THE annual silly season of driver changes and contract negotiations is building momentum in MotoGP and Formula 1 as rumours get stirred up.
Red Bull’s cease and desist blast
Horner repeats his message to other teams: stay away from Ricciardo.
Here’s a case of one plus one adding up to, well, bugger all. Some of the tabloid-oriented international media have been claiming that Daniel Ricciardo is disenchanted with Red Bull Racing and is looking for a prime seat elsewhere, and at the same time suggesting that off-contract Kimi Raikkonen is on thin ice at Ferrari, and that the Aussie is a prime candidate to replace the Finn.
It ain’t about to happen.
Asked if he will be a Red Bull Formula One driver in 2017, Ricciardo answered with a laugh: “Highly likely.”
His boss Christian Horner was even more unequivocal, pointing out (for the umpteenth time) that Ricciardo is under a five-year contract handcuffing him to Red Bull and “by my maths he is two-and-half years into that deal, meaning he is under lock-and-key until the end of 2018”.
Horner continues to rate Ricciardo very highly. “He’s at the top of his game; he has lifted since Max arrived.”
As for any tension between Ricciardo and boy wonder Max Verstappen with the possibility of a repeat of the infamous aggro between Vettel and Webber at Red Bull, Horner commented that “Daniel is a very different character to Mark – he has that inner confidence, that belief.”
Horner, who in his role as team principal, also needs to be a part-time psychologist, understands that as confident and loaded with self-belief as all top drivers are, they also need to feel the love. After Red Bull famously plucked two – certainly one – grand prix victory from Ricciardo’s grip recently, Horner is sending positive vibes in the direction of his usually chirpy Australian.
In any case, with the new technical regulations coming into play next year, Ricciardo knows that Red Bull looms as a better proposition than Ferrari to field a competitive car straight out of the box.
But if the Red Bull driver line-up is remaining the same for next year and onwards (Verstappen is under a long-term contract), the F1 grid is looking at a serious shake-up for 2017, with several drivers out of contract at the end of this season.
One huge name in that situation is Nico Rosberg, the championship leader. The German has made it clear he wants to stay, but has also showcased his options to the paddock with remarks like: “I feel very good at Mercedes, but let's see what the future holds."
Mercedes no-nonsense non-executive chairman Niki Lauda wants the situation resolved swiftly cleared up soon, the urgency accelerated by stories of a switch to Ferrari.
Raikkonen hasn’t been sensational this year but is fortunate to have an influential ally on his side. Sebastian Vettel likes Raikkonen and, let’s face it, doesn’t consider his team-mate a great threat.
Three podiums in the opening seven races but his inconsistency doesn’t match Ferrari’s expectations – nor justify his annual salary.
So the media is busy speculating on who might slide into his seat next year.
Of those on that list, forget Ricciardo and Rosberg, but perhaps consider Williams’ Valtteri Bottas at Williams, Force India's Sergio Perez and maybe Romain Grosjean, who is doing well at Haas.
Of that three, Perez has been on fire lately, qualifying a brilliant second at Baku, and then following up with a race podium. The Mexican won’t say where he’ll be racing next year, while admitting he is enjoying life at Force India.
Conjecture has been hanging around Jenson Button’s future for all of this year – I asked him in March in Melbourne what he’ll be doing next season. He laughed it off then, and is still merely smiling intriguingly.
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier is no less helpful, recently insisting that discussions had not yet started with any of the drivers.
Highly regarded Stoffel Vandoorne, raced impressively in his only GP start as a sub for the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain, out-qualifying Button.
Vandoorne has one clear advantage over Button; his pay packet would be way slimmer.
But if McLaren decides that Button is to go, it may not be the end for the personable Brit, who has hardly been shaded by Alonso this season.
Williams has emerged as a possible alternative, with some doubts over Felipe Massa’s future. Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams says Button is an "attractive proposition" for the team, should he become available next season. That said, she also said the team is looking at other options.
Team bosses love tantalising the F1 press with games of intrigue.
Bottas was once touted as a potential world champion and although he scored Williams only podium this year, his cheer squad hasn’t been all that noisy lately. He has hardly crucified team-mate Massa, who at 35, is no longer a young charger. Bottas would delight in being given a chance in one of the big teams, but this is unlikely for 2017.
Massa is steady but knows his championship-contending days are over. He is content to stay at Williams and pick up points regularly.
At Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz’s option for a third year was set to be taken up this week. There have been rumours of Renault sniffing him out, but Red Bull/Toro Rosso regard him highly, even though his results have been compromised by reliability issues and team stuff-ups. Daniil Kvyat has pace on his side, but appears to have made a career-limiting enemy or two within Red Bull. He is in the wait-and-see basket for 2017.
Rins signs with Suzuki
Another jigsaw piece in MotoGP
Suzuki is gambling on an all-new MotoGP rider line-up to lift its fortunes next season after signing Moto2 title contender Alex Rins to join tearaway Italian Andrea Iannone.
Intent on securing a factory ride, the young Spaniard turned down offers from satellite MotoGP teams and was one of two prime choices for Suzuki once Maverick Vinales opted to join Yamaha alongside Valentino Rossi.
Rins has agreed to a two-year deal.
“Alex Rins is a young rider who has already proven to have much talent, always fighting within the top positions of the world championship since his debut in every class, making him the type of rider who we want to support for the future," said Suzuki team manager Davide Brivio.
"To pair Andrea Iannone, an experienced rider with such a young talent as Alex creates a perfect combination for our challenge. We believe that the combination of these two riders, together with the further development of the Suzuki GSX-RR, can help us to create a strong team to compete at the maximum level.”
Undoubtedly Iannone has shown at Ducati that he has the pace to succeed, but he needs to stay on his bike more often.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3 will have Jonas Folger riding next year with the likelihood that world Moto2 champion Johann Zarco, having missed out on the Suzuki ride, will be there too.