With BMW’s decision to move into a partnership with Peter Sauber’s team for 2006 the opening salvo has been fired in the battle for the drivers to find the best seats – and the teams to find the best drivers – for next year. So let’s indulge ourselves in a little educated (we hope) guesswork.
Three teams already have their driver line-ups set for 2006, barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances. Michael Schumacher will probably never drive anything other than a Ferrari again in F1, and rumours that Rubens Barrichello has grown weary of the team’s Schumacher-centrism have quietened – having put up with it for so long, he might as well see it out on the off chance of getting a number one role later on. McLaren and Toyota look set as well.
Renault will not be getting rid of Fernando Alonso but Giancarlo Fisichella is on slightly dubious ground. Despite having won a race he has lagged behind Alonso on more than one occasion and his public criticism of his car’s fallibility has put him on the wrong side of Flavio Briatore.
This might not be a problem, if Briatore did not have such a reputation for discarding quality drivers for minor indiscretions (cf. Jarno Trulli last year).
If Fisichella gets dumped, that could well be it for him, but old embarrassment-of-riches Briatore could easily enlist the stellar talent of GP2 series leader and former Renault driver scheme graduate Heikki Kovalainen. Else, Renault’s bosses might conclude that a French driver would be better PR for a French team on French rubber and move test driver Franck Montagny to the full-time team.
It wouldn’t be out of the question for Fisichella to find a berth at Sauber, who he drove for in 2004, but with their recent acquisition by BMW the Sauber seats will be more sought after than at any other time in the team’s history.
Incumbent drivers Jacques Villeneuve and Felipe Massa will surely struggle to hold onto their drives – Massa has improved, but slowly, and BMW would surely rather pay off Villeneuve than risk letting his often disruptive nature compromise their new outfit?
So who will get the Sauber drives? Nick Heidfeld is a leading candidate – with the right nationality and prior experience of the team, he could be of central importance in making the whole operation gel. It is not yet guaranteed, however, that BMW will leave Williams, which raises doubt about whether Heidfeld would be compelled to leave or, indeed, Jenson Button would take his place. Button’s agreement with Williams for ’06 is believed to contain a ‘works engine’ clause, so unless BMW stay or Williams find another manufacturer partner in comparatively little time, Button could remain at BAR.
BAR, with no points from nine races prior to France, are another volatile point in the driver market. The chances of them keeping both drivers are about the same as them changing both drivers.
They may be powerless to hold on to Button, and Takuma Sato is now in his third season without really doing all that much. His strongest card may be the continuity he could offer the team were Button to leave. But he needs to quite the mistakes.
If Button does go a British replacement is considered likely in David Coulthard, revitalised by a reputation-building year with underdogs Red Bull. He could offer BAR a realistic prospect of winning their first race for them if they haven’t done it by the end of 2005. Also in the hunt for the seat is Anthony Davidson, whose absence from the cutting edge of Formula One is starting to look criminal.
Back at Williams, Mark Webber is bolted in for another year in 2006, even if 2005 has been pretty poor for him so far, and his team mate could even be a pay driver depending on how bad things get at Grove. The popular theory at the moment is that Williams will court former engine suppliers Honda, but that may force them to keep their option on Button, preventing them from bringing in a Japanese pay-driver. Would Honda be happy to keep the BAR star on their side by supplying a different team? Or could even Williams tester Antonio Pizzonia replace Heidfeld?
David Coulthard is in negotiations for a second year at Red Bull, having done rather well out of his 2005 points bonus contract so far, but their Ferrari engines may prove as big a draw as their rumoured Bridgestone tyre contract could be a turn-off. The increasing political alignment between the two teams, however, suggests that they are about to enter into a level of technical collaboration greater than we have seen between two other teams in Formula One before – indeed, you could go so far as to suggest that this will be F1′s next big controversy.
Red Bull could be about to become a ‘junior team’ for Ferrari, massaging their flamboyant stars for the Scuderia to cherry-pick later. Vitantonio Liuzzi, being Italian and highly rated, is an obvious candidate. Christian Klien has, surprisingly, acquitted himself well enough to surely be worthy of a full season. Scott Speed may have the immense PR value of being American behind him, but it looks like a third driver role is the best he can hope for in 2006, unless he gets positioned in a Minardi.
Minardi and Jordan (slated to become Midland F1) are jokers in the pack, and can be relied upon to field two completely different pairs of drivers just to keep the money coming in. That said, if Alex Shnaider is serious about his Midland operation, he may well keep the favoured Tiago Monteiro and pair him with an experienced old hand – Jacques Villeneuve?
Such is the paucity of seats in F1 these days that the driver market only moves when someone is set to leave a team. There are fewer openings for new talent than ever before, which is a pity when there are drivers of the talent of Davidson, Kovalainen, Wurz, Nico Rosberg, Adam Carroll and Sebastian Bourdais on the outside looking in. Forcing teams to run at least one driver with a maximum level of experience is not the way to fix this – F1 simply needs more teams, and to get that, costs must be cut.
And all this assumes that Formula One will even exist in the form we currently know it in 2006. But, you’ll notice, I’m going out of my way not to get political this weekâ€¦