Now that the closest Formula 1 season on record has finally hit the finishing straight - five rounds of 19 to go - the sport’s ‘silly season' is in full swing with driver changes and announcements coming thick and fast as teams sort their 2011 line-ups and/or put plans in place to evaluate youngsters during the scheduled four-day ‘rookie’ test in late November in Abu Dhabi.
That said, the 2011 season promises to be one of the most stable on record, with a continuity of the recent cockpit continuity being the name of the game, certainly at the sharp end. Thus the likes of Ferrari and McLaren have long had their line-ups sorted, while mid-gridders and back-enders are in more than merely a few instances considering their options.
Intriguingly, where fixed, most contracts run to end-2012 – a key date in F1’s future, for the present 2010-2012 Concorde Agreement, the document which outlines the obligations of the governing body (FIA), FOM (Bernie Ecclestone’s commercial rights-holding company) and FOTA (the F1 teams organisation) towards this most complex of sports, expires in just over two years.
NO QUARTER: Ferrari's Felipe Massa (front) tries to overtake team mate Fernando Alonso after the start at Monza. They'll still be together in 2011
Many paddock insiders predict open warfare will break out between the three parties - as it did in 2009 when the current document was negotiated, and a breakaway series almost came to fruition before sanity prevailed.
Thus conspiracy theorists are having a field day, conjuring up all sorts of scenarios which have the FIA organising its own series much along present lines, Ecclestone running his own championship for upgraded GP2 cars (to be called GP1) and the teams doing their own thing under the Grand Prix World Series banner - a repeat of last June’s threat.
Although most on the planet doubt it will ever come to that - despite the stakes being extremely high, what with F1 this year expected to earn upwards of $1bn (R8-billion)* from (mainly) race hosting fees, TV contracts and licensing endorsements – it is nonetheless telling that teams will not commit drivers beyond that date...
All drivers’ contacts are lodged with F1’s Contract Recognition Board in Geneva – enabling teams to check on their status and arbitrators to preside over breaches – with details generally kept confidential.
ASCENDING STAR: Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg at Spa in 2010. He's been the revelation of the season.
Deals generally run to three years with mutual options and triggers enabling automatic extension/termination at various stages. Contracts are complex legal documents, generally running to 100 or more pages, so establishing the exact state of play requires all the skills of a Sherlock Holmes, plus Watson and pack of the pipe-smoking sleuth’s bloodhounds.
However, loose tongues abound both in teams and among driver-managers, with the latter group known to drop hints with a view to sowing dissent to gain better deals for their charges, thus leaking information into the public domain. So, what’s the state of the 2011 drivers’ market? In present Constructors’/Drivers’ championship order:RED BULL RACINGMark Webber
The Australian, whose four-year deal with the team was set to expire at season’s end, signed a one-year extension after the Turkish GP debacle that saw him taken out of the lead by team mate Sebastian Vettel. At the time there were accusations of favouritism towards the young German. Was the extension RBR’s way of allaying Mark’s fears? What will happen thereafter, though? Sebastian Vettel
Having been the subject of a tug-of-love between Red Bull and BMW early in his career, SebVet has committed himself to the lifestyle drinks company until at least the end of 2012. Insiders suggest he has a deal which runs to 2015; that is, though, likely an option by the team on his services. Who even knows whether Red Bull will still be in F1 once it is a case of mission accomplished?McLARENLewis Hamilton
LH was taken under McLaren’s wing as 12-year-old karter and has richly repaid the team’s investment with wins and the 2008 title. However, payback time has stopped, and Lewis is free to go wherever come end-2012. Could he, though, leave the cocoon that is McLaren? Folk said that about Michael Schumacher and Ferrari...Jenson Button
After five dry years with Honda, it all came together for Jens when the Japanese company exited F1, enabling team boss Ross Brawn to do his thing. However, the Mercedes buy-out of the team, coupled with what Button’s management considered a derisory offer unbefitting his status as 2009 World champion, saw the Briton make a shock transfer to McLaren. His deal runs to end-2012 with options.
GETTING THE PUSH OFF: Race marshals push Australian driver Mark Webber's Red Bull after he suffered mechanical problems at Monza.
Signed from this year, the 2005/6 champion is set to race in red until the end of 2012, although various clauses enable team and driver to split should the marriage prove untenable. Given the circumstances surrounding the Spaniard’s break with McLaren at end-2007, lawyers on both sides would have been have been ultra-careful.Felipe Massa
The Brazilian, who has only ever raced in F1 with a Ferrari engine – even while on loan to Sauber – extended his contract with the Scuderia to end-2012 in June. The following month he was subjected to team orders in Germany, just as was compatriot Rubens Barrichello immediately after signing an extension in May 2002... MERCEDESNico Rosberg
The young German, who has scored 112 points to the 46 of team mate Michael Schumacher, has been the revelation of the season. To think he was to be loaned to Force India – as his contract allows – had Button remained with the (renamed) team when Schumacher came aboard. Committed to 2012.
