Alfa Romeo and Sauber will continue their Formula 1 partnership after a new “multi-year deal” that will be reviewed yearly was announced on the eve of the British Grand Prix.
Sauber first teamed up with Alfa in 2018 before taking the Alfa name outright for the following season. Ever since that name change, it has run 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari-contracted driver Antonio Giovinazzi.
The future of both drivers is in doubt and there are a plethora of alternatives that would be realistic targets for Alfa, both inside and outside of F1.
Our writers tackle the question of who Sauber should sign now it has renewed its deal with Alfa.
To truly signal its intent, the next-generation Alfa Romeo-Sauber partnership needs a serious driver to lead the charge. So the team should pull out all the stops to sign Valtteri Bottas.
Antonio Giovinazzi is developing nicely this season, building on the flashes of promises so often clouded by lapses in concentration or anonymous weekends, but the jury is still out on the calibre of F1 driver he can grow to be.
Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t seem long for the world of F1. The junior options are impressive but not team leaders.
Bottas is a proven race winner and a driver so fast that Lewis Hamilton barely edges him in most qualifying sessions. He is vastly experienced yet still young enough to commit to a long-term project, and knows the title-winning Mercedes operation inside-out.
Pair someone like Bottas with someone like Giovinazzi or a young gun and Alfa Romeo would have a line-up that while not particularly exciting to the outside world, would be a definite step up from what the team has now.
If Alfa has serious ambitions beyond scrapping it the lower half of F1’s midfield and a driver like Bottas is potentially available, it has to at least try to get him.
Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott
I was a bit of a Mick Schumacher sceptic through much of his junior career, worried that the understandable enthusiasm for the Schumacher story to continue was going to lead to him being accelerated past potentially stronger talents.
But both his form and particularly his attitude since his arrival in F1 have swung me. His margin over Nikita Mazepin – who is not fundamentally slow – has been commanding, and the accounts from the team suggest the personality and work ethic that comes across in his interviews pervades his activities behind the scenes too.
In short, he deserves a move up the grid and Alfa Romeo would hopefully be one.
Callum Ilott has been a bit of a tantalising question mark throughout his career, and I’m very taken with my colleague Mark Hughes’ suspicion that there’s a James Hunt in Ilott waiting to blossom – or in other words, that an F1 car will better suit his raw talent than the ladder series.
There aren’t any absolute cast-iron rising superstar bets like Charles Leclerc on the market right now nor any dogged midfield heroes like a Sergio Perez.
But Alfa Romeo ought to be aware its current line-up leaves room for doubt about what the car could be achieving, and though 2020 Formula 2 title rivals Schumacher and Ilott together certainly wouldn’t resolve those questions, it would be an exciting punt worth taking in a situation where that’s the best way forward.
Nico Hulkenberg and Antonio Giovinazzi
Unfortunately, it feels like Raikkonen’s time in F1 is up. It’s been admirable that he was willing to take on a drive further down the grid after such a long career, rather than just disappear into retirement when he lost his Ferrari drive.
Raikkonen’s somewhat patchy form, particularly with what he lacks over a single lap on Saturdays, has made Giovinazzi’s progress hard to judge. Is the Italian really moving forward, or is Raikkonen sliding back towards him?
If we give Giovinazzi the benefit of the doubt and combine that with the team’s likely reluctance to change both drivers, plus Giovinazzi’s favourable standing with Alfa Romeo itself, then he deserves another season. But with so many young Ferrari prospects around, he’d have to prove himself against a more consistent benchmark in 2022 to hold onto the seat beyond that.
That’s where Nico Hulkenberg comes in. If he spends any longer on the F1 sidelines he’ll surely be forgotten. He’d offer Sauber/Alfa Romeo a reliable pair of hands capable of midfield heroics, and his arrival on the other side of the garage would tell us a lot more about how Giovinazzi really stacks up.
