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Analysis
Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

The F1 driver market dominoes about to fall

Formula 1’s driver market dominoes are on the verge of falling down, with decisions set to be taken imminently that could finalise some key seats.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, leads Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Valtteri Bottas, Kick Sauber F1 Team C44, Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-24, and the remainder of the field on the opening lap of the Sprint

As F1 gathered for the start of the European season in Imola this weekend, the return of the traditional motorhomes in the paddock triggered a series of secret meetings aimed at finalising the 2025 line-ups.

And as eagle-eyed observers spotted some of these gatherings – including a Valtteri Bottas chat with James Vowles at Williams on Saturday morning, or Carlos Sainz’s management team being in and out of various teams including Red Bull and Alpine – a picture has emerged of the silly season reaching an early conclusion.

The trigger for everything falling into place appears to be Sainz, who has a Sauber/Audi offer on the table but is understood to have a deadline of the end of this month to take it up.

The Spaniard has previously been biding his time on committing to become Nico Hulkenberg’s team-mate, with him not wanting to sign on the dotted line while there was a possibility of attractive seats at Red Bull and Mercedes still open.

But with Red Bull edging ever closer to keeping Sergio Perez on board, despite his difficult Imola weekend so far, and Mercedes seemingly focused on Andrea Kimi Antonelli for next year if it cannot get hold of Max Verstappen, Sainz’s chances at both are fading away.

With Sainz now days away from making a final decision on exactly what to do, it may be viewed as a risk too far to turn down a guaranteed long-term Audi future for something else that may or may not happen.

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

It is suggested that if the deadline passes, with Audi keen to get its drivers locked in early, then it is likely that the German manufacturer would swoop for Esteban Ocon or Pierre Gasly instead.

The reality of Sainz inching closer to the Sauber/Audi seat has left the squad’s current drivers – Bottas and Zhou Guanyu - accepting a reality that their future is not with the Hinwil-based manufacturer.

Rather than wait and potentially be left on the backfoot once Sainz's decision is made, Bottas in particular is understood to have been active in trying to get a deal in place elsewhere as quickly as possible.

That much was obvious at Imola as he was spotted going for a 15-minute meeting with Vowles in his office on Saturday.

Asked about the meeting, Bottas initially joked about having run out of coffee so “needed to get some from there”.

But in telling remarks about his mindset over the contract situation, Bottas said: “When you’re on the free market, you’re going to check around what is out there. It’s a pretty normal situation if you are on the free market.”

Valtteri Bottas, Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber

Valtteri Bottas, Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

As an F1 race winner, Bottas would be an ideal candidate to partner Alex Albon next year, with Vowles himself having said earlier in the week that he had a few candidates he was evaluating – with it thought highly unlikely he will retain Logan Sargeant.

“I’m looking at the moment at three options for 2025/2026,” said Vowles. “Simple as that.”

For Bottas, other possibilities include Haas and Alpine – with the Finn believed to be pretty confident he will land one of those drives.

Haas is anticipated to be another team to make an early move, with its growing competitiveness making it an attractive option for many.

The team has been strongly linked with Oliver Bearman, but there is equally believed to be a reluctance from Gene Haas to commit to a rookie following the outfit’s tumultuous time with Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin in 2021.

Haas could be won over though, especially if Bearman continues to deliver strongly in his free practice outings – having shown his potential when he stood in for Sainz in the Ferrari at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Oliver Bearman, Haas F1 Team, adjusts his helmet in the garage

Oliver Bearman, Haas F1 Team, adjusts his helmet in the garage

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Ocon is understood to be at the top of Haas' short-list, with other options including his team-mate Gasly, incumbent Kevin Magnussen, as well as Zhou. However, the team has not ruled out trying to chase drivers further up the grid.

Despite the obvious interest from elsewhere in Alpine’s current drivers, the French manufacturer remains calm about matters and sees no incentive to join the gold rush to get contracts in place.

Speaking at Imola, team principal Bruno Famin said: “We want to take our time. We always said that we have no pressure. We are happy with our drivers.

“We are working well with them. We have also many people coming to us. We have very good drivers in our academy. Then we have no pressure on that.

“We really want to focus on the technical side, car improvement, the technical structure, and we will take our time for the drivers.”

Although that clearly brings a risk of losing either of its current drivers if they are not locked down, Famin feels there is still plenty of interest from elsewhere for it not to be left standing when the music stops.

Based on what happens at Imola, that silence could come very soon.

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