Formula 1's Latest Rumours, Talk: Williams, Lewis Hamilton-Fernando Alonso, More

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2016

Formula 1's Latest Rumours, Talk: Williams, Lewis Hamilton-Fernando Alonso, More

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    Williams driver Felipe Massa is set to announce his retirement from Formula One ahead of this weekend's Italian Grand Prix.

    As reported by F1 journalist Andrew Benson, the Brazilian will hold a joint press conference with deputy team principal Claire Williams at Monza, where he is expected to confirm the end of his long and successful F1 career.

    Massa's probable exit will mean the team will be on the lookout for a new team-mate for Valtteri Bottas for 2017, with Williams dropping another hint that Sauber's Felipe Nasr will be the man to replace the former Ferrari driver.

    Should the major 2017 regulation changes fail to have the desired effect, it could be Fernando Alonso announcing his retirement this time next year.

    The two-time world champion recently raised eyebrows by confirming he will walk away from F1 if he doesn't enjoy driving the next-generation cars, with Lewis Hamilton admitting it would reflect poorly on the sport if Alonso were to be pushed into retirement.

    While the greatest driver of his generation may be driven away, spectators are scurrying back to F1 on the evidence of last weekend's Belgian GP.

    Spa-Francorchamps was painted orange as thousands of Dutch supporters flocked to watch Max Verstappen, who let them all down by producing one of his worst performances of the season.

    But Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is understandably wary of criticising his young talent, suggesting Verstappen can almost single-handedly make F1 popular again.

    Elsewhere, Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly has revealed he would be prepared to miss out on a chance to win the GP2 feeder series if it meant he could gain a head start at Toro Rosso.

    Closing our pre-Italian GP roundup is Jenson Button—another driver who might announce his retirement before the end of 2016—who has outlined why comparisons between Mercedes and Brawn GP are unfair.

Williams Admit a Driver with Financial Backing Would Be a 'Bonus' for 2017

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    Claire Williams has admitted a driver with financial backing would be "an added bonus" amid mounting speculation that the team are close to signing Nasr.

    With Massa set to retire at the end of this season, Williams are on the hunt for a new team-mate for Bottas for 2017.

    In August, Williams told the Press Association (h/t Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble) of her interest in signing 2009 world champion Button and Force India's Sergio Perez, but Sauber driver Nasr—who held a reserve role with the team in 2014—has emerged as the leading candidate.

    Over the Belgian GP weekend, Sky Sports' Ted Kravitz revealed a deal to sign Nasr was likely, suggesting the Sauber driver—who is personally sponsored by Banco do Brasil—has a "good relationship" with Williams, who "rate him very highly."

    Williams revealed the team are close to finalising their 2017 driver lineup, telling Sky Sports' television coverage that while they are "still doing some work on it," the team know who will be driving their cars next season.

    Williams has admitted the team have been reluctant to sign so-called pay drivers since their experience with Pastor Maldonado, who accused the team of sabotaging his car before fleeing to Lotus at the end of 2013, per Sky Sports' Pete Gill.

    But the deputy team principal believes a driver with sponsorship would be more than welcome given Williams' relatively modest budget, telling ESPN F1's Nate Saunders:

    We made a very conscious decision back in 2013 that we wanted to move away from the pay driver position. We would never put a driver in our car purely for financial reasons, because that's not who we are as a team, it's not who we need to be as a team.

    We have a very healthy racing budget of a minimum of a £110 million a year, but of course if a driver does come with financial backing, then that's an added bonus and I don't consider it [a bad thing].

    I think the pay-driver term is extremely negative because a driver can be a great talent but have that added benefit of bringing money, so of course us, as an independent team, when the sponsorship market is as it is currently, then of course that's a consideration for us.

    We have to be a responsible business. We have 750 employees and we want to make sure that we keep 750 employees, that's the most important thing for us.

    Nasr recently told Autosport (h/t Eurosport) he would be happy to remain with Sauber for a third season in 2017 following their change of ownership, but he stressed the need to keep his options "open."

    The news of his proposed move to Williams comes shortly after Brazilian publication O Globo (h/t Sky Sports) reported Nasr and manager Steve Robertson—who also represents 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen—were seeking help from the Brazilian government to secure a switch to Renault for next season.

