There will be some frosty atmospheres in garages up and down the pit lane in Austin when F1 rolls in to town this weekend. The drivers market, which has been febrile ever since Mark Webber announced he’d be leaving the sport at the end of the season, has positively caught fire this week.
First Kimi announced he would not be leaving Finland to race in the USA nor Brazil. Then Williams confirmed Felipe Massa would race alongside Valterri Bottas at Williams-Mercedes next year.
And then McLaren didn’t go out of its way to deny the story that Kevin Magnussen would replace Sergio Perez at McLaren next year. Sources close to the team tell us it’s a done deal. Blimey.
Hard not to feel sorry for Checo. A year ago, McLaren couldn’t wait to announce it had signed the 23-year old Mexican for his third season in F1. Indeed Mercedes had yet to confirm Lewis Hamilton had chucked McLaren by the time Woking was showing of its new BFF.
Was McLaren in too much of a hurry? Apparently so. Checo has hardly set the world on fire; he has at this stage scored just over half the points he scored with Sauber in 2012. Worse, he’s not proven he’s quicker than Jenson Button in the terrible MP428.
And this is where it all gets a little messy at McLaren. Its logic for handing Perez his P45 appears to show it doesn’t believe Button is especially fast: “well, if Checo can’t even beat Button…” appears to be the company line. One sacked driver, one roundly disenfranchised driver.
This is the team Kevin Magnussen is joining. Yet he is undoubtedly a huge talent. McLaren reckons Magnussen, who won this year’s World Series by Renault at a canter, and its other prodigy Stoffel Vandoorne (runner up in the WSR) are the best out there. Then again, they said that about Perez.
Magnussen’s father Jan raced for McLaren, standing in for Mika Hakkinen after his 1995 Australian GP accident. Also part of the team’s young driver programme, Magnussen Snr moved on Stewart GP (Red Bull’s ancestor) but was dumped for, among other reasons, refusing to give up the fags.
Magnussen Jnr appears to take it a lot more seriously, and there is every chance he will make it through to 2015 when McLaren believes its future really lies with Honda. It’s no secret McLaren wants Fernando Alonso back in the team for that season, so will next year be Jenson Button’s last with the team… and last in F1?
There’s a definite sense of a generational shift in F1. Magnussen (21) and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat (19) will be rookies in 2014. Sauber, meanwhile, is still waiting on finance before it confirms Sergey Sirotkin (18).
Given that five of this year’s drivers are rookies (Gutierrez, Chilton, Bianchi, Van der Garde, Bottas) and another four in only their second full season (Grosjean, Vergne, Pic, Ricciardo) it rather gives the lie to the notion F1 is a closed shop.
There’s also the off-chance the rookie ranks will swell, as last year’s GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi might be in line for Kimi’s old Lotus seat, though it seems more likely that Heikki Kovaleinen will take the Iceman’s spot. Lotus wanted Nico Hulkenberg to break his contract with Sauber and race for them in the US and Brazil. But with no promise of a full time drive with the team in 2014 he turned them down.
Yes, in what’s probably the least exciting development this week, it seems Pastor Maldonado will be taking his PDVSA dollars to Lotus, leaving Hulkenberg the choice of staying at Sauber or moving back to Force India.
Force India’s garage will be among the most tense this weekend, with neither Paul di Resta nor Adrian Sutil confirmed for 2014. With Perez now looking for another drive as well as Hulkenberg, it’s fair to say the pressure is on for existing drivers to deliver big.