With F1 on its summer break, we're taking a look at the 2015 driver market. Next up it's plucky underdogs tuned Monaco-points-scorers Marussia.
After four very challenging seasons things are starting to look up for Marussia. They scored their first F1 points in Monaco and have twice made it into Q2 this year, which represents a significant step forward for Banbury-based squad. Part of this improvement comes down to the driver lineup, which is unchanged for the first time in their history.
And the team’s ideal scenario would be to retain the current pairing of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton for a third successive year. This has been hinted at by sporting director Graeme Lowdon, who recently praised his drivers’ performances.
“I think they're both doing a great job,” said Lowdon. “We seem to have a good atmosphere [and] the drivers push each other in a healthy way.”
Lowdon has also stated that his 2015 drivers will not be confirmed until December, though that does not mean deals can’t be signed beforehand.
While an unchanged lineup is Marussia’s preference, the decision may not be entirely theirs. It’s fair to say that Bianchi has impressed this season, particularly by bagging the team’s first points in Monaco and then knocking Kimi Raikkonen out of Q1 in Hungary.
The Frenchman is still a Ferrari-contracted driver, meaning his next move will be decided upon by the Scuderia. There remains an outside chance that he will be heading there in 2015, though this would be in the event that Fernando Alonso switches team or Raikkonen is pensioned off a year early. Both scenarios appear increasingly unlikely.
Assuming there is no room at Maranello, Ferrari have two options: leave Bianchi at Marussia for another season, or buy him a seat with a more established team. You could argue that Jules has gone as far as he can with Marussia, and if he is to be considered for a Ferrari seat in 2016 he needs to spend at least a year racing higher up the grid. If a vacancy were to appear at Force India this would be the ideal destination, as Bianchi has already worked with the Silverstone-based squad. Ferrari customer team Sauber could also be an option, though they already have half a dozen drivers of their own to pick from.
As for Chilton, the Brit has made it clear that he wants to remain at Marussia next year. He is not a bad option for the team: well funded, intelligent, and just about quick enough to keep his head above water. He is no Bianchi - the timing screens make that clear - but Max has a sensible approach to his job and is quietly building experience. It works for all parties to keep the relationship going.
So, what options do the team have if Jules does move up the grid? Chilton will have two full years of F1 experience under his belt by this time, so presumably the team would be comfortable in pairing him with a rookie. In this case their best bet would be to repeat the Bianchi deal; that is, take a top team’s young driver and run him for a tidy sum. Marussia get paid and take a very promising talent into the bargain, while the youngster learns his trade out of the spotlight; it’s win-win.
Another Ferrari protege seems unlikely: their next big thing, Raffaele Marciello, is still just 19 and in his maiden GP2 season. The Italian would be best served by another year in the feeder series, and if Bianchi elects to depart following the 2015 season it’s very possible that Marciello would take his place then.
But if Bianchi leaves in December McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne would be a more realistic target. The Belgian has excelled in his first GP2 campaign having already starred in Formula Renault 3.5, where he was runner-up to Kevin Magnussen last year. He is ready for F1 and McLaren will not want to leave him on the sidelines. Perhaps the only stumbling block is Marussia’s status as a Ferrari customer, though this has not stopped similar deals occurring in the past.
Of the non-affiliated rookies, Marussia currently have American racer Alexander Rossi on their books as reserve driver. Just how much sponsorship he can drum up is uncertain, but the American is pushing for a race seat in 2015. Marussia have a history of promoting their reserve drivers - they did it with Chilton and Jerome d’Ambrosio - so Rossi is worth watching.
And then there are more than a dozen GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 drivers who’d fancy the Marussia gig. Jolyon Palmer and Felipe Nasr, who currently sit first and second in the GP2 standings, could both bring money and have solid results in the feeder championship; series veterans Stefano Coletti and Johnny Cecotto Jr. have little option but to seek an F1 drive for next year; while in FR3.5, recent DTM convert Roberto Merhi would make an interesting addition to the F1 grid.
That, however, is pure speculation. Marussia’s most likely route for 2015 is to retain Chilton and hope that Bianchi returns too. If not, they would be wise to get on the phone to Mr. Dennis and enquire about Vandoorne’s plans for 2015.
VERDICT: Chilton to remain alongside a top team’s junior driver, be that Bianchi, Vandoorne or Nasr.