The returning seven-times champion has a get-out clause after each season through to end-2012 but many within the team believe he will exit at season’s end – unless the new-for-2011 Pirelli tyres are exactly to his liking. Already there is speculation in the (pro-MS) German media that his neck, injured in a motorcycle crash, will be advanced as the reason.RENAULTRobert Kubica
The Pole has the most secretive of all contracts in F1 with manager Daniele Morelli known for playing cards close to the chest. Recruited by the old regime at Renault, Kubica elected to stay when the company ‘leased’ 75% of the team to Genii Capital, a venture capital fund. Was linked to Ferrari from 2011 but, with Massa confirmed, seems set to stay at Renault until end-2012 – conveniently, it’s when the Genii/Renault deal comes up for review.Vitaly Petrov
Out of contract this year, the Russian is part of a four-way fight for the only confirmed available seat in a top five team. Has blown hot and cold, so faces a struggle even if Lada – a Renault associate – stumps up cash. Kimi Raikkonen is known to be after the seat, the Finn having seemingly fallen out of love with rallying after a debut WRC season which saw the 2007 champion crash more often than score points.FORCE INDIAAdrian Sutil
Consistently the third-best German (out of seven now that Nick Heidfeld has returned to the fray), AS is out of contract this year. Although the team is fighting to retain him – on account of both his ability and backing – any decision is likely to be on hold until Schumacher makes a firm decision about his future with Mercedes, with Sutil favourite to replace him.Tonio Liuzzi
Also out of contract this year, the Italian seems set to stay, particularly if Sutil moves. Could, though, face a challenge for the seat from ‘Friday driver’ Paul di Resta, former German F3 champion and DTM winner, who put in impressive times during practice sessions.WILLIAMSRubens Barrichello
Has impressed in his first year with the team after moving across from Brawn and seems set to stay for another year as he and the team have no better options. Celebrated his 300th GP in Spa, so is nearing the end of his career - 2011 season likely to be his last.Nico Hulkenberg
The ‘Hulk’ endeared himself to hard man Frank Williams with some fighting performances so the 23-year-old’s single season ‘rookie’ contract is likely to be extended. At Williams there are, though, never guarantees...SAUBERKamui Kobayashi
The Japanese has sizzled in his first full season so the contract extension (by another year) announced a fortnight ago was no surprise.
Drafted in to replace the dropped Pedro de la Rosa who failed to provide regular points. The German is itching to get back into racing after an (inactive) spell as Mercedes’ reserve. Tested for Pirelli during that time and hopes to convert this five-race deal with a team he raced for thrice before into a regular 2011 seat. However, Sauber recently signed Formula BMW/GP3 champion Esteban Gutièrrez, so faces a struggle should the Mexican prove stellar during the rookie test week. TORO ROSSOSebastien Buemi
As long-time member of Red Bull’s Young Driver Development Programme, the Swiss is expected to remain with the team for at least another season. However, the team is known for chopping and changing, so no seat is ever safe.Jaime Alguersuari
As a long-time member of Red Bull’s Young Driver Development Programme, the Spaniard, who came in ‘cold’ in August 2009 is expected to remain with the team for at least another season. However, the team is known for chopping and changing, so no seat is ever safe – as he discovered when he was drafted into as replacement for Sebastien Bourdais mid-season.LOTUSJarno Trulli
The Italian wine farmer and former Monaco winner has been confirmed for another season after the team set the pace among the three ‘newbies’Heikki Kovalainen
After unhappy years at Renault and McLaren, the Finn has bedded in well at this new team and looks set to stay for another season, probably beyond.HISPANIA RTBruno Senna
A tough debut year for you-know-who’s debut with this cash-strapped team. No guarantees the team will even be around next season.Sakon Yamamoto
Replaced Karun Chandhok after providing a pile of yen earned by his mother’s gambling den and is seemingly safe for as long the team a) is around, and b) the money supply continues.VIRGINTimo Glock
The feisty German has a deal – with various get-out clauses – for 2011 so seems set to stay, although Renault is said to be examining his contract.Lucas di Grassi
Likely to be dropped after a disappointing first season with a team finding its feet with a ‘Playstation’ car designed and developed purely by computer. Already Virgin has announced that Belgian GP2 hotshot Jerome d’Ambrosio will test on four of remaining five GP Fridays, and will complete the rookie test for the team.
*Excludes team sponsorship incomes, which add another $1.2bn (average $100m per team) to the sport’s wealth. Thus the sport’s total annual revenues amount to an estimated $2.2bn (R16.5-billion).