnership with Ferrari—which, according to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, will see the Prancing Horse design much of the American team's car—could be instrumental in the decision of Hulkenberg, who recently told Sky Sports' Pete Gill of his openness to a move to Haas and, revealingly, how he expected Raikkonen's renewal.
Joining Haas from Force India would be beneficial for both Hulkenberg and Ferrari, giving the driver the chance to establish relationships with Scuderia hierarchy and allowing Ferrari to effectively scout and closely assess the German's performances throughout 2016.
That, in theory, would let Ferrari make an informed, confident decision over how Hulkenberg would work alongside Vettel and allow them to promote a Raikkonen replacement from within, rather than negotiating transfer fees for drivers from rival teams, marking an early victory for the Haas-Ferrari alliance.
Hulkenberg's most recent spell with a Ferrari-affiliated team, with Sauber in 2013, almost saw him land a drive with the Scuderia for 2014 before being denied by Raikkonen, as reported by Auto Motor und Sport (h/t NBC Sports).
But while his long and winding search for a front-running car may last another 12 months, succeeding Raikkonen in 2017 should be the goal if he treats Haas as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Hulkenberg may have to go back to go forward.
Jenson Button's Fairytale Return to Williams Ends
At the height of the Bottas-to-Ferrari speculation, it emerged that Button was in contention for a return to Williams, where he started his F1 career in 2000, with BBC Sport's Andrew Benson claiming the 2009 world champion was a "leading candidate" to replace the Finn.
Ferrari's decision to overlook Bottas, however, means there will be no vacancy to fill at Williams unless the team take the cruel step of releasing Felipe Massa at the end of 2015.
But Massa's confidence in remaining at the Grove-based team for a third season—the Brazilian told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble that a contract renewal is close—suggests Button's supposed dream has died.
And having had his only exit route from McLaren-Honda blocked, the British driver's future is now as uncertain as it was in 2014.
Despite performing exceptionally well alongside Alonso in 2015, Button appears condemned to once again spend the latter stages of the season fighting for his career and proving why the team should choose experience over the youth of Kevin Magnussen or Stoffel Vandoorne.
According to Benson, McLaren have an option to retain Button for next year. However, Vandoorne's performances and results in the GP2 championship, which he is set to win in dominant fashion, are making it increasingly difficult for the team to keep the Belgian out of an F1 seat.
Whether he will stay with McLaren is unclear, but it is increasingly obvious that, just like a year ago, it's McLaren or nothing for Button in 2016.