Lewis Hamilton Hopes F1 Doesn't Drive Fernando Alonso Away in 2017

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    Hamilton believes it "wouldn't be right" if Alonso were to quit F1 at the end of 2017 after the Spaniard revealed the major regulation changes will determine his future.

    Alonso is widely regarded as the greatest driver of his generation but has been restricted to just six points finishes since the beginning of 2015 due to the struggles of his McLaren-Honda team.

    Ahead of last weekend's Belgian GP, the Spaniard—whose current McLaren contract will expire at the end of next season—told an FIA press conference he will retire at the end of 2017 if he doesn't enjoy driving the next-generation cars, admitting the current state of F1 has made him "a little bit sad."

    Hamilton, who partnered the two-time world champion during his debut campaign in 2007, fears it would reflect poorly on the sport if a driver of Alonso's calibre were to walk away from F1.

    He told Spanish publication El Pais (h/t Motorsport.com's Noble):

    He’s still regarded as one of the best, certainly by me, and I really hope McLaren provide him with a car he can win with, so I can race the guy.

    If he wants to retire next year, and I didn’t get to race with him again, it would be really sad. It would not be a good show of what this sport is.

    You can’t have someone as gifted as he is at the back and then stopping because he’s not getting another opportunity again. It wouldn’t be right.

    For sure [Alonso could follow through on his threat]. He’s 35 years old, he’s made enough money, and he’s experienced enough.

    Formula 1 is not what defines him now. He’s a two-time world champion, a legend already. He can decide if he wants to stop, and ultimately he prepares himself every year to fight for a championship and he’s not getting the opportunity.

    He’s been really good over these years. I’d have probably been way worse if I was dead last, in a team which should and has won world championships.

    He’s handled it really well and for sure he’s grown a ton over these years and hopefully next year they’ll bring a car he can fight with.

    I want to see him continue and I want to fight with him.

    Carlos Sainz Jr., Alonso's compatriot, has reassured his mentor, predicting the 2017 regulations will be a huge success. The changes are expected to make the cars several seconds per lap quicker than the current models due to revised aerodynamics and the introduction of wider tyres.

    Having had a sneak peek of Toro Rosso's 2017 car, Sainz has revealed the rule changes are exactly "what F1 needs," suggesting they will result in "proper F1 cars," per Autosport (h/t Eurosport).

    Meanwhile, an initial draft of the 2017 F1 calendar has emerged, with Motorsport.com's Adam Cooper reporting the 21-race season is currently scheduled to begin with the Australian GP on March 26.

    The latest start to a campaign since 2011 will give the teams "extra time" to get to grips with the new-specification cars, with the Melbourne race set to be part of a double-header with the Chinese GP.

Max Verstappen's 'Fighting Spirit' Will Bring Fans Back to F1, Argue Red Bull

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    Horner believes Verstappen can single-handedly make F1 popular again after high attendance figures were recorded at the Belgian GP.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Filip Cleeren, "an estimated 25,000 Dutch fans" made the trip to Spa-Francorchamps last weekend to support Verstappen, who races under the Netherlands flag despite being born in Belgium.

    The 18-year-old became the youngest-ever driver to secure a front-row start at his adopted home event but endured a difficult race after colliding with the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Raikkonen at the first corner.

    Verstappen went on to frustrate Raikkonen and Perez, pushing the pair wide at Les Combes, before finishing 11th.

    Although Verstappen has been widely criticised for his performance at Spa, Horner has insisted the teenager's conduct on track has attracted fans back to F1. 

    Per Autosport (h/t Eurosport), he said:

    All the seriously gifted and ambitious drivers have that streak within them.

    I remember Sebastian getting criticised a few years ago, and there have been a few other drivers that history has demonstrated who have shown that fighting spirit.

    That fighting spirit is part of why there was such a big crowd [at Spa]. It was great to see the passion and enthusiasm.

    80,000 people turned up to the circuit and there was a good race put on.

    Unfortunately their man didn't figure in it, but it demonstrates the drivers are the heroes in this sport and occasionally that special one comes along.

    Jacques Villeneuve was among the fiercest critics of Verstappen in the aftermath of the Belgian GP, with the 1997 world champion even suggesting the youngster is receiving "protection" from governing body the FIA, which wants him to "be a star."

