Five Formula 1 drivers in the spotlight at the Belgian GP
Formula 1 resumes this weekend after the August summer break at the best possible venue: Spa-Francorchamps, as the Belgian Grand Prix kicks off a nine-race autumn run to the end of the season.
The tension in the title fight is all but over, following Lewis Hamilton’s dramatic late defeat of Max Verstappen in Hungary. But beyond the man who looks almost certain to become a six-time world champion, there is still much to play for in the three months to come.
In fact, these could be career-defining times for a bunch of established names – and one rookie – on the Formula 1 grid.
Before the break, Mercedes-AMG F1 boss Toto Wolff made it clear he had a big – but simple – decision to make: to either stick with the Finn and re-sign him for 2020 or twist in favour of highly rated reserve Esteban Ocon, who waits hungrily in the wings.
As you read this, it’s very possible that Bottas already knows his fate, which is expected to be made public at Spa. If he’s kept his drive, he can count himself lucky. Although he kicked off the season ‘angry’ with renewed determination to take on Hamilton, Bottas has found himself ground down once again by the Briton’s incessant ability to deliver on race day.
Merc’s number two is fast, but there’s no sign that he has a championship in him – so why should the best team in F1 persevere with him for a fourth season?
Stability? Certainly he’s been a calm presence at the team since replacing Nico Rosberg in 2017 and has rubbed along well with Hamilton – but mainly because Lewis has known that over a season Bottas is not a threat. Choosing Ocon would be an investment in the future, offering a golden chance to a driver who Wolff will hope might have it in him to lead the team one day. While Hamilton has suggested he could race for at least another five seasons and is showing no sign of decline, it’s only logical to prepare for life post-Lewis.
But if time is up for Bottas, it’s likely he still has an F1 future if he wants it. Guenther Steiner at Haas or Cyril Abiteboul at Renault will surely have already made contact with him. Bottas is still a grand prix driver of quality, a proven winner and a man who understands what it takes to score points. In short, he’s a huge asset.
The question is, would he have the motivation to push on after losing the best seat in F1? Bottas himself has admitted he has already considered ‘Plan B’ – but after Mercedes, there’s only one direction a career is likely to head.
Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
The Haas duo both have good reason to fear for their F1 futures – even if neither would ever admit it.
Grosjean and Magnussen remain closely matched on pace, although it’s the Dane who has outperformed the Frenchman in terms of points scored this term (18 plays eight). But 2019 has been a real slog for a team that had expected to be contending for fourth – and top of F1’s unofficial ‘Class B’ – but instead finds itself mired in ninth in the constructors’ standings with a tricky car that is hard to nail on aero and tyre usage.
That’s not the drivers’ fault. But moments such as the collision at Silverstone and near-calamity at Hockenheim when they came close to clashing again has left Steiner’s patience running thin. Grosjean in particular, who has been at the team since its first season in 2016, is error-prone and appears on the cusp of an exit.
This is the third season they’ve partnered each other at Haas. Everything points to it being a time for change. But should Steiner stick with one or drop both? That depends on the market and who might be available…
Once considered a potential top-line talent, the German has been a nearly man for a long time now – that rookie-season pole position for Williams in Brazil, so often referred to as a sign of his ability, was nine long years ago.
Hülkenberg appears to be out of favour at troubled Renault and the smart money is on a move for 2020, perhaps to Haas. But if his time is nearly up at the French manufacturer, he needs to improve his personal comparison to team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who has shaded him for pace despite much pre-season talk of Nico giving the Aussie a hard time. That just hasn’t happened.
In some respects, his season begins at Spa. He has a few points to prove.
The spotlight will fall on the Thai driver for more positive reasons in Belgium, as Albon makes his debut with Red Bull Racing after his summer break promotion from Toro Rosso at the expense of Pierre Gasly.
It’s strange to think this time last year Albon was playing third best to George Russell and Lando Norris in Formula 2, but now finds himself in one of the best drives in motorsport. But he’s earned his chance through a quietly accomplished rookie first half-season – and being in the right place at the right time.
For Red Bull, 44 points behind Ferrari, the change made sense. Gasly just wasn’t scoring the high numbers the team needs to overhaul the reds and while Albon is unproven at the sharp end, he’s unlikely to be as underwhelming as the Frenchman, who now returns to Toro Rosso.
But can Albon get anywhere close to matching high-flying new team-mate Max Verstappen? That’s a whole other question. No one expects him to beat the Dutch sensation, but Christian Horner and Helmut Marko will be analysing at least how close he can get. Is he really a long-term solution for arguably the second-best team in F1 behind Mercedes? On the face of it, the answer to that question is almost entirely down to Albon himself.