The revelation that Lewis Hamilton will depart Mercedes for Ferrari, which announced a new multi-year deal for Charles Leclerc only last Thursday, necessarily means there is no room for Scuderia incumbent Carlos Sainz beyond the expiration of his current 2024 Formula 1 deal.
Sainz made plain that he wanted his future to be secured before the start of the new season so he could enter with a clear head. The Spaniard – signed by ex-Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto – thought this meant agreeing revised terms with the squad’s new F1 boss Fred Vasseur.
The two-time grand prix winner has stacked up convincingly alongside Leclerc across their three years at team-mates. As such, Sainz was in a strong position to negotiate a pay rise and at least a two-year extension to take his Ferrari stay up to the new rules cycle starting in 2026.
But talks dragged on. Speaking in December, Vasseur put this down to a hectic year.
“I have to admit that the last part of the season was a big chaos for everybody,” said the Ferrari team principal.
“It was very demanding. We had meetings and we started the discussion, but we are late compared to the initial plan.”
It has since transpired that Vasseur and Ferrari president John Elkann were lining up another blockbuster option.
Vasseur celebrates Sainz’s 2024 GP win while linking arms with the Spaniard’s 2025 replacement
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Last summer, Hamilton agreed to extend his Mercedes stay by a further two years until the end of 2025. Those contract talks were also drawn out. It now appears as though that deal was actually for a fixed one-year term with an option for a further season. The Hamilton camp had included an exit clause, which seems to have been exercised amid the Ferrari approach.
That leaves Sainz as a free agent heading into 2025 when, as it stands, no fewer than 13 seats will be up for grabs. But moves to Haas, RB, Williams and Alpine – where the team-mates are all out of contract at the end of 2024 – are likely to be among the less appealing options at present.
Instead, these are the possible vacancies Sainz and his manager might consider more strongly.
Hamilton’s shock switch now leaves Mercedes with a seat going spare for 2025 and beyond. This berth would allow Sainz to swap one front-running manufacturer seat for another. And, having proven that he fares soundly alongside Leclerc, Sainz will believe he can slot in and compare similarly well against potential future Silver Arrows stablemate George Russell.
As both team and driver weigh up their options, the early races of 2024 will give a clearer picture of the fate of Mercedes’ ground-effects recovery. With James Allison returning to a more hands-on role as technical director, and the W15 marking a new car design concept, there will be plenty of attention on whether the eight-time constructors’ champion has fixed its ground-effects dip to put the pressure on Red Bull or is indeed stuck in the mire.
Sainz might appeal to Mercedes as a medium-term signing. Its junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli is proving to be a formidable talent, having won the German and Italian Formula 4 titles in the same year before sealing the Formula Regional European Championship crown last season. In 2024, he will step up to FIA F2 with Prema Racing. Should he need two bites of the cherry to win the championship before Toto Wolff decides to slot him into a lower midfield F1 team – per Russell at Williams – to refine his topflight craft, Sainz would be a pragmatic placeholder.
However, Hamilton’s Ferrari switch underlines that F1 driver contracts are malleable. Anyone can move for the right price. As such, the multi-year new deals that Ferrari has agreed with Leclerc and McLaren with Lando Norris (notably, neither specified the exact contract length) do not entirely preclude Mercedes from making an approach for one or the other to become Hamilton’s heir.
Sainz will surely also evaluate linking up with Max Verstappen once more given Red Bull’s current form. Sergio Perez is out of contract at the end of the year and in light of his protracted struggles, it is hard to envisage the team extending that relationship. On paper, there is space.
A touch of the familiar – would Sainz consider a Red Bull homecoming alongside Verstappen?
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Problem one for Sainz is Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is effectively waiting in the wings at the rebranded RB squad. He is odds on to replace Perez for 2025 or sooner, should the Mexican underwhelm in the opening races to prompt the Red Bull axe to swing once again mid-season.
