It’s a good job the driver market is as dramatic as it is this year, because Formula 1’s on-track fight for championships is sadly all but over.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull have been incredibly consistent since leaving Australia, and it’s very much a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’, both titles will be wrapped up.
So I guess we should thank pretty much everyone involved in the silly season for the incredible amount of intrigue it is providing off the track – even when the top three teams have had completely settled line-ups for a long time.
I’m not sure who to thank the most. Maybe it’s Sebastian Vettel for opening up a seat at Aston Martin, or perhaps it’s Fernando Alonso for taking that vacancy and moving the focal point to Alpine.
Or it could well be Oscar Piastri for having two teams fighting over his services before he has even started his first F1 race, and in turn leaving those same two teams needing to make plans for multiple scenarios until his future is resolved.
And it’s amid that uncertainty that Colton Herta’s name was added to the silly season mix.
I’m not sure quite where the trigger point came from, whether it was Alpine asking about Pierre Gasly’s availability and getting Red Bull to consider who else it might want to take a look at, or if it was McLaren’s enquiries about Super License potential in case everything went south with Piastri and Alex Palou, but it has led to the point that Herta is a name now very much in the mix.
That it took just three days of the F1 paddock being back together in Belgium for it to first emerge shows how quickly things move on in silly season, and also how many different options are looked at by teams.
I still firmly believe Otmar Szafnauer was joking when he said he had 14 drivers on his list of potential candidates to take the seat that will be vacated by Alonso, but there’s certainly a chance he was serious after listing all of the drivers who have a Super License or could secure one, either through results or an FIA exemption based on COVID regulations.
That’s something that Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has been open about, saying any driver with a Super License is a consideration if he opts to drop Mick Schumacher – a decision that is looking increasingly likely even after a pair of strong results mid-season. And it shows the silly season is about more than just McLaren and Alpine.
It’s even about more than Haas, Alfa Romeo and Williams, who have unconfirmed seats for 2023. Those openings could lead to already-signed drivers moving and positions opening up elsewhere, as is the case with AlphaTauri if Gasly were to be allowed to leave (and that’s even before we factor in the fact that Yuki Tsunoda is not confirmed for next year yet either).
F1’s growing popularity has often been referenced, but the knock-on effect is a strengthening of all of the teams. The team that sits ninth in the constructors’ championship can attract a double world champion on a multi-year contact, while the team in 10th scored points for the third time last weekend.
No longer is there a clear back-of-the-grid outfit that doesn’t have serious potential, and nor do they need to demand sponsorship from a driver to be able to consider them, with Williams having already secured Alex Albon on a longer-term deal and being heavily linked with Nyck de Vries (who was in Belgium and speaking to plenty of team bosses, but stated he can do no more at this stage).
On top of that, announcements such as the one from Audi last weekend that a major manufacturer is entering the sport in 2026 makes Sauber an interesting proposition for any driver looking longer-term, trying to put themselves in the right place to capitalize on the potential the German marque will bring.
While the strong grid suggests there are multiple options for experienced drivers, it also means the drivers aren’t really the ones calling the shots.
Look at Daniel Ricciardo, who might have endured two tough years at McLaren but still boasts major appeal, and yet he has made clear that he had nothing lined up when his departure was announced and is assessing his options.
A sabbatical was even mooted in Ricciardo’s future if it would help him return to an F1 seat in 2024, but he’d do well to consider IndyCar in that case as a way of staying race-sharp, showing what he can do in a hugely competitive series and further growing his popularity in the United States.
In fact, the current silly season really needs to be combined with IndyCar’s, because while Formula 1 teams start looking at young U.S.-based talents, those who have uncertain futures in F1 will be on the radars of many in the States. Andretti, for example, would certainly not be hurt by a big-name signing for 2023, and must now be fearing any Herta interest turning into something more concrete.
With the likes of Ricciardo and Schumacher having no obvious landing spot in F1 – Alpine being the best fit for Ricciardo but reservations appearing to remain at board level over the manner in which he departed two years ago – there are all sorts of permutations that could yet play out on both sides of the Atlantic.
In some ways, it would be great if Piastri’s future isn’t decided this week by the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board (CRB), as that uncertainty is what is leading to so many different avenues being explored. Until the CRB makes a ruling, McLaren and Alpine are both in limbo, waiting to see what their next steps will need to be.
But a decision is due in the next few days and will likely be the next trigger for movement as the situation becomes clear around which teams definitely need to make a signing, and which can at least try and count themselves out of the action.
When that finally happens, if the past few months have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. It could get even sillier yet