2019 F1 Driver Market Already Beginning to Take Shape

The 2018 season hasn't even really started yet, but these are the key players in next year's driver market.

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The 2018 Formula 1 season has barely started with just four tentative, rain- and snow-stricken test days checked off but the contours of the driver market for the 2019 campaign are already visible in Barcelona.

The presumably most coveted seats, at four-times-in-a-row world champions Mercedes, are both technically up for grabs for 2019. One is clearly reserved for 2017 world champion Lewis Hamilton, however. The Briton has been negotiating with the team since late last year and both parties have made clear it's only a matter of time before Hamilton will re-commit. With Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel having long-term deals at Red Bull and Ferrari respectively, that leaves one seat each at the three top teams.

The seat next to Hamilton currently belongs to Valtteri Bottas, who seems to have been given a clear timeframe to prove he deserves a longer-term future at the team. "We will look at how he is developing this year and will decide from the summer on", team principal Toto Wolff told Motorsport.com

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Valtteri Bottas will have to prove himself after an up-and-down 2017.

Bottas aside, it seems there are two other drivers Wolff has an eye on: Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Force India's Esteban Ocon. Ocon is a highly-rated Mercedes junior driver and Wolff has been clear about what Ocon needs to do: Beat his experienced teammate Sergio Pérez and do so without a repeat of the high-profile clashes he had with Chico in 2017. Wolff has, after all, repeatedly stressed the importance of intra-team harmony since Nico Rosberg departed after winning the 2016 drivers' championship following years of conflict with Hamilton.

It's interesting, therefore, that Wolff described Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo to Motorsport.com as "a sunny boy who can drive really well." The happy-go-lucky Australian is on the market for 2019 and although Red Bull is eager to extend, Ricciardo wants to wait and see how things stand at the beginning of 2018. At 28, Ricciardo is well-aware signing a new deal may be make-or-break for his career. The five-time race winner has been part of the Red Bull program since 2008, three years before he made his Formula 1 debut, but it hasn't gone unnoticed to the Aussie that Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called on Verstappen to build the team around after extending his deal late last year. Ricciardo has said he's not unduly worried but has not excluded pursuing other options.

One of them may well be Ferrari, where 38-year-old Kimi Raikkonen's deal expires at the end of the season. But will Vettel (whom Ricciardo beat at Red Bull in 2014) have any interest in a rematch with his former foe? Ferrari, meanwhile, like Mercedes has a home-grown youngster waiting in the wings—Charles Leclerc. He's been placed at Sauber to gain experience and although Ferrari has in recent decades been wary of giving young drivers a chance, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne appears to be a fan.

Although the cold and bad weather may have made the first week of winter testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya largely unrepresentative, it does seem clear who the key players on the driver market will be going into the 2018 season: The two cool Finns in the hot seats, the two youngsters with something to prove, and the sunny Australian looking at the horizon ahead.