As Formula 1 heads deeper into the second half of its 2020 season, it’s time to have a look at the current state of play for the driver market in F1.

Mercedes: Valtteri Bottas is confirmed until season’s end of 2021. That extends a partnership that began in 2017. At the time of writing, Lewis Hamilton is yet to be confirmed for next year however paddock chatter is that he will be with the Silver Arrows for next season. The apparent sticking point, according to Toto Wolff, has been the rearranged schedule for 2020. However, there has been talk of Mercedes-Benz divesting itself of the racing arm at the end of next year and that uncertainty, says Ralf Schumacher, could be a key reason.”We have to remember that Lewis is an important personality, certainly a very expensive one, and he will also want a contract that is longer than just a year.”The uncertainty that hovers over the team is certainly a good reason why the negotiations between him and the team are taking so long.”

Ferrari: Charles Leclerc will partner Carlos Sainz in 2021. However, with Ferrari’s so-far dismal form this year, it’ll be little wonder that Sainz may feel he’s in an uphill battle. Putting a positive spin on it, Sainz says: “I’ve got 100 percent confidence in Ferrari’s people in what they can do for the future. Let’s just remember that last year they were capable of doing seven pole positions, so it’s a team that I think knows how to produce very good cars,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s ever a bad time to go to Ferrari. I think going to Ferrari is such a unique experience and such a special place for a Formula 1 driver, that I don’t think there’s ever going to be a bad time where you say, ‘I do not want to go to Ferrari’. Give me that option 100 times again, I will always say yes.”

Alex Albon and Christian Horner

Red Bull: Max Verstappen signed an extension early in 2020 and this will see him through to 2023. Red Bull are yet to settle for 2021 on a team mate but it’s a good bet that Alexander Albon’s form should be enough to see him ink a signature before the end of this season.  Christian Horner, the Red Bull team boss, seems to agree, with: “As far as Red Bull Racing’s seats are concerned, we are focused on Alex Albon,” he said. “We want to try and give him the best opportunity to retain that seat. We’ve got some issues we’re working on with the car and I think that it wouldn’t make sense to switch the drivers back.” That “other” driver is Pierre Gasly.

McLaren: Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris will partner for the first time next year, with 2021 seeing Norris into a third year with the resurgent British outfit. A key ingredient to the potential rise of the famous name in 2021 is the change to Mercedes as an engine supplier. Then there is the “R” factor, with team boss, Zak Brown, opining: “Getting a Grand Prix winner like Daniel (Ricciardo) definitely is a sign we’ve going in the right direction.”

Renault: Fernando Alonso returns to F1 to drive with Esteban Ocon. The Renault team will be re-branded as Alpine next year. Taking the former champion Alonso on board has been seen by some as a curious decision, however the former champion sees a different view after a recent factory tour: “An incredible thrill to go back to the factory,” he tweeted. “I came to Renault in 2002, when I was 21 years old, I know every corner of this place, every corridor, every door… It has been a very special day.”

AlphaTauri: The rebranded for 2020 Toro Rosso is likely to stay with Pierre Gasly for next year, however his signature has not yet been put to paper. Co-driver Daniil Kvyat’s future is allegedly less secure, as the team will trial F2 pilot Yuki Tsunoda in the Young Drivers’ test at the conclusion of 2020. Franz Tost, the AlphaTauri head, says of the 20year old Japanese born driver: “I am not only impressed with his driving in the Formula 2, I was impressed last year in Formula 3 as well and the years before. He is really high skilled driver and I think he has all the ingredients together to become a successful Formula 1 driver.”

Racing Point:  The team currently known as Racing Point will be renamed Aston Martin in 2021, and surprised quite  a few by signing the struggling 2020 Ferrari team driver, and four time world champion, Sebastian Vettel. In an interview with Sky News Germany, Ralf Schumacher said:  “I am firmly convinced that we will see Sebastian back to his old self. A small, compact team with all the possibilities and with the support of Mercedes. This will be an atmosphere that he likes from the very beginning and comparable to Red Bull in the past.”

