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With only Hungary to go now until the mid-season break, the 2014 driver market is slowly coming to the fore. Dealing mainly in rumours and educated guesses, here is my take on who will take which seat next year.
The number 2 Red Bull is without a doubt the most desirable seat in F1 right now, with Ricciardo, Vergne and Raikkonen the leading trio in the frame for that slot alongside triple world champion and current championship leader Sebastian Vettel. Given how comfortable Raikkonen is at Lotus at the moment he is perhaps less likely to get that ride than one of the Toro Rosso boys, where Ricciardo has an undeniable advantage in terms of raw numbers, outqualified by Vergne only twice thus far although race results are a bit more even. In Vergne's favour are the points: 13 to the Australian’s 11. both drivers have 3 top ten finishes though, so the only real difference between them is Ricciardo's superior qualifying performance.
Ferrari have Alonso on a long-term contract that carries him through rather beyond 2014, but Massa is out of contract at the end of the year and a number of names are being thrown about. Perhaps the most credible of these rumours is that of Nico Hulkenberg being on their radar, although he is also linked with Lotus. If both seats come his way I feel he would be unwise to choose Lotus over Ferrari given the Enstone team's financial issues at the moment and the fact that Ferrari always come good in the end – although they have limited history of success with fresh rule changes, most recently proved with their lacklustre 2005 and 2009 campaigns. All that said, however, Ferrari management have expressed satisfaction with Massa's form at the moment, so he may yet have a future with Maranello's finest.
McLaren are wallowing in no-man's land at the moment, but in terms of drivers they already have Button and Perez contracted for 2014, meaning in theory they shouldn’t have to worry about silly season this year in spite of some fans calling for Perez' firing.
Lotus potentially have two seats up for grabs, with Grosjean only on a 3-race contract at the most in 2013 as his driving standards are closely scrutinized by the team while Raikkonen could be Red Bull-bound. Davide Valsecchi, 2012's GP2 champion is on their books, as is 2011 Marussia-Virgin driver Jerome D'Ambrosio. Valsecchi probably stands a fair chance of replacing Grosjean should that be necessary, especially given his promotion would likely keep Total on board with a French driver still in the car, while Hulkenberg is squarely in the frame to replace Raikkonen. Should Raikkonen stay and Grosjean leave, however, Lotus would lose Total sponsorship which they may struggle to recoup with Davide, perhaps giving Hulkenberg the advantage in the fight for a black and gold seat. If both 2013 drivers leave though, I can see little alternative to the team taking a Hulkenberg/Valsecchi combination, mostly due to the financial state of the team at the moment. That said, Vergne was apparently interesting the Lotus bosses as well, and being French he could also be attractive for Total.
Mercedes, as with McLaren, have both drivers contracted through 2014, and with the challenge they are mounting this year they are highly unlikely to be searching the market, especially with GP2 driver Sam Bird running well in the feeder series with Mercedes backing and a reserve seat for the Silver Arrows, perhaps becoming a race seat in the distant future when one or other of the current boys moves on.
Sauber are in dire straits this year, with financial problems meaning they may not be on the grid beyond the closing round in Brazil. If they survive the winter they will need drivers who bring money to the team to ensure short-term survival. Gutierrez, bringing TelMex sponsorship with him, is likely a shoe-in there, effectively taking the lead car with Hulkenberg unlikely to stay on into 2014. Robin Frijns has been linked with the team since before they signed Esteban, and if he can pull together a decent level of sponsorship the three-time points finisher, complete with a win from 8th and 2nd from 7th in Spain, could easily join the former GP2 driver at the Hinwil squad.
Force India are running a very tight ship this year, pulling enough points to cover off McLaren in the fight for 5th place as they attempt to return to the team's old form from the late 1990s when they were still known as Jordan. Sutil and di Resta are two very good drivers, and with neither linked to front-running teams they look likely to retain the current pairing into the new turbo era.
Williams are falling back again after their apparent improvement in 2012, but rookie Bottas is matching Maldonado who last year showed flashes of brilliance – most notably, of course, in Spain – but this year is struggling a little more with a weaker car. Both drivers will likely be kept on in 2014 thanks to their pace when on form – and of course Maldonado's PDVSA money.
Toro Rosso are in something of a civil war at the moment as Vergne and Ricciardo are vying for Webber’s soon-to-be vacated Red Bull seat. Antonio Felix da Costa is waiting in the wings to step into a Toro Rosso in 2014, presumably along with another rookie alongside him given the team's history of removing both drivers rather than just one. At least this time one is likely to move up the grid, even if the other will be unceremoniously dumped. Who will be alongside da Costa perhaps depends on a number of factors, focusing fundamentally on raw results. Da Costa is still subject to the same conditions as anyone in the Red Bull junior squad, although he does look pretty certain to sit in one of those cars.
Caterham and Marussia are looking for pay drivers, we can safely assume, although Caterham do have Pic contracted for 2014. Marussia's Bianchi is hot property after some of his early performances, and in theory could oust a driver at Force India should either of them fall away from the expected level of performance, but I can't see Jules moving up the grid until 2015, although he undoubtedly deserves it.
What this doesn’t take into account is the 2013 GP2 and GP3 fields, but GP2's leaders will likely be vying for the backmarker seats in F1 for 2014. Luis Razia will also be in the frame for a Marussia seat if he can firm up his sponsorship for next season.
If I had to stick my neck on the line, which I told myself I would here, this is how I see the 2014 grid lining up:
RED BULL – Vettel & Ricciardo
FERRARI – Alonso & Massa
McLAREN – Button & Perez
LOTUS – Raikkonen & Hulkenberg
MERCEDES – Hamilton & Rosberg
SAUBER – Gutierrez & Frijns
FORCE INDIA – Sutil & di Resta
WILLIAMS – Maldonado & Bottas
TORO ROSSO – da Costa & Carlos Sainz Jr.
CATERHAM – Pic & Rossi
MARUSSIA – Bianchi & Razia