Hamilton backs Antonelli: Five F1 silly season takeaways at Imola


Formula 1's ridiculously hectic season shows no signs of slowing down at the first European race of the 2024 season.

Alex Albon has already committed to Williams, and while his explanation for doing so was a key part of Formula 1's media day on Thursday at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, attention quickly turned to the remaining question marks in the driver market.

Here are the five most important finds from the Imola circuit:

Hamilton's preferred alternative

Lewis Hamilton's stunning switch to Ferrari is responsible for starting this whirlwind in the entire drivers' market, and his seat at Mercedes – although less attractive than it was a few years ago – remains one of the most valuable vacancies for 2025.

Since news of Hamilton's shock exit emerged, the racing team has recognized 17-year-old Kimi Antonelli as the preferred replacement within Mercedes.

He is 'Plan A' if he performs strongly enough in his new Formula 2 season and, more importantly, during the extensive Formula 1 testing program that Mercedes has set for him.

Carlos Sainz appears to be the strongest option under Plan B, with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Albon not sticking around for a shot at the seat and instead committing their futures to Aston Martin and Williams respectively.

Hamilton was asked if he thought Sainz would be his “perfect replacement” when he leaves for Ferrari at the end of the year and his thoughts on Antonelli.

“Carlos is a great driver, so wherever he goes, I think it will be a positive thing for any team,” Hamilton said at Imola.

“Honestly, I have no idea what Toto’s plans are but I think, for me, facing a young man would be… if it was my job, if it was my turn… maybe I would face Kimi.”

As Hamilton said, he has no direct opinion or information on who will replace him, but from what Racing understands about Mercedes' preference, the team doesn't need any convincing that Antonelli should be anything other than his Plan A for 2025 and beyond. – Josh Sattel

Sainz schedule

“Don't worry, when I get them, you'll know,” Sainz said when asked during the drivers' press conference when he expected his plans for his future.

He admitted it might still be a long way off: “I think so. It's not moving very fast.”

The words were not many but they were all revealing, corroborating information that Sainz had set aside for the best possible opportunity he could get for 2025 and beyond.

If he were to definitively consider signing a multi-year Audi/Sauber deal, that deal and this announcement would already be in place, given that the worst secret in Formula 1 – if there ever was a secret at all – is that he is the first choice for the project.

But at the teams currently higher in the standings – Mercedes and the more exciting (and perhaps long-term) option Red Bull – he will have to wait. Sainz's answer to Imola confirms his desire to do so. – Valentin Khronzi

Ocon's paradoxical timeline

This willingness to wait is not shared by Sainz's fellow free agent Esteban Ocon, whose multi-year contract with Alpine expires at the end of this season.

“The important thing is to be safe as soon as possible,” Okon said of his 2025 forecast.

“This is a clear goal for me, as always. I don't want to pay the price again, as happened at the end of 2018, which was not a good memory and was not for performance reasons.”

Whether Ocon's fear of being ousted in the likes of the 2018 Force India championship (and subsequent sabbatical) is real or a way to convey a sense of urgency to potential suitors, it probably helps a bit that his current team, Alpine, has not been immediately name-checked as a priority – especially since the question What prompted Ocon to answer was specifically about Alpine's chances of sticking with him.

He continued: “I think I am doing well again this year and over the years I have spent in Formula 1.” “So, yes, I deserve a place in Formula 1. And yes, we will see.”

Finally, he turned to Alpine: “At the moment, I am completely interested in this team, and completely dedicated. I have been in the project for years, and that is very clear, but in Formula 1 there is a completely dark side, that [silly season] The part, not the part I enjoyed at all. “So once that is done, it will be even better.”

Is it the Alps then that Mercedes-run Ocon wants an early commitment from? Or could he be a Mercedes Williams client – or even Audi, where he has been pictured as a replacement for Sainz?

If the latter, how can Ocon's desire for a quick solution be reconciled with Sainz's intention to wait and see? – VK

Bottas demands commitment

Valtteri Bottas described himself as “99% sure” he would be on the Formula 1 grid next year – and chose that number only because of his assertion that nothing in Formula 1 was 100% when you don't have a contract yet (or, arguably, Even when you do that).

But Bottas also stressed the importance of long-term commitment, and dodged the question of whether there was actually something short-term on the table.

“I'm not going to get one year somewhere to just be in Formula 1 and stick with it,” he said on a more general note.

“I need a long-term project, with clear goals. With respect. For what I can do and offer.

“That's really the main thing. Obviously the faster the car the better, but the main thing is to have that security for years to come, and we will work together to achieve the goals we have set.”

The issue of 'respect' came up again in a later answer, and although it is important not to put words in Bottas' mouth, it was difficult not to read it as a reference to his current team at Sauber and its top manufacturer Audi.

Bottas was already surprised by Hulkenberg's signing, and now faces the reality of Sauber/Audi openly pursuing others for the remaining seat. Is it possible that this relationship is already so damaged that any continuation cannot be on the table?

The Finn said he was “very keen”, like Ocon, to decide his future soon, explaining that it would be “too late” to keep him in the air by the summer break.

“There are ongoing discussions, and some progress is being made,” he insisted. – VK

The shortlist of three Williams drivers

With Williams closing Albon's services, the focus now turns to the identity of his team-mate. Team principal James Vowles has referred to “about three options” for the drive – although not by name – and is keen to have a competitive driver in the second seat to help Williams through the transition to the 2026 regulations.

“When we are in a position to talk about it openly – which won't take long; we want her – [I will] “But at the moment, the direction of travel is that we know we need to perform at the highest level,” Vowles said of the team's second-driver situation.

“Logan [Sargeant] He has the control to make sure he performs at that level, and that's his control. I didn't take that from him. But what is clear is that we also need to talk to others.

While current driver Sargeant should be considered among those options, this seems more respectful of his position. He will need to raise his level significantly in the coming races to have any chance of changing the seemingly inevitable fate.

Among the other candidates, the obvious names are Antonelli, Sainz, Ocon and Bottas.

Antonelli's future is tied to the decision Mercedes makes and may be out of the question given Williams' desire to have a driver for 2025 and 2026. The management teams of both Ocon and Bottas have open lines of communication with Williams. It is understood that Pierre Gasly's management have also been in touch, although his availability for 2025 is unclear at the moment and he appears more likely to remain at Alpine.

Sainz is considered a wildcard, something Vowles has understandably defended convincingly but realistically with little chance of swaying Audi for his services if the Spaniard cannot reach the top position he aspires to.

Realistically, Vowles' reference to around three candidates probably shouldn't be taken too literally, although he would be keen to sign a contract in the near future at a volatile time in the driver market given Williams' competition for drivers with rivals Alpine and Haas. And Sauber. – Ed Straw



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