Alfa Romeo:  Neither Kimi Raikkonen or Antonio Giovinazzi, both off-contract at the end of the season, are yet to be confirmed. It’s a possibility that a door may open for Sergio Perez after this year, and if a favourite could be selected by  team boss Fredric Vasseur, it’s likely to be the soon to be 41 year Raikkonen. According to Vasseur, no decision will be made on the second seat until Raikkonen makes a call on his future. “You have some Ferrari junior drivers, but you have Kimi first for us, to know what he wants to do and what we want to do with him and then we will see with the other ones,” he said. That is, of course, if the veteran driver wishes to continue in what has been a less than stellar year for he and the team.

Should both not continue then one seat could potentially be fitted with the imprint of Nico Hulkenberg and a another name has been raised, thanks to the team’s ties with Ferrari. Step up, if you may, one Mick Schumacher…

Sergio Perez looking pensive at Sochi

Haas: Has a difficult choice. Both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are coming to the end of their contracts, and team boss Guenther Steiner has admitted all options are on the table, from re-signing both Grosjean and Magnussen, to hiring two completely different drivers. With a rules overhaul set to be introduced in 2022, Steiner has also said that it makes sense for the 2021 drivers to continue the following year. All indications are that the team is prepared to look long-term when making a call, making it likely they’ll pair a senior driver, such as Grosjean, Magnussen, Sergio Perez or Nico Hulkenberg, with a rookie like 2019 F3 champion Robert Shwartzman, who has impressed in F2 this year.

Williams: Nicholas Latifi & George Russell are likely to continue as the team adjusts to both external and internal changes. Neither driver has impressed but neither have they performed under the level of what is currently available to them in the sense of their cars. Talk of Russell taking more than a few steps up to join Mercedes in 2022 have been met with:  “I’ll be giving everything I’ve got for Williams this year and into next year, and let’s see what that holds after that.”

Qualifying at the former Winter Olympics city of Sochi and under clouded skies it was Lewis Hamilton that would once again take pole position in conditions he described as horrible. Running on softs he would, however, see Verstappen out for P2 and Valtteri Bottas for P3 by 0.5 and 0.6 of a second respectively. With the top ten cars starting the race on their Q2 rubber, and both Verstappen and Bottas running softs, Hamilton may have the immediate advantage, however Hamilton has previously stated Sochi is not one of his favourite tracks. Q1 saw all drivers battle a Sochi circuit that seemed to not want the F1 cars on its surface and that was evident in Q2.

Sebastian Vettel would enter a right hander with two minutes and fifteen seconds left in Q2, see his grip level decrease as the Ferrari ran across the top of a concrete “sausage strip” and slide across the track to hit the barriers on the left at a velocity enough to rip off the nose and front right wheel. Team mate Charles Leclerc would come into the scene a bare second or so later and run straight across the remains of Vettel’s front wing, laying mid-track.

Sebastian Vettel crash Q2 at Sochi

Hamilton had been quick in practice however in Q1 he was 0.3 slower than Bottas. Daniel Ricciardo, who had also been quick in practice and saying that the car had felt “hooked up” would see P4 in Q1. Out would Kimi Raikkonen who had made an error, the Williams of Nicholas Latifi, Romain Grosjean from Haas, and Kevin Magnussen. Vettel found 0.4 of a second after the session had closed and on his final lap to jump from P17 to P11. Antonio Giovinazzi would also fail to move through to Q2. Bottas would claim bragging rights at the end of Q1.

Q2 and Vettel’s spin would place him in P15. George Russell took P14, Lance Stroll will start P13 after failing to take to the track due to a power issue, behind Daniil Kvyat and Charles Leclerc. Hamilton was lucky to get through as at one point his lap time had been deleted after leaving the track on a hot lap at Turn 18. It would be with  a breath of time that Hamilton, on new and cold rubber fitted during the down-time as the track was cleared after Vettel’s crash, would cross the start line to set a flying lap. The chequered flag to close Q2 had been dropped just after Hamilton made the line and he would get to P4 in Q2 with Daniel Ricciardio leading.

