F1's 2016 driver line-ups predicted
Predicting the line-ups of the F1 teams in 2016 after Ferrari retained Kimi Raikkonen. Cue the status quo or could there still be some surprises in store?
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 01/09/15 6:20pm
Their friendship may have collapsed under the weight of their fights for the world championship but it seems Hamilton and Rosberg will be locked together for at least a couple more years. Rosberg signed what was described as 'a multi-year contract extension' with Mercedes last summer while, after an interminable period of negotiation and anticipation, Hamilton put pen to paper on a three-year extension in May which made him the highest-paid sportsman in Britain. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Hamilton and Rosberg.
The pivot for next year's driver market which has now become the release valve following the team's somewhat surprising - but rather rational - decision to retain Kimi Raikkonen for 2016. But with the team merely exercising the option on Raikkonen they held for one more year, it's anyone's guess who will partner Vettel in 2017 - Bottas, Ricciardo, Verstappen - or Kimi again? Sky Sports Online's prediction: Vettel and Raikkonen.
So much here depends on Lotus’ ownership status for 2016. Even if the Renault hierarchy rubber-stamps a buy-out, the team's conversion back into a full works outfit is likely to reach fruition in 2017 rather than 2016 – Red Bull boss Christian Horner is adamant his team’s deal for next season includes a stipulation that “clearly states we are the premium team”. His ambition of joining Ferrari thwarted, Romain Grosjean is a near-certainty to stay on. But intriguing rumours broke in the Spa paddock that, despite his sponsorship bonus, Pastor Maldonado may leave. Although the team's flirtation with Jolyon Palmer, a regular runner in Friday practice this year, has been a persistently intriguing theme throughout 2015, word has it that Sergio Perez could be on the team's radar instead. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Grosjean and Perez.
You rather suspect that Daniel Ricciardo would have leapt at the chance to join Ferrari if a vacancy became available, but both of Red Bull’s current drivers are under lock and key for 2016 – and with so many other big picture uncertainties surrounding the team, from their engine supply to the commitment of their owner, Red Bull are not going to let their driver line-up for next season become another issue to confront. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Ricciardo and Kvyat.
Would Fernando Alonso have abandoned Ferrari last year for McLaren had he foreseen the depths to which the team would fall in 2015? Probably not. But having come so far, the Spaniard cannot turn now. However, the prospect of Alonso still being partnered by Jenson Button in 2016 is surely no better than 50-50. For starters, McLaren have two young chargers waiting in the wings desperate for an opportunity to impress – or, to be more precise in the case of Kevin Magnussen, another opportunity. And given the age of their all-veteran current driver line-up, McLaren will have to consider making an appointment with the future in mind sooner rather than later. Then there’s the question of whether Button would want to stay at McLaren for more hard graft in 2016. There's been some talk of Button returning to Williams, but a switch of motorsport series seems more feasible.
But who is in pole to replace Button if he does leave? The hugely-talented Stoffel Vandoorne has been astonishingly impressive in GP2 but it's thought that McLaren would be more inclined to either find the young Belgian a race seat elsewhere or appoint him their reserve driver in 2016 rather than throw him in at the deep end. Kevin Magnussen is thus arguably the likeliest contender to partner Alonso next year; any other decision would risk ending his F1 career before his 24th birthday. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Alonso and Magnussen.
Expect more of the same in 2016 - Bottas has nowhere else to go after Ferrari kept Raikkonen while Massa has been a driver reborn this season. "We're got a good pairing and one of the best pairings, they work very, very well together," Rob Smedley told Sky Sports F1 in Belgium. "They've got speed, they've got a good blend of youth, enthusiasm and experience and they really fit well in the team. They're good team players and understand what the big picture is. So I would hope that's our line-up next year." Sky Sports Online's prediction: Bottas and Massa.
Despite persistent talk of a transfer to Haas, it is now believed that Nico Hulkenberg is close to agreeing a contract extension with Force India for 2016 - with some reports claiming that he has already put pen to paper on a new deal.
But as mentioned above, the Spa rumour-mill was swirling with suggestions Sergio Perez could swap seats with Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan's sponsorship bounty would be a welcome to the team's coffers. If not, or if there are two seats available, Pascal Wehrlein's recent test outings for the team indicate he would be near the front of a queue to fill any vacancy. Mercedes evidently rate the youngster highly and may be willing to financially grease the wheels for Wehrlein to join Force India, who they supply with engines, to ensure they have at least one up-and-coming talent on their books with F1 experience under his fledgling belt. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Hulkenberg and Maldonado.
As their much-criticised decision to select an all-rookie line-up of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz for 2015 has already been emphatically vindicated, expect smug confirmation both will be retained for 2016 to be issued imminently – with a few slices of humble pie handed out for good measure. But the intrigue won’t end there amid whispers Ferrari are already keeping tabs on Verstappen for 2017 – a factor, perhaps, in Ferrari's decision to present Raikkonen with an unexpected reprieve in the form of a one-year deal that Bottas was rather less likely to accept. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Verstappen and Sainz.
The one midfield team whose 2016 line-up, barring another late intervention from Giedo van dar Garde, we can be sure of: Sauber officially confirmed last month that both Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr would be staying on. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Ericsson and Nasr.
Young, sponsored and credible, Will Stevens is poised to keep his seat for another year while Roberto Merhi, originally announced for "the opening rounds" of the season, has already enjoyed the longest short-term deal in the history of F1. Nevertheless, and despite his recent improvement, the lack of any permanency around the Spaniard suggests he will be the fall-guy if Manor seek fresh blood. The signing of Fabio Leimer, who debuted in practice at Budapest, as the team’s reserve marks him out as the leading alternative, but Manor’s ‘technical relationship' with Ferrari could also pave the way for Scuderia youngster Raffaele Marciello taking his first steps into F1 alongside Stevens in 2016. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Marciello and Stevens.
Lest we forget, there will be a brand-new team on the grid next year which means that there will be at least one outfit with an all-new driver line-up. Ten drivers are on Haas' longish short-list, which makes predicting their choice particularly hazardous, but the smart money has to be on Jean-Eric Vergne and Esteban Gutierrez – not because we are expecting Vergne and Gutierrez to be Haas’ actual 2016 pairing but because the team's alliance with Ferrari makes it a racing certainty that at least one of the Scuderia’s reserves will be given the nod. Haas’ remaining selection is expected to be an American driver with Alexander Rossi the biggest fish in what remains a disappointingly small pond of viable contenders, but might there be a twist in the tale?
Along with Hulkenberg, Perez is thought to be on Haas' radar, while Max Chilton revealed to Sky Sports last week that he had held talks with the team. Were he to depart Lotus/Renault, Maldonado would surely attract the team's attention, and the idea that one of McLaren two young bucks could partner either Vergne or Gutierrez has merit but may be thwarted by the strength of the team's association with Ferrari. Sky Sports Online's prediction: Gutierrez or Vergne and Rossi or Vandoorne.