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Hamilton backs Antonelli: Five F1 silly season takeaways at Imola

7 min read

Formula 1's frenetic silly season is showing no signs of slowing down at the first European race of the 2024 campaign.

Alex Albon has already committed to Williams and while his explanation for doing so was inevitably a key part of F1's Thursday media day at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, attention soon turned to the remaining driver market question marks.

Below are the five biggest revelations from the Imola paddock:

Hamilton's favoured replacement

Lewis Hamilton's bombshell Ferrari switch is responsible for starting this whole driver market whirlwind and his Mercedes seat - although less attractive a prospect than it would have been a few years ago - remains one of the most prized vacancies for 2025.

Since news of Hamilton's shock exit broke, The Race understands 17-year-old Kimi Antonelli has been the favoured replacement internally at Mercedes.

He is the 'Plan A' if he performs strongly enough in his rookie F2 season and, more importantly, during the extensive F1 test programme Mercedes has laid on for him.

Carlos Sainz appears to be the strongest 'Plan B' option, with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Albon not sticking around for a shot at the seat and instead committing their futures to Aston Martin and Williams respectively.

Hamilton was asked whether he thinks Sainz would be the "perfect replacement" for him when he leaves for Ferrari at the end of the year and for his thoughts on Antonelli.

"Carlos is a great driver, so wherever he goes, I think he would be a positive for any team," said Hamilton at Imola.

"Honestly I have no idea what Toto's plans are but I think, for me, taking on a youngster would be...if it was my job, if it was my role...I’d probably take on Kimi."

As Hamilton said, he has no direct say or intel on who replaces him, but from what The Race understands of Mercedes' preference, the team doesn't need any convincing that Antonelli should be anything but its Plan A for 2025 and beyond. - Josh Suttill

Sainz's timeline

"Don't worry, when I have them, you'll know," said Sainz when asked during the drivers' press conference about when to expect plans about his future.

And he acknowledged it may yet be a ways away: "I think so. It's not moving too quick."

It was not many words but it was revealing all the same, backing up paddock intel that Sainz has set his stall out waiting for the best possible opportunity he can get for 2025 and beyond.

If he were definitively minded to sign a multi-year Audi/Sauber deal, that deal and that announcement would already be out there, given it is F1's worst-kept secret - if any secret at all - that he is the project's number one choice.

But at teams currently higher up the pecking order - Mercedes and the more tantalising (and perhaps longer-term) option of Red Bull - he has to wait. Sainz's Imola answer confirms he is willing to do so. - Valentin Khorounzhiy

Ocon's contrasting timeline

That willingness to wait is not shared by Sainz's fellow free agent Esteban Ocon, whose multi-year deal with Alpine runs out at the end of this season.

"The important thing is to be secure as early as possible," said Ocon on his 2025 prospects.

"That is a clear target of mine, as always. I don't want to pay the price a second time, like there was at the end of 2018, which was not a good memory and was not for performance reasons."

Whether Ocon's fear of a Force India 2018-like ousting (and subsequent sabbatical) is genuine or a way to convey a sense of urgency to potential suitors, it is perhaps a little telling that his current team, Alpine, was not immediately name-checked as a priority - especially as the question that prompted Ocon's answer was specifically about Alpine's chances of hanging on to him.

"I think I'm doing a good job again this year and for the years that I've made in F1," he continued. "So, yeah, I deserve to be having a place in F1. And yeah, we will see."

Finally, he turned to Alpine: "At the moment my head is fully into this team, fully dedicated, I've been in the project for years, this is very clear, but in Formula 1 it's quite a dark side, that [silly season] part, and not the one that I've ever enjoyed. So as soon as it will be done, the better it will be."

Is it Alpine, then, that the Mercedes-managed Ocon wants an early commitment from? Or could it be Mercedes customer Williams - or even Audi, where he's figured as a Sainz fallback?

And if it is the latter, how does Ocon's desire for a quickfire resolution get reconciled with Sainz's intention to wait and see? - VK

Bottas demands commitment

Valtteri Bottas described himself as being "99%" sure that he will be on the F1 grid next year - and only chose that figure because of his assertion that nothing in F1 was 100% when you don't yet have a contract (or, arguably, even when you do).

But Bottas also emphasised the importance of a long-term commitment, and dodged a question on whether there was already something short-term on the table.

"I wouldn't get one year somewhere just to be in F1, just to hang on," he said on a more general note.

"I need a long-term project, with clear goals. With respect. For what I can do and deliver.

"That's really the main thing. And obviously the faster the car the better, but the main thing is to have that security for years ahead, that we're going to work together for the goals that we set."

The issue of "respect" came up again in a later answer and, while it's important not to put words into Bottas's mouth, it was difficult not to read it as being in reference to his current Sauber team and its manufacturer overlord Audi.

Bottas was already blindsided by Hulkenberg's signing, and is now facing up to the reality of Sauber/Audi openly pursuing others for the remaining seat. Could it be that this relationship is already too damaged for any continuation to be on the table?

The Finn said he was "quite keen", like Ocon, to have his future sorted soon, making it clear it would be "too late" to have it still up in the air by the summer break.

"There's discussions going on, and some progress being made," he insisted. - VK

Three-driver Williams shortlist

As Williams has locked down Albon’s services, focus now shifts to the identity of his team-mate. Team principal James Vowles referenced “about three options” for the drive - albeit not by name - and is keen to have a competitive driver in the second seat to help Williams through the transition to the 2026 regulations.

“When we're in a position where I can talk about that openly - which won't be long; we want it - [I will] but for now, the direction of travel is that we know we need to be performing at the highest level,” said Vowles on the team’s second-driver situation.

“Logan [Sargeant] has control in his hands of making sure he's performing at that level, that's his ability to control. I haven't taken that away from him. But what's clear is we also need to be talking to others.”

While current driver Sargeant has to be considered among those options, that appears more out of respect for his incumbency. He will need to raise his game significantly in the coming races to have any chance of changing a fate that appears sealed.

Of the other candidates, Antonelli, Sainz, Ocon and Bottas are the obvious names.

Antonelli’s future is bound to the decision Mercedes takes and could well be out of the question given Williams's desire to have a driver for 2025 and 2026. The management teams of both Ocon and Bottas have lines of communication open with Williams. It's understood Pierre Gasly's management has also been in contact, although his availability for 2025 is unclear for now and he appears most likely to remain at Alpine.

Sainz is a wildcard, one that that Vowles is understood to have pitched for compellingly but realistically with little chance of beating Audi to his services should the Spaniard not land the top drive he is eyeing.

Realistically, Vowles’s reference to around three candidates perhaps shouldn’t be taken too literally, although he will be keen to get a contract signed in the near future at a volatile time in the driver market given Williams is competing for drivers with rivals Alpine, Haas and Sauber. - Edd Straw

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