Ever since he was jettisoned by McLaren to reunite with Red Bull for 2023 in a third-driver capacity, Ricciardo has satisfied every performance criterion. He ran well in private tests and during simulator sessions and, either side of breaking a bone in his hand at Zandvoort to prompt a spell on the sidelines, impressed while returning to frontline action at AlphaTauri.
Despite Sainz now coming onto the market, Ricciardo remains the favourite to take Perez’ seat for 2025. Let alone if Red Bull decides to swap any sooner.
The second issue for Sainz is what the state of his working relationship with Verstappen would be the second time around. Reigning triple champion Verstappen, contracted to Red Bull until the end of 2028, will likely have few qualms about who his future team-mate is, believing he can beat whoever walks through the door. But it should be noted that he enjoys an amicable rapport with Ricciardo. The same isn’t said of his stint alongside Sainz.
During their 2015-16 stint as Toro Rosso team-mates, the relationship was supposed to have been fractious. Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko called it “toxic”, although this was more down to the pair both fighting it out for a promotion to the top team. The dynamic is smoother now, as both have forged their own paths in F1 and matured over the years. But it might remain a consideration for Sainz.
If driver contracts are worth the paper they’re written on, seemingly a return to McLaren is off the table for Sainz. Norris and Oscar Piastri are under lock and key, having agreed new deals in recent months. Aston Martin, which has also invested heavily to upgrade its infrastructure and hire high-profile technical staff, would therefore represent another upwardly mobile option.
During 2023, it is understood that Aston F1 executives sounded out the availability and interest of Norris and Leclerc. Theoretically, this would have been to replace Fernando Alonso, whose contract expires at the end of the year. However, the team is keen to extend his stay at Silverstone.
Sainz’s career moves have oddly mirrored Alonso’s. Is Aston Martin the next step?
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
There was an alternative school of thought. Given Lawrence Stroll wants to win championships, and the team has recently taken on outside investment so must satisfy new stakeholders, a more competitive replacement for Lance Stroll might one day be required. The Canadian effectively has the drive as long as he wants. But should Norris or Leclerc have expressed clear interest, perhaps it would have been an opportunity too good for Stroll Sr to turn down.
Since Ferrari and McLaren have ultimately managed to retain the services of their talismanic lead drivers, Sainz could replace them in the rumour mill. There might be a separate emotional appeal, as slotting in alongside Alonso would see Sainz partner his childhood F1 hero.
Sainz might also consider more of a gamble. Both Sauber drivers are out of contract at the end of this season. Valtteri Bottas has told Autosport that any extension thereafter will be indicative of him having secured a seat for 2026 when the team properly morphs into Audi. Sainz could therefore move for 2025, spend a season acclimatising to the squad and give his input to bring on the race team operation and develop the car.
Alternatively, he could take a risk and opt for a year’s sabbatical to come back revitalised for 2026 as the new powertrain and chassis regulations make their debut.
The arrival of Audi into F1 not only presents Sainz with an opportunity to represent a major German manufacturer but also the prospect of being a lynchpin around which a team can build. Incidentally, much like his Ferrari replacement Hamilton achieved at Mercedes. Sainz will turn 30 this year so might reasonably expect another seven or eight years in F1. If Audi is pragmatic, committed and invests well, that’s enough time to trouble to the front of the grid.
Such a move to become Audi’s leading light might represent a handsome payday, should remuneration be a considerable motivating factor for Sainz. That would soften the blow if Audi’s arrival is underwhelming. While Sauber say Audi’s lack of communication regarding its nascent F1 programme has been to avoid any overlap with previous title partner and rival automotive manufacturer Alfa Romeo, the silence has led to speculation. Some have considered whether the Audi engine programme is well behind schedule or if the Ingolstadt boardroom is getting cold feet. Both rumours have been denied.
Recent events have also made the Audi option more romantic. Last month, Carlos Sainz Sr secured Audi its first-ever Dakar Rally victory aboard the electrified RS Q e-tron. That off-road programme will now be shut down so resources can be dedicated to the F1 operation, where Sainz Jr can pick up the baton.