There’s no such thing as job security when you’re driving a Formula 1 car. It’s one of the most expensive sports in the world to participate in, and teams expect big things from the people they put in their cars. There are only two seats available per team and only ten teams in the sport. That’s twenty seats in total – and there are far more than twenty drivers competing for those seats. Somebody loses out every year, and it rarely seems fair when it happens. This time, it looks like two well-established Formula 1 favorites are going to spend next year watching the action from the outside.
Almost all the seats for next season have been taken for some time, with options narrowing for unselected drivers every time a team confirms its 2021 lineup. Two weeks ago, there were still two seats available at Haas, and it seemed likely that either Nico Hulkenberg or Sergio Perez will get one of them. We now know that isn’t the case. Haas has gone for youth rather than experience, with Mick Schumacher taking one of the seats and Nikita Mazepin taking the other. We’ve also recently had confirmation that Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovanazzi will be staying at Alfa Romeo. There are only three seats still theoretically up for grabs next season, and one of them belongs to Lewis Hamilton, who will get around to signing his new contract sooner rather than later. The door appears to be almost totally closed to anybody else.
This is a sad state of affairs for both Perez and Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg was unfortunate to be dropped from Renault in 2019 to make way for Daniel Ricciardo. Perez is even more unlucky to be pushed out of Racing Point to provide Sebastian Vettel with a seat. To many, Perez is a driver who’s approaching his prime, whereas Vettel is past his. To make matters even worse, Perez has outperformed teammate Lance Stroll all season, but Stroll gets to keep his seat by virtue of the fact that his father owns the team. It’s injustices like this that remind us that F1 isn’t a level playing field, and seats aren’t always handed out on merit. In fact, it’s less common for them to be given on merit than it is for them to be procured because of sporting ability.
This all comes back to the earlier point we made about Formula 1 being a costly sport to compete in. Building cars costs money, traveling around the world costs money, and continuously repairing and improving vehicles after they’re built costs money. Teams prefer drivers who come with sponsorship or backing. Team owners view their operations less like a traditional sports team and more like an online slots game, where money is won when the perfect lineup appears on the screen. They’ll stay true to that online slots style of operation when things aren’t going well – if they don’t like what they see, they’ll spin or roll again to see what comes up next time. In F1 terms, ‘rolling again’ means finding another driver. There are winners and losers on every online casino, and there are winners and losers around F1. This year, Hulkenberg and Perez are losers.
The situation is especially galling because of the selection of Nikita Mazepin at Haas. Mazepin is a competent Formula 2 driver but has never stood out among the crowd or done anything on a racing track that suggests he might be a future world champion. He does, however, have a billionaire for a father. Haas has to cut costs next year – hence the decision to let the older and more experienced Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnusson go – and so a younger driver with major financial backing is a very attractive choice. Few – if any – observers of the sport believe he’ll perform better than either Hulkenberg or Perez would in the same car, but that’s the nature of the sport.
If there’s any hope at all that either one of the drivers will find a team for next year, it probably rests with Red Bull. Max Verstappen is secure in his seat for 2021 and may well finish second in the Driver’s World Championship for 2020. Alex Albon is another story. He was promoted to the team midway through the 2019 season as a replacement for the disappointing Pierre Gasly, but since then, their careers have gone in opposite directions. Gasly, against all odds, has won a race for Alpha Tauri. Albon is still waiting for his first victory and rarely makes it to the podium. Red Bull have stuck by him in public thus far, but the smile of team boss Christian Horner is beginning to wear a little thin. After the most recent race in Bahrain, he confirmed that while they want Albon to prove he’s worthy of keeping the seat, Sergio Perez is now under consideration.
The fact that Horner has namechecked Perez and not Hulkenberg is bad news for the German driver, who now seems sure to miss out even though he’s impressed during the two occasions he’s been called up as an emergency driver for Racing Point this year. If the second seat at Red Bull is a coin flip between Albon and Perez, the only other seat that theoretically remains available is as Gasly’s teammate at Alpha Tauri. There are two things that go against him in that respect. The first is that Alpha Tauri is a development team for Red Bull and favors younger drivers, and the second is that while current occupant Daniil Kvyat seems sure to be on his way out, Yuki Tsunoda seems all-but-certain to be on his way in. No contracts have been signed yet, but it’s generally understood that the seat is already spoken for.
Hulkenberg and Perez won’t be short of work if they miss out. Several teams will doubtless want to list them as back up drivers, and they can take twelve months to explore different motorsports in other parts of the world. Fernando Alonso has spent the past few years doing precisely that, and now he’s back at Renault for 2021. Even with that, the risk is that people forget you while you’re away. Neither driver deserves to be away from the sport on merit, but this is a sport where merit increasingly counts for very little.