F1's ‘silly season’ is already in full swing - Hindustan Times

F1's ‘silly season’ is already in full swing

Apr 02, 2024 09:42 PM IST

The F1 summer break is often when future decisions are made - but this time, the buzz has already reached crazy proportions.

It's quite unusual to be talking about the ‘silly season' a whole year in advance. But that’s what is happening.

Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso competes during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne on March 24, 2024.(AFP) PREMIUM
Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso competes during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne on March 24, 2024.(AFP)

Lewis Hamilton signing for Scuderia Ferrari – one of the biggest moves in Formula 1 in recent times – officially opened the silly season even before the 2024 championship commenced.

Usually discussed after the European summer break, silly season is a term used to describe deliberations about the driver market for the upcoming season. But the Hamilton-Ferrari deal upended the topics of chatter in the F1 paddock.

Drivers and their agents have already started talking with potential teams for 2025. Team principals are keeping an eye on their favoured drivers.

As of Monday, only Ferrari (Hamilton and Charles Leclerc) and McLaren (Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri) have confirmed line-ups for 2025. All other outfits either have one or no seats confirmed.

The problematic broth brewing in the Red Bull cauldron has also spiced things up in the driver market. Team boss Christian Horner accused of misconduct by an employee, Jos Verstappen (Max’s father) alleging the team was in “danger of being torn apart”, advisor Helmut Marko told not to give interviews, reports about star car designer Adrian Newey leaving the team.

It was all happening in Red Bull, so much so that there were serious rumours of Max Verstappen leaving the reigning constructors’ champions.

But amidst all this, one thing never changed – the winning combination of Verstappen and Red Bull. That RB20 is still by far the fastest vehicle that flies once the lights go out on a race weekend. All drivers would give a leg to earn a seat next to Verstappen.

Checo, as Sergio Perez is fondly known as, is fast and has been the best driver Red Bull have had since the departure of Daniel Ricciardo after the 2018 season but his results of late have nowhere been close to Verstappen, who is driving an identical car. Last season, Verstappen won a record breaking 19 races while Perez just two, clearly indicating the level of performance of the two.

It automatically lights up the eyes and ears of drivers wanting that seat. One driver who is being talked about replacing Perez is Carlos Sainz Jr. The Ferrari driver was the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race in 2023 when he delivered a thrilling win at Singapore in September, remember "It’s on purpose".

Last weekend, the Spaniard delivered another scintillating win in Australia, also overtaking Verstappen – not many drivers can claim in recent times – before the Dutchman retired due to braking issues.

Sainz clinched Ferrari’s first win of the season despite not being in the best of health – he underwent surgery of his appendicitis for which he pulled out of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. In the season opener in Bahrain, he was again on the podium behind the two Red Bulls.

Sainz is ruthlessly consistent. He is ambitious and hungry for points, podiums and wins. Most importantly, he was bred in the Red Bull system, having been a product of their driver academy, racing for their second team Toro Rosso for three seasons. Returning to the Red Bull setup won’t be different for Sainz as he will partner Verstappen, his old teammate at Toro Rosso.

Verstappen, on the other hand, has been linked to the seat vacated by Hamilton for 2025. Red Bull may have the fastest car but if the situation doesn’t stabilise at Red Bull, we could have the unbelievable situation of the flying Dutchman leaving the Milton Keynes-based outfit.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff expressing his desire to have Verstappen in his team has also lent weight to the rumour. “I’d love to have him. Let’s word it like this – I think this is a decision that Max needs to take, and there is no team up and down the grid who wouldn’t do handstands to have him in the car," Wolff was quoted as saying by F1.com.

Red Bull are expected to dominate not just 2024 but also 2025 before the new engine regulations come into effect in 2026 that will likely upstage the existing order like it did in 2022 or 2014 or 2009. Most drivers will keep that in mind.

But the most interesting player in the market is a big gamble who could end up playing a crucial role. Aged 42, Fernando Alonso has neither lost his pace nor his hunger, clearly visible by his delight when he regularly reached the podium last season.

Finally having a car under him that was able to reach the rostrum regularly had Alonso display a youthful exuberance while celebrating with his Aston Martin teammates as if it was his first ever podium, quite similar to the Renault days when he won two world championships in 2005 and 2006.

The Spaniard winning another race would be the stuff of dreams for not just Alonso and his fans but also for F1. What a brilliant story it would be to see a 43-year-old man win his first race in 11 years, beating the likes of Hamilton and Verstappen. Though Alonso has been linked to both Red Bull and Mercedes, whether he decides to continue driving or retire remains to be seen.

Also, never count out the outsiders. Oliver Bearman, who replaced Carlos Sainz for the Saudi race, was the youngest Ferrari driver in history at only 18. Despite his inexperience and unpreparedness, the young Briton delivered a brilliant performance to finish a solid seventh in one of the toughest tracks of the year.

There will be many young guns, currently racing in Formula 2, who would be impressing F1 teams throughout the 2024 F2 season, keen to replace the current F1 drivers. Zane Maloney, Paul Aaron, Dennis Hauger and India’s own Kush Maini are potential prospects who could find a seat or two next year.

But whatever it is, Hamilton’s move has got the paddock talking, discussing and deliberating the silly season very early.

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