How is the 2017 driver market shaping up?

Nico Hulkenberg's decision to swap Force India for Renault for 2017 brings to an end a drawn out saga, and makes the driver market for 2017 ever clearer. Let's take a look at who could fill the remaining seats and find out how the grid could look come lights out in Melbourne on March 26th.

How is the 2017 driver market shaping up?
After a quiet 2015/2016 'Silly Season', the 2016/2017 version is going to be a lot more active. (Image Credit: XPB Images)

After a seismic change in the driver market in 2014, when ​Sebastian Vettel jumped the Red Bull ​ship for Ferrari and ​Fernando Alonso ​vacating that seat for McLaren, ​there was little significant change in the market for the 2016 season.

The 2017 campaign however, promises to be different, with elder statesman ​Jenson Button and ​Felipe Massa ​taking part in changing of the guard, as well as the intra-team changes.

Key to the market for 2017 was who ​Renault ​could get to lead their team. Bosses at Enstone and Viry, whoever they may be, have been concerned with a perceived lack of focus from Kevin Magnussen ​and for the most part of 2016, underwhelmed by rookie Jolyon Palmer.

It seemed that the team were linked with seemingly whoever was in form, with ​Valterri Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr, Sergio Perez ​and ultimately Nico Hulkenberg​ being touted for a drive in the RS17.

Renault were unable to free Sainz from his Red Bull contract, despite the offer of free engines, Perez backed out after concerns about the leadership or lack thereof at Enstone, whilst Hulkenberg decided to take the plunge and signed a two-year-deal with the team.

On the face of it, it is a good decision from Hulkenberg, who at the time of writing, before the US Grand Prix has 111 starts, one pole and a best finish of fourth, which he has achieved three times.

With all respect to the fine job Force India have done this season, on target for a best ever finish of fourth in the constructors, it is unlikely that they will move into the top three, currently Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

As a manufacturer, Renault represent Hulkenberg's last chance to really deliever on that massive potential. We won't know however, if it was the right move until at least 2018, the third-year of the Renault project if it was the right one. When Mercedes came back in 2010, it took until their third year back to win a race, which convinced Lewis Hamilton to jump the McLaren ship.

So, with Hulkenberg leaving, the second seat at Force India has become the most lucrative on the grid for next season, although in reality, there is one candidate who is extremely likely to drive the VJM10.

Hulkenberg's decision to jump the Force India seat for Renault has nearly completed the driver market 2017 puzzle. (Image Credit: XPB Images)
Hulkenberg's decision to jump the Force India seat for Renault has nearly completed the driver market 2017 puzzle. (Image Credit: XPB Images)

Here, Vavel takes a look at the seats which have not got a driver yet, and who is the most likely to fill them. The only team where things could get tasty is Manor, as, as we shall the rest of the grid has pretty much already decided itself.

Stroll to Williams

The deal to take Canadian F3 racer Lance Stroll to Williams to replace the retiring Felipe Massa is pretty much a done deal. Stroll is extremely quick and dedicated, and brings a hefty backing from his sponsors, which Williams will gratefully take.

The only sticking point on the deal, is that Williams's main sponsor is ​Martini, ​and Stroll is just 17. Therefore, it would be reckless and silly for any official confirmation to be made.

In the most realistic scenario, an announcement will be made either on or after October 29th, when Stroll turns 18.

Force India to take Wehrlein?

Placed at Manor by Mercedes to see if he is up to the challenge of Formula One, Pascal Wehrlein has passed with flying colours, getting into Q2 on three occassions, on pure merit, and scoring a precious point in Austria. It is time for the next stage in his apprenticeship. That means a move up to Force India, taking Hulkenberg's empty seat.

Mercedes reduced the price of a supply of engines to Manor as an incentive of taking Wehrlein, and could do the same for Force India to give him a shot in more competitive machinery.

The journey of Wehrlein mirrors that which Jules Bianchi was to take. Ferrari were to place him at Sauber for 2015, before promoting him to the senior team after Kimi Raikkonen had confirmed his retirement, which in the most likely case would've been at the end of this season.

Of course, events meant that we will never know what Jules what truly capable of, but his legacy is that his result in Monaco 2014, P9 and two points, means the team is here today.

Wehrlein will more than likely take either Hamilton's or Nico Rosberg's seat ​at Mercedes when one of them two leave the team, with both their contracts up at the end of 2018. A two-year apprencticeship at Force India anyone?

All change at Renault

Deep down, both Magnussen and Palmer must realise that their short-lived time at Enstone is up, with Hulkenberg replacing at least one of them, and Manor rookie Esteban Ocon, all but certain to replace the other.

Team Principal, Frederic Vassuer rates Ocon extremely highly and with Mercedes' blessing was loaned to Manor to test him out, making his debut at Spa. After taking a few races to get upto speed, Ocon's performances in Malaysia and Japan were highly credible, espicially when Wehrlein has been driving the car since the start of the season.

Vassuer's ideal dream was to have Ocon and ​Stoffel Vandoorne,​ but promotion at McLaren ended that idea.

​Who is in at Manor?

Well, what with the rest of the grid 95% sure to stay as it is, Haas, Toro Rosso and Sauber have no reason to change their current line-ups, and are expected to keep their 2016 line-ups.

The only team that is difficult to predict is Manor, with things potentially getting tasty.

With both current drivers expected to leave, there are three, possibly four obvious contenders for the seats. Magnussen, Palmer, ​Rio Haryanto and ​Jordan King.

​On the face of it, the most likely outcome is a Magnussen-King partnership. Provided Magnussen wants to take the seat, which may be perceived as a step down, the Dane has some advantages over his opposition, with team boss Dave Ryan, formerly of McLaren  having close links to the driver.

Also Magnussen is vastly more experienced than any of the other three. Do Manor really want to start a second successive season with two rookie, or very inexperienced drivers?

The second seat is much harder to define, with it possibly being a straight fight between Haryanto and King for the seat. The latter has much more finnancial power behind him, but that funding can run out, which is why he was replaced after the German Grand Prix, despite some solid results against Wehrlein. Do Manor want to risk it again, and stalling development in what will be a aerodynamic dominated formula in 2017 onwards.

King, the son of former team chairman, Justin, of Sainsbury's fame, is a highly capable candidate for a seat. Having a solid season in GP2, King is well-deserving of a shot in the top echlon of motorsport.

Two Sprint race wins, and three other podiums, means King is currently fifth in GP2, not bad when only, Antonio Giovinazzi, Pierre Gasly, Raffaele Marciello and Sergey Sirotkin are ahead of him. He has more than doubled his 60 point haul from 2015.

He would be a safer bet for the team, and could deliever more solid results that would allow the team to develop further.

Below is Vavel's prediction on how the grid will look in 2017. Seats that are still subject to confirmation, are marked To Be Announced (TBA), with the predicted drivers in brackets.

Predicted 2017 Grid
Team Driver Driver
Mercedes Lewis Hamilton Nico Rosberg
Ferrari Sebastian Vettel Kimi Raikkonen
Williams Valterri Bottas TBA (Lance Stroll)
Red Bull Daniel Ricciardo Max Verstappen
Force India Sergio Perez TBA (Pascal Wehrlein)
Renault Nico Hulkenberg TBA (Esteban Ocon)
Toro Rosso Carlos Sainz Jr Danill Kvyat
Sauber Marcus Ericsson Felipe Nasr
McLaren Fernando Alonso Stoffel Vandoorne
Manor TBA (Kevin Magnussen) TBA (Jordan King)
Haas Romain Grosjean Esteban Gutierrez