Q3 and immediately it’s on between Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon. 8/10ths is the gap between the two, only to see Hamilton, ice-cold, run his ultimately P1 setting time of 1:31.391 and push Ricciardo to P5. Verstappen found something extra pacey to pip Bottas by that neat tenth, whilst Sergio Perez surprised everyone to overrun Ricciardo and take P4. P6 went to Carlos Sain who would be just 0.08 quicker than P7’s Ocon. Bigger gaps to Norris and Pierre Gasly of 0.2 and 0.3 with Alexander Albon missing P9 by 0.008…

Hamilton’s pole time is his 96th and he also set a new track record at Sochi while doing so. He is now also one win away from equaling Michael Scumacher’s record of 91 wins.

However, Hamilton will have to wait to do so as Sochi shocked from the start. Hamilton was penalised not once, but twice, by the stewards for allegedly breaching rules pertaining to practice starts outside of the permitted area. The situation was enough to have the Mercedes driver seething, and launched into a conspiracy theory rant: “They’re doing everything… of course it is. It’s to be expected. They’re trying to stop me, aren’t they?” Those penalties were applied at lap 8, by the way.

The race itself got away to a dramatic start with Hamilton and Bottas in close quarter racing ahead of P2 sitter Verstappen. It would be behind them that Alexander Albon had to start from P15, not the P10 he qualified in, thanks to an overnight gearbox change penalty. Lap one chaos would follow at the second corner as Carlos Sainz would run wide at the tight turn and smash through the polystyrene barriers before clipping the barriers proper and ripping the front wheel left off. Lance Stroll would be tapped by Charles Leclerc as Stroll pull across in front of Leclerc and nosed the barriers, damaging his Racing Point, newly rebuilt from the last race, enough to retire.

Stroll clips Leclerc at Sochi

Esteban Ocon had enough off the line to get ahead of Ricciardo but would fall back just as quickly. Lando Norris would run over some of the debris from Sainz and fell back to P18. Lap 6 and a restart sees Sergio Perez unsure as to his position as he also may be copping a penalty. This would be for not readdressing his position after dashing through that Turn 2 complex. Kevin Magnussen had a wonderful start, making up nine places.

Albon and Norris are still dueling for P17 and George Russell also gets involved. Vettel is out of the fight for the top ten in P13 whilst Ocon and Ricciardo lead Perez, Gasly and Leclerc. Hamilton is getting a suggestion from the garage that he may need to pit, with Hamilton responding: “Do not stop me now, do not!” Hamilton then establishes some quick laps. Ricciardo pits as his rear go off and comes out on hards, with that eventually paying off.

Lap 17 and Hamilton comes in, serves his full ten second penalty before hards are bolted on, and comes out in P11 just ahead of Ricciardo. This sets Verstappen and Bottas up for a challenge for the win. Perez is looking good and gets P3 thanks to Ocon pitting. Hamilton’s anger is fueling his run as he charges from P11 to P7, ahead of Vettel, quickly. The mid pack of the top ten is messy as Perez comes in and emerges behind Hamilton.

Bottas is on mediums and they’re getting close to half race distance in age. Leclerc is P4, and Kvyat, the Russian, is P5. Lap 24 and Ocon is in heavy traffic, caught behind Vettel, and Ricciardo is filling the mirrors of both cars. Laps 26 and 27 and both Verstappen in P2 and Bottas in P1 pit. Renault swap drivers as Ricciardo is clearly quicker however he goes wide and picks up a 5 second penalty for doing so. His response? “I’ll have to drive quicker then.” The difference here is that Ricciardo has already pitted and therefore those 5 seconds get added to his race time. Vettel has still yet to pit, as does Leclerc. The younger Ferrari driver duly does and comes out in between the two Renaults. Kvyat is still in the top ten.

