The finale all Formula One fans had dreamed about. Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull, Mercedes. It was set up perfectly. Then the safety car came along.
The Abu Dhabi race last year caused much controversy after the Brit, Hamilton, was denied what would have been his eighth world championship title. Instead, young and feisty Max Verstappen was able to bring home his maiden title after a phenomenal season which saw the two drivers battling it out race after race. Months on, every second of that race can still be played out by fans, and it was certainly a spectacle simply for its entertainment value, regardless of which team you support. The FIA however would have hoped the drama that brought the credibility of the sport into question would be well in the past, and that this current season would not generate as much controversy. Although it looks like the Dutchman is running away with the championship this year after extending his lead at the top to an impressive 116 points in front of Charles Leclerc, the paddock this season has been filled with drama and controversy for the last month and a half.
Here’s a rundown of what’s been happening:
Sebastian Vettel’s retirement
Sebastian Vettel is one of the sport’s most popular drivers. His witty remarks, generous personality, sense of humour and, of course, incredible talent established him as a favourite both in the paddock and amongst fans.
Vettel won four consecutive world championship titles with Red Bull in the mid-2010s but in July revealed this season would be last in Formula One after deciding to retire from the sport. Currently driving in racing green for Aston Martin, his departure left a seat open for someone to snatch.
What fans were not expecting was the seat being taken by current Alpine driver and two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso. The 41-year-old had been engaging in talks with Alpine over retaining his seat after some impressive, aggressive racing throughout the season.
Alonso was looking for security and backing from Alpine, and wanted a deal longer than a one-year extension. As they did not offer him what he desired, he decided to move to the British team after they contacted him and were keen to sign him.
The Spaniard signed a shock deal with them lasting two years, ending his contract with Alpine. There has seemingly been tension between Alonso and Alpine team principle Otmar Szafnaeur after the latter revealed he found out Alonso was leaving Alpine from Aston Martin’s press release. Alonso disclosed that he did in fact inform all other senior members at Alpine but not Szafnaeur, suggesting that there was some strain on their relationship.
Alonso leaving the team only instigated more drama; after his departure, Szafnaeur assumed Oscar Piastri, the team’s reserve driver, would step up into permanent seat. Alpine therefore announced on their Twitter page Piastri was to be their new driver for next season – only for the young Aussie to publicly deny these claims.
This open rejection shocked and confused all those involved in the sport. However, Piastri then announced he would have a spot on the grid next year – driving in orange for McLaren instead.
Tensions in the paddock were therefore raised between the teams, especially between McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Szafnaeur. Some fans have raised some concerns about loyalty, since Alpine provided the young Piastri with expanses of opportunities throughout his development, shaping him into the driver he is today, only for him to fail to show them the loyalty some believe he should have.
Piastri is replacing the experienced Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren
As a result, 33-year-old Australian Daniel Ricciardo will leave McLaren at the end of this season after both parties mutually agreed to terminate their contract one year early. Riccardo has struggled in the orange suit since joining in 2021, and despite his clear talent evident at Red Bull earlier in his career, McLaren decided that the younger Aussie Piastri would be a better fit for them moving forward.
Riccardo has been consistently outperformed by his teammate, Lando Norris, which put pressure on his seat from the start of the season. Riccardo has stated his intent to stay in the sport and his departure from McLaren does not necessarily mean we will not be seeing him in Formula One next year.
So where might we see him? Which seats are available for the taking?
Alpine, Haas, AlphaTauri, Williams and Alfa Romeo all have a seat available next season, so Riccardo could absolutely find himself a place on the grid. There are doubts as to whether Mick Schumacher will find himself with a seat as Haas are reportedly looking for a replacement.
Schumacher is also set to be dropped from the Ferrari Academy at the end of the season which, for him, could make it more challenging to find a seat. After a difficult start to the season with Haas, the young German has been able to pick up some points and is undoubtedly performing better.
Haas team manager Guenther Steiner has been open about the situation: "To be honest, we don't know if Mick will stay or not. He delivered very good races in Canada, England and Austria, but he lacks the consistency to perform well. We're in no hurry on the driver issue and Mick still has chances to show what he can do."
Nicolas Latifi is set to be replaced at Williams, but speculation is also flying around the padd
ock about who. At Monza last week, Alex Albon suffered appendicitis and respiratory issues, so Mercedes reserve driver Nick de Vries stepped in and scored some vital points for the team, pushing him into contention.
Rumours are also swirling that Pierre Gasly is expected to move from AlphaTauri to Alpine and that Tsunoda might also be leaving the Formula One team. Zhou Guanyu’s future is also not confirmed at Alfa Romeo, so the driver market and the fight for a seat is certainly exciting to watch this year!
The next few races
F1 next heads to the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore at the end of September after the completion of races in Europe, with only six races left.
After Singapore we may have more clarity on the driver line up for next year. Pressure is piled high on drivers who need to impress to keep their space in the sport, as well as on the teams to reduce the gap between Red Bull and the rest.
Could we have more drama by then? It is F1, so I think we just might!
Image: Wikimedia Commons