Hulkenberg may not fancy scrapping to get out of Q1 every weekend, but hopefully, the desire would be there to make a full-time comeback before it’s too late. With new rules for next year potentially shaking things up – it could be a gamble worth taking for both sides.
Mick Schumacher and Theo Pourchaire
As Matt outlined Schumacher has enjoyed a quietly impressive rookie F1 season, one that has caught the eye of Sebastian Vettel and one warranting a small step up the F1 grid.
He’s historically come on much stronger on his second year in a championship, so good things can be expected if Ferrari was to move Schumacher up from Haas to Alfa Romeo.
Giovinazzi’s performances have gone under the radar but he’s arguably taken too long to get to the level that he’s performing at this year and race execution remains an issue, while Raikkonen’s time in F1 appears to be over.
So who should partner Schumacher? Well, why not 17-year-old Theo Pourchaire?
The Frenchman was racing in Formula 4 just two years ago, but he quickly adapted to FIA F3 last year, narrowly missing out on beating two more experienced drivers to the title in the finale.
It only took until round two of his first Formula 2 season for Pourchaire to claim his maiden victory – in the Monaco feature race of all places – and he’s so far blown away highly-rated Alpine junior Christian Lundgaard at ART Grand Prix.
Pourchaire is also an Alfa junior driver and has been under the close eye of mentor and Alfa F1 team boss Frederic Vasseur for many years.
He may only be 17 (18 when he’d make his debut next year), but Pourchaire has shown all the signs of performing the minute he gets into an F1 race seat just as the likes of fellow teenage debutants Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso did.
Antonio Felix da Costa and Antonio Giovinazzi
Retaining Giovinazzi for a fourth season would be divisive. Whether he has done enough to deserve that against an ageing Raikonnen is open for debate.
However, some drivers naturally blossom if consistently backed and in a new look F1 Giovinazzi has several attributes that make some continuity at Alfa worthwhile.
To replace Raikkonen, who by the way would be a mega addition to Ferrari’s Le Mans hypercar programme for 2023, I’d like to see Antonio Felix da Costa given a chance.
Forget all the wildcard tropes about ‘he deserves a shot’ and ‘he was too good to miss out on F1’ because da Costa is at the very top of his game now, winning in Formula E and in the World Endurance Championship.
He’s hungry too and is at a proper crossroads in his career, which presently signposts Formula E, IndyCar and a possible seat with a manufacturer in the WEC.
He’s at the stage of his career now where he doesn’t feel the pressure as much as he once did and where his happy-go-lucky nature has a naturally accrued layer of friendly steel.
It would be the feel-good story of the decade so far. But more than that, da Costa would be a great foil for Giovinazzi and an excellent addition for the development of a new powertrain after his forensic work with some complex electrical systems at DS Techeetah.
Robert Shwartzman and Antonio Giovinazzi
Alfa Romeo finds itself in the invidious position of being towards the back of the queue driver choice wise.
But a rookie with great potential must be its priority in the hope of finding a driver with that extra edge of speed to take the team to greater heights as Leclerc did in 2018.
I’d hang fire on committing in Alfa Romeo’s position given the shape of the driver market, but assuming it can’t tempt a driver like Bottas and the fact it might be a little early for Pourchaire, for now Robert Shwartzman could be the right choice.
This is contingent on his F2 season hitting its stride, but he’s Ferrari affiliated, has at least a very good turn of speed and should be ready for the step up.
But realistically, he could be any number of a group of drivers – Oscar Piastri and Guan Yu Zhou from the Alpine junior scheme are also options, or perhaps Red Bull aligned Juri Vips.
Alongside a rookie signing, it’s logical to maintain the continuity with Giovinazzi.
If all that sounds a little like sitting on the fence, it is. The key point is the team needs to look very closely at the available young driver options and hit upon one who can deliver the cutting edge of speed the team urgently requires.
But right now, it’s not entirely clear who the best option is in that regard.