Albon and Russell pit for the second time and are followed by Kvyat for his first. He’s out in P8 after a 2.6 second stop. Vettel pits and a so far quiet Raikkonen in P9 is the only driver yet to do so. All of this has Hamilton back in contention for a podium but not necessarily a win. There are twenty laps to go and Verstappen is 12 seconds behind Bottas and 9.7 seconds ahead of a clearly annoyed Hamilton who has continued to vent at the team. Ricciardo is just 3 seconds ahead of Leclerc and needs more to avoid losing his finishing place. Ocon is in danger of being picked off by Kvyat. More drama and this time a 16 second tire swap for Raikkonen as a front left refuses to move. It’s a critical one and he’s down to P16. Lap 39 and the leaders are catching the back markers.

That includes Haas as Grosjean sits in P13, Magnussen in P11. They sandwich the Red Bull of Albon. Vettel is involved and taps Grosjean at Turn 14, with the feisty Frenchman smashing the polystyrene bollards as he does his best to follow the rules and not get a penalty. Ten laps left and Hamilton is nibbling away at Verstappen’s gap advantage. It’s 8.6 seconds however Hamilton’s lap pace isn’t looking enough to make that up. There is a virtual safety car to clean the debris and Gasly is called in for new rubber. It’s not a timely move as this costs him places, moving Albon to 10th and Norris to P9 thanks to the VSC being barely 27 seconds. Gasly digs deep and catches the pair inside three laps.

Gasly passes Albon late race

There’s plenty happening here as Gasly, Albon, and Norris continue to fight for position almost as if they were the top three. Lap 48 and Gasly finally gets past Norris, as does Albon, and both are in the top ten. Russell is P18, Latifi in P17, and Vettel’s miserable 2020 continues in P16. Four laps left and Verstappen, driving a quiet P2, snares the quickest lap as the realisation he’s too far away for a win sinks in.

Three to go and Kvyat is looking good for a challenge on Ocon for P7 whilst Magnussen loses a place to an otherwise unhurried Giovinazzi for P11. Two to go and Bottas is conserving rubber, allowing Verstappen to within 6 seconds. Gasly charges for the fastest lap and bonus point but Bottas responds. Raikkonen uses his experience to move on Vettel for P13 as the German sees Norris fall through the field and Gasly’s speed gets him into the top ten. Ocon sees Kvyat preparing for a last lap plunge and defends successfully.

The flag drops and it’s a win for Mercedes and Bottas, Verstappen for P2 and a still steaming Hamilton for P5. Perez claims P4 ahead of Ricciardo and Leclerc, with the Australian finding enough pace to overcomes that 5 seconds worth of penalty. Ocon, Kvyat, Gasly and Albon fill the top ten with a double points banked for the AlphaTauri team. “I was slower on the mediums but once we went on the hards we were more competitive. To split the Mercedes cars, I’m happy with that. They were faster, I did everything I could. I’m very happy with second after two DNFs” says the Dutchman. Hamilton: “It doesn’t matter, it’s done now. I’ll just take the points I’ve got and move on now. Congratulations to Valtteri.”

The podium

Bottas is the race winner and clearly feeling some pressure in certain quarters: “Yes, get in there,” he said. “Yes, ha ha. F*** yeah. I think it’s a nice moment to thank my critics. To whom it may concern, f*** you.” The win closes the gap between Hamilton and Bottas to 44 points.

Giovinazzi takes P11 ahead of Magnussen, Vettel, Raikkonen who was well in the points until that wheel change, Norris, Latifi, Grosjean and Russell. Leclerc, blasted by Stroll for what the Canadian called sloppy driving, overtook Stroll in the points race, and said there is more to come: “But it has definitely gone in the right direction and we should have a bigger upgrade for the next Grand Prix. We are working in the right direction so it should be good.”

Perez for his P4: ” We got the absolute maximum out of the car today and P4 was the best result we could achieve, so I’m very happy. The first stint was absolutely key.” Kvyat on his home circuit: “I’m really happy with today, my home Grand Prix couldn’t have gone much better. It was a tough race, I always had to push to make the strategy work, but this is the kind of racing I like.”

There is another weekend off before returning to The Nurburgring for the Formula 1 Aramco Preis Der Eifel 2020 for the second weekend of October.