    Villeneuve told Motorsport.com's Oleg Karpov (h/t Noble) "someone would have put him in a tree" if Verstappen had tried similar antics two decades ago.

Pierre Gasly Would Leave GP2 to Join Toro Rosso for Rest of 2016

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    Gasly has admitted he would be willing to give up the chance of winning the GP2 title if it meant he could race for Toro Rosso in the closing months of 2016.

    The Frenchman is on course to become the first Red Bull-backed driver to win F1's official feeder series, having registered his third victory of the season over the Belgian GP weekend.

    His strong form has led to speculation that he could replace Daniil Kvyat—who became the first driver to be sent back to Toro Rosso from Red Bull earlier this season—before the end of 2016, although team boss Franz Tost recently backed Kvyat to retain his seat for 2017, per Autosport (h/t Eurosport).

    Gasly has insisted his main focus is on graduating to F1 next season, but he is open to seeing out the rest of this season with Toro Rosso, telling Motorsport.com's Jamie Klein and Karpov:

    When you get a call to go to F1, there is no way you're going to say no. You need to take it, it is the kind of chance you maybe get only once in your life.

    I see what is happening [in F1], and at some point you need to be selfish. At the moment in Red Bull there is only one seat available, which is Daniil's seat, so that's the one I want to take next year.

    The decision is in Red Bull's hands, so when they call you need to be ready and take the opportunity. Of course I'm ready and I have my phone in my pocket every second.

    Let's see what they're going to do for the rest of the year, and especially for next year.

    Gasly told the same source he spoke with Dr. Helmut Marko, the head of Red Bull's young-driver scheme, about graduating to F1 over the Belgian GP weekend, adding:

    I asked him already on Friday. I had a conversation with him, a long conversation. He asked me to win the race first, and that is what I did.

    At the moment there is no clear answer, and of course that's not what I expected. I did not expect him to say, 'Here is the contract, you can sign right now.'

    But, already, of course we are talking about it. Let's see.

    Red Bull have a history of parachuting young drivers into Toro Rosso during a season, with Vettel taking Scott Speed's seat in 2007 before Jaime Alguersuari replaced Sebastien Bourdais at the halfway stage of the 2009 campaign.

Jenson Button Frustrated by Mercedes, Brawn GP Comparisons

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    Button believes it is unfair to compare the current Mercedes team to the Brawn GP outfit with whom he won the world championship, insisting the team are now very different to the one he knew in 2009.

    When Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 2008, team boss Ross Brawn took over the team and renamed it Brawn GP, with Button winning six of the first seven races of '09 to establish an insurmountable lead in the drivers' and constructors' standings.

    Button left for McLaren at the end of that season, while Brawn GP were purchased by Mercedes, who have enjoyed one of the most dominant periods in F1 history.

    With Hamilton and Nico Rosberg behind the wheel, the Silver Arrows have won 44 grands prix since the V6 turbo regulations were introduced at the beginning of 2014, with the team set to win both championships for a third straight year in 2016.

    Although the two teams have a clear link, Button has revealed he is frustrated by comparisons between Mercedes and Brawn GP, insisting they are very different in terms of manpower, funding and the style of their dominance. 

    According to Autosport (h/t Eurosport), he said:

    It does actually annoy me when people make comparisons, because there is no comparison at all.

    Mercedes is a fully-funded team that are streets ahead, they win every race. We didn't win every race.

    We won quite a few races at the start of the year, but we didn't qualify on pole or on the front row on all of them—half of them we probably did.

    We raced well and we won those races, not by a big margin, and from race six onwards we didn't have the quickest car.

    They have gone three years with the quickest car, and with a big margin, so there's no comparison.

    They are doing a fantastic job; they have all the right people, the funding, and they obviously have the drivers as well.

    We need the regulation change to really challenge them. I don't think anyone would challenge them otherwise.

    Button's F1 future will be decided in the coming weeks, with McLaren-Honda chairman Ron Dennis telling Sky Sports F1 the team will begin discussions regarding their 2017 driver lineup at this weekend's Italian GP before a "final board decision" is made "at the end of September."

    The 36-year-old is likely to be replaced by reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne for 2017, with racing director Eric Boullier recently telling Motorsport.com's Noble how McLaren "cannot be emotional" when making a decision.

    

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