Formula 1 set for 2016 driver shake up

Formula One F1 Grand Prix Alonso Raikkonen Vettel

Expect a shake up in 2016 with Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, and Fernando Alonso all up for grabs - along with the potential for a Danica Patrick debut.

This year's silly season is proving a bit naff, but in 12 months it'll be a completely different story. Don't expect much movement in the driver market this year, because all hell is going to break lose as people try to snag the best seats, and the teams the best drivers, for 2016.

Try to get your head around this.

Currently, Red Bull's four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes' 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton have contracts which expire at the end of 2015, while Ferrari's double World Champion Fernando Alonso could exit Ferrari next year depending on their performance.

The 2015 season will mark a decade since Alonso last won a title, and while he came close in 2010 and 2012, that was down to him more than the machinery. Though widely viewed as the best on the grid from his history of outperforming his cars and team-mates, Alonso is desperate to trade heroic battles over fifth-place for a car which can deliver him the silverware to match his plaudits. If next year's Ferrari is another stinker, it would not be a surprise to see him on the move.

Vettel has the unique problem of being the least respected multiple champion in F1 history, with many believing that while he's clearly a strong driver, it's been Adrian Newey’s cars which have handed him his success.

With Newey stepping away from F1 and newcomer Daniel Ricciardo now beating him in equal machinery, Vettel could well make this the time for change of scenery. Driving for a new team, and a new designer, in 2016 would give him the chance to rejuvenate himself and silence the critics.

Even more telling about Vettel's uncertainty over his own future is the fact that, while he did sign a contract extension with Red Bull this year, it was only for 12 months. Whether this was due to him being tentative about his future with the team, or merely wanting to ensure he was a potential free agent for the 2016 season, the fact is that the German is theoretically available.

Finally, the Lewis Hamilton situation. What is a boy to do? There is no denying that his move to Mercedes was the right one, as he is once again driving with the confidence and brilliance which marked his early years in the sport.

However, one has to wonder just how long his uneasy alliance with Nico Rosberg can last. Right now the German is in a very strong position, as he has a long-term contract and has proven that he is capable of winning regularly. If anything were to happen between the pair as they battle for the title and internal supremacy, it's unlikely that Hamilton's position in the team will remain tenable.

Also added into Hamilton's situation are the wildcards of Ron Dennis and Sebastian Vettel.

Dennis has now firmly wrestled back control of McLaren, and that could be a massive draw for Hamilton. Ron is is the cornerstone of Lewis' racing career, helping him go from karter to F1 World Champion, and Hamilton's respect and loyalty to him are well documented. Returning to McLaren would also give the ultra-competitive Hamilton the chance to be the outright number one driver. During his time with Jenson Button the pair were deemed equal, while Mercedes are currently going to huge lengths to ensure parity between Hamilton and Rosberg. A move back home, however, would most likely see Hamilton partnering Kevin Magnussen, and in that situation there is no doubt who the big dog would be.

The Vettel situation with Mercedes is equally interesting. The team have gone on record to say that they aren't interested in becoming the “German national team” and Lauda has rubbished talk of Vettel joining. However, saying these things at this point is basic PR. You don't want to unsettle Hamilton by admitting interest, and you don't want to put yourself on the back foot with contract negotiations by publicly stating your intent.

At the end of the day, though, while Lauda and Wolff may be happy with their current stable of drivers, the money-holders up at Daimler (Mercedes’ parent company) would be thrilled at the prospect of adding not only another German to the team, but also a world famous, four-time champion. Everyone saw the huge rise in prestige and brand value when McLaren became the British national squad with their pairing of Hamilton and Button; Mercedes would be foolish to ignore that success. Bringing in Vettel would be a PR and marketing coup worth allowing Hamilton to leave for.

Elsewhere, Kimi Raikkonen has made noises about walking away from F1 after 2015, leaving the second Ferrari seat potentially vacant. It's hard to see how the team could make any decision apart from moving Jules Bianchi up to their main team and hoping that he'll pull a Ricciardo.

Meanwhile McLaren are searching for a superstar name to come in and lead the team, with Jenson Button most likely the one to make room. The 2009 champ would be 36 by then, but assuming he wants to stay in F1 he's respected enough to find another drive either as a mentor to a young prospect or as a short-term solution for a top team.

The back of the grid looks to get interesting, too. The American-based Haas Formula, run by hugely successful NASCAR team owner Gene Haas, is set to join the F1 circus, most likely as a Ferrari customer team. This not only gives the prospect of providing a home for Ferrari talent such as Raffaele Marciello and Antonio Fuoco, but also the hugely enticing potential of adding a big name North American driver in F1.

Even more tantalising, however, is the fact that one of Haas' NASCAR drivers is none other than former IndyCar race winner and long-time first-female-driver-in-modern-F1 candidate Danica Patrick. Haas has already suggested that she'd do well in F1 if he moved her there and, with Danica not ruling it out, as 2016 gets closer you can only expect the interest in her joining F1 to build.

There is also the mysterious Forza Rossa entry which is set to join the grid alongside Haas in 2016. Although the team have been eerily quiet since their entry was granted back in June, make no mistake that their presence on the grid (assuming they turn up) can only be a good thing. It's two extra seats for talent to fill, meaning two more drivers get their shot.

To throw another absolute wildcard out there – as during these shake ups his name is always floated around – there is also no telling what Robert Kubica's health will be like in 18 months time. It's well known that he visits the Mercedes simulator to see if the mobility needed to drive an F1 car has returned to his maimed arm, and Ferrari have long made very amorous eyes towards him. The Pole was so highly rated at the time of his horrific rallying crash that he was considered to be up there amongst the elite drivers, despite only having a sole race win, and it is hard to believe that if he is fit enough for F1 an offer won’t come in.

This is only the tip of the 2016 drivers market iceberg. We haven't even scratched the surface of what the midfield teams will be doing in an attempt to scurry up the grid, but already it's hugely exciting: top drivers potentially on the move, retirements opening up slots for young guns to prove their worth, the potential for big name outsiders and returns to F1, and new teams providing seats to produce a full 26-car grid.

Make no mistake about it: if the driver market seems quiet this year, it's because everybody already has their eyes firmly on 2016.