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Formula 1

Next moves in the fight for F1 2025's least desirable seats

by Edd Straw
7 min read

Audi signing up veteran Nico Hulkenberg will have a big impact on the 2025 Formula 1 silly season - primarily in the back half of the grid.

What’s currently Sauber now has some breathing space when it comes to securing its other driver - which is useful because Audi’s number one target, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, is taking his time given there may yet be openings at Red Bull or Mercedes.

While there would be a risk of fielding a weakened line-up if it dithered on both seats, Audi can be confident there will be good fallback options available later in the year - whether that’s the Alpine drivers, a new deal for Valtteri Bottas or perhaps even a move for Williams ace Alex Albon.

For any of them, what will initially be a sideways move to Sauber for 2025 could be an excellent long-term gamble.

This is, of course, because Sauber is in an unusual position - as it’s a back-half-of-the-grid team that has emerged as a big player given its impending Audi transformation.

The 2025 driver market - the first in which Audi's presence as a player is actively felt - is particularly frenzied, thanks to the ripple effect throughout the paddock created by Lewis Hamilton leaving Mercedes for Ferrari.

Hulkenberg’s move comes strangely out of sequence with that ripple effect. He has got to be the master of his own destiny - while his fellow drivers down the grid are waiting for the big teams to make their decisions.

Of the midfield group, RB’s 2025 driver situation is somewhat isolated in the wider Red Bull ecosystem. But Haas has already been affected by Audi’s moves as it’s lost Hulkenberg - and Audi’s plans could have consequences for Alpine and Williams’s options, too.

Can Alpine drivers escape?

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, Alpine, F1

Alpine is one of F1’s few works teams, but its miserable start to 2024 means it’s far less attractive than it should be. Both drivers might want out.

Esteban Ocon is on Audi’s shortlist and could be a contender should Sainz say no, but team-mate Pierre Gasly could also be available for 2025.

Gasly’s management has been sounding out other teams, including Williams. But he’s giving Alpine the chance to make progress and convince him that it’s the right place to commit his future to.

Alpine should aim to keep hold of at least one of its current drivers - and right now that seems more likely to be Gasly. But it’s no foregone conclusion it can keep either. 

Ocon has been its stronger driver so far this season, but like Gasly his management is also looking around for alternatives.

And like Gasly, Ocon's alternatives include Williams, a team that is casting the net far and wide in its driver conversations given the fact that Logan Sargeant is almost certain to be replaced next year – if not earlier.

Wiliams has an option on Albon on the other side of the garage - but it’s not yet picked it up. His future could depend on a new long-term deal for 2025 and beyond being agreed, as Williams is keen for a long-term commitment from Albon and could let him go if his future for 2026 and beyond is elsewhere.

Who could be out of F1?

Logan Sargeant, Williams, F1

Right now, excluding the whole Red Bull/RB situation - which appears standalone but could yet overlap in terms of consequences and driver availability - there are four drivers whose F1 careers appear in most peril.

They are Sauber pairing Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, Haas veteran Kevin Magnussen and Sargeant at Williams.

It’s difficult to see more than two of those four drivers being on the grid next year, and potentially all four could drop off.

Neither Bottas nor Zhou is likely to hang on to the remaining available Sauber seat, so both would need to seek a berth elsewhere.

Bottas is unquestionably the strongest of the under-threat quartet and has driven well this season despite Sauber’s pitstop problems and unreliability meaning he’s yet to score.

He says he hopes that teams will see he’s performing well. However, at 34 he won’t be seen by anyone as a long-term prospect and he may also have to revise his pay expectations to secure a seat. After all, his current Sauber deal was signed when he was fresh out of Mercedes as a 10-time grand prix winner.

Valtteri Bottas, Sauber, F1

But he still stands a decent chance of clinging on because of his experience and pace - making him a valid target for Alpine, Williams and Haas.

Mark Hughes on Audi/Sauber favouring Hulkenberg over Bottas

Bottas has many times conjured better-than-par results in circumstances where the tyres are particularly problematic. He has a strong turn of speed, and there were days in his Mercedes career when he flat-out outperformed Lewis Hamilton. Not many of them, but occasionally. On a good day, he is exceptional, on a standard day he’s pretty damn good, and beneath the reliability and pitstop calamities at Sauber this year, he’s probably driving at a level comparable to his best Mercedes years.

It would probably be fair to say Hulkenberg is potentially quicker over a lap, but that Bottas’s personal performances are more robust.

- More on Audi's Hulkenberg decision

Zhou looks in more trouble as despite performing credibly in F1, he’s generally just behind Bottas on pace.

That in itself is no bad thing given Bottas’s experience and the fact that, when alongside Hamilton at Mercedes, he outqualified his legendary team-mate around one-third of the time. But it still means Zhou is in danger of sliding off the grid.

Zhou has had more than his fair share of bad luck, and also makes minimal mistakes and works well with the team. He appeals because of the potential of the Chinese market, which means he has some commercial value.

Chinese GP fans

However, it seems that if Zhou is to stay in F1 he would need to rely on finding a seat at either Haas or Alpine, where he was once a junior driver, given Williams doesn’t appear to be interested. 

Sargeant’s chances of staying in F1 are minimal and he must turn his flashes of pace into results for Williams to have any hope of changing that.

You’d have said the same about Magnussen a few months ago, but he has performed well for Haas and, crucially, impressed team principal Ayao Komatsu with his work rate, having become frustrated too many times last year. Komatsu says Magnussen's “engagement level is night and day [different] compared to last year”.

Kevin Magnussen, Haas, F1

Magnussen’s hopes of staying on as the experienced hand have also naturally increased with Hulkenberg’s departure.

But given someone like Bottas is on the market, it's still far from a given - especially as the other Haas seat is increasingly thought to be spoken for.

The rookie factor

Oliver Bearman, Ferrari, F1

There’s one blindingly obvious rookie driver who will be on the grid for 2025, most likely at Haas. That’s because he’s already made a big impression in F1: Ollie Bearman.

Bearman took a sensational seventh place on his debut as a stand-in at Ferrari in Saudi Arabia, despite missing the opening day of running.

Even before that, he had been booked in for six FP1 outings for Haas this year, starting at Imola in mid-May, and seemed well-placed to land a 2025 seat. Now he looks nailed on.

The other much-vaunted rookie is his Prema Formula 2 team-mate Kimi Antonelli. He’s likely to race for either Mercedes or Williams next year, assuming all goes well in his F1 tests and in F2 in the coming months. There are even suggestions he could make his F1 debut for Williams later this year in place of Sargeant.

There could be more rookies still. If Alpine has a vacancy or two, then reserve driver Jack Doohan is well-placed to land a drive.

Jack Doohan, Alpine, F1

He’s not racing this year but is completing testing mileage in old Alpine machinery to sharpen his skills, as well as doing simulator work. He’s quick, as he proved in the junior categories, and his intense approach is making a good impression on Alpine. In Ocon’s words, “there’s no doubt Jack deserves to have a shot in F1”.

Liam Lawson is obviously in the mix, too, although wouldn't quite count as a full-on rookie after his 2023 appearances.

There are others who could yet force themselves into contention - the likes of F2 champs Felipe Drugovich and Theo Pourchaire or current F2 leader Zane Maloney - but in the current silly season frenzy they are yet to feature as more than afterthoughts.

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