They call it silly season. It usually doesn’t quite live up to that name, but across the sport, not just in Formula One, this is the most interesting it has been in many a year.
Usually by December, certainly in FIA World Championships, the top seats are generally at least pencilled in who goes where in the following season with top teams and manufacturers preferring consistency over surprise decisions, so long as their drivers continue to perform at the requisite levels.
This year, it seemed was no exception. Teams and drivers were expected for all the major seats to roughly stay the same however a series of events have occurred across the sport which will lead to very different looking grids in 2017.
The announcement of Audi’s withdrawal from the FIA WEC towards the end of the 2016 season, sent shockwaves through the series. Many of which are still to be fully realised when the racing recommences in 2017. However at least in the short term, the doom and gloom of the loss of Audi, which felt o so significant a few weeks ago, seems to have been appeased a little with the presents Sportscar fans have received from IMSA, with nice formal announcements that Cadillac (GM) and Mazda are entering IMSA’s new Daytona Prototype International (DPI) regulations for 2017. Suddenly the positivity appears to be back, at least in the short term, that the golden era of Sportscar racing, in LMP1 may be at a crossroads, but that Sportscar racing as a whole, is still looking much healthier and far more robust than perhaps we give it credit for.
What losing Audi did do in the very short term future though is leave six LMP1 pilots without a drive for 2017. That’s six of the top drivers in Sportscar racing, suddenly contract free and looking for employment either in the series or elsewhere. A reshuffle, and the retirement of Mark Webber, has seen Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, two out of three of the reigning champions, dropped by Porsche’s LMP1 team, in exchange for 2015 Le Mans winners, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, whilst Andre Lotterer has been announced as the first displaced Audi driver to find a drive elsewhere on the grid, joining the pair at Porsche.
So now we have five Audi LMP1 pilots still looking for a drive, in the shrunk LMP1 field in which they find themselves. Toyota may bring a third car, which has been rumoured to the start of the FIA WEC season that could potentially be a home to one, if not more. If not then it’s either elsewhere in the FIA WEC grid, or pastures new, either way; it makes for a rather interesting few months ahead in WEC for the remaining potential seats, were otherwise we would maybe of seen very little movement in the LMP1 ranks from 2016.
So that’s WEC, now WRC… By the time the WRC visited Wales in October, It looked pretty much like this year’s offseason was sown up. Citroen had formally announced its three drivers for the 2017 campaign, VW was likely anticipating running Reigning champion Ogier, alongside Mikkelsen and Latvala, Hyundai was confirmed, and M-Sport was still a question mark, but an announcement was due soon… then came the news that VW’s diesel scandal was not only going to lead to the end of the LMP1 Audi team, but also the end of the VW factory WRC programme, again effective at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
So that blows the doors wide open on who goes where in WRC, Ogier is a multiple world champion. Pretty much everyone regards him as the best, this is a truly magnificent driver and I imagine his phone was ringing, as much, if not more than Lauda’s. It’s been narrowed down to two possibilities for the reigning champion, Toyota or M-Sport. Many fans are hoping for him to go to the plucky, non official manufacturer backed British M-sport team, because it would be the ultimate fairytale story, whilst others are of course hoping he’ll go for the new factory backed Toyota team. Whichever choice Ogier comes to, and wherever his former VW teammates end up at. It’s thrown the silly season into disarray and will see a very different looking WRC field for 2017, regardless of which he choses.
Finally F1, until Friday It was fully expected that Mercedes would of course keep its reigning, current World Champion, Nico Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton.
Then at the FIA Prize Giving, Rosberg announces his intention to retire with immediate effect, which suddenly opens up another world championship’s silly season which appeared to be mostly concluded with several key drivers now looking over their contracts carefully with lawyers to see what loopholes can be found to make their chance to join Mercedes for the 2017 season.
Will Alonso take the gamble, as he craves that final chance for that third world championship, whereby his relationship with Lewis isn’t that as big an issue it was earlier in his career, when many more seasons were to come for the Spaniard? Will Mercedes recruit Wehrlein, taking the same gamble they’ve seen Red Bull take on young drivers in recent years? Will whoever the team takes be with them at the start of the 2018 season? Is it just going to be a stop-gap one year deal until more drivers are available.
Verstappen is on a ‘multi-year contract’ but what does that mean? Is it easier for Mercedes to buy him out of that in a year than it is today. They obviously has interest in the dutch driver, do remember they tried to sign him in F3, but lost to Red Bull.
At the end of the craziest silly season in a long time, were do you think the music stops for the drivers in all three of the series mentioned? Who misses out, and who gains, time will tell.