June 19th, 2024

Driver’s market turning into a game of musical chairs in Formula One

By Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press on June 7, 2024.

MONTREAL – Lewis Hamilton is intrigued by the idea of a transfer window or free agency in Formula One, but the seven-time world champion believes the circuit’s season-long driver market generates more than enough excitement.

“A transfer window? That’s a new one,” he said ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix. “It’s really exciting in the other sports, like in the NFL.

“But it’s quite exciting now (in F1). No one knows who’s going where.”

Unlike the North American sports model, F1 is the wild west. Drivers can negotiate with new teams while under contract instead of waiting for free agency.

The result this year is a full-on game of musical chairs only nine stops into the 24-race season.

Hamilton sparked an earlier-than-usual market in February by announcing a shock move to Ferrari from Mercedes next season. Niko Hulkenberg was the next with a contract to leave Haas for Sauber.

But as the travelling F1 circus arrives in Montreal, nine pilots on the 20-driver grid still don’t know where – or if – they’ll have a seat in 2025.

“Lewis triggered a bit more action this year,” Sauber driver Valtteri Bottas said.

Hamilton said it’s nice to watch the frenzy he helped create from afar.

“When you do have drivers moving around, it does cause this bit of chaos,” Hamilton said. “It’s quite an exciting time. For (me and Hulkenberg), we’re lucky and we feel very fortunate that we’ve got something locked in.

“It’s exciting for us to now see where everyone’s moving.”

For now, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz is the man holding it up. Despite being a race winner in each of the last two seasons, Sainz needs to find a new chair with Hamilton coming in to replace him as Charles Leclerc’s teammate.

The Spanish driver has been linked with teams across the grid but insists he’s still weighing his options despite the high-flying rumours.

“It makes me laugh,” Sainz said. “I remember seeing reports three months ago that I had signed for Mercedes, reports that I had signed for Red Bull – obviously those places are not going to happen.

“Now people saying I’ve signed for Williams, makes me laugh.”

The coveted seat next to three-time defending champion Max Verstappen at Red Bull is out of the picture after Sergio Perez signed an extension through 2026 on Tuesday.

Perez’s heart was always with Red Bull, but he said the reality in F1 is “you’re always talking to two different teams.”

“There were other options out there,” he said. “But for me, my plan A, B, and C was definitely to stay at Red Bull.”

Esteban Ocon won’t be back at Alpine, the French outfit announced Monday. The news dropped a couple of weeks after Ocon crashed into teammate Pierre Gasly at the Monaco GP.

Jack Doohan took Ocon’s place in the first free practice on a rainy, thunderous Friday in Montreal, but Ocon will drive in Sunday’s race.

Pilots driving for an outfit they may not be part of next year are left in the dark about their team’s future plans, but they say that’s just part of the sport.

“It’s nothing strange,” said Bottas, whose contract with Sauber expires this year. “Like Lewis, if you know you’re leaving already to another team, of course things aren’t the same as if you’re gonna stay there.

“I haven’t seen much about next year’s car, if I’m honest, but that’s normal, that’s how it goes. That will go the same way for any driver who’s not confirmed yet.”

The status of Lance Stroll’s contract is unknown. The Montreal-born diver is believed to be on a rolling contract because his father, multibillionaire Lawrence Stroll, owns his Aston Martin team. But neither he nor Aston Martin have confirmed he’ll be back at Aston Martin in 2025 without fail.

“We know that Aston Martin is Lance’s home. He prefers to concentrate on the Montreal Grand Prix here, there’s already enough going on,” Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2024.

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