The German’s retirement news has turned the driver’s crazy season upside down, opening up a range of possible scenarios that could affect different teams.
The bottom line is that Aston Martin doesn’t have a definitive plan.
While Vettel’s retirement was always a possibility and has clearly been a talking point between four-time world champion and team owner Lawrence Stroll in recent weeks, they also discussed the terms of a contract extension.
The team couldn’t wait forever for a decision, of course, but it wasn’t until this week that Vettel made his intentions clear and so the search for a replacement officially began.
Ultimately, the decision is Stroll’s, but he will make it with input from top management, including team principal Mike Krack, technical director Andy Green, sporting director Andy Stevenson and performance director Tom McCullough.
Aston Martin is of course in a special situation because Lance Stroll is in the other car, and any decision inevitably has to take those complex dynamics into account.
By taking Vettel, Stroll Sr knew he was getting a man who was a world champion but also a team player who could potentially have a positive influence on his son.
In addition, Aston is a car manufacturer and there are marketing considerations. The choice of Vettel was influenced by the positive PR he would bring, and it is inevitable that Stroll will want to take someone with a high profile, such as a proven race winner, if possible.
Nico Hulkenberg, Aston Martin
Photo By: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
Option 1 – Nico Hulkenberg
Notwithstanding all other considerations, the logical first name on the list must be that of reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg, who drove for the team during the Force India days in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
He returned to appear as a sub for Racing Point three times in 2020, replacing Vettel at Aston in the first two races of this season when the latter tested positive for COVID-19.
He will also do a Pirelli test for Aston in Hungary next week, which will give him valuable track miles with the AMR22.
Hulkenberg is available, it will be easy to get him a one-year contract for 2023, while all options remain open for 2024, and he is of course well known to the team.
He turns 35 in three weeks and is therefore less than two months younger than Vettel, but as we have seen in recent years, drivers today can race until their 40s.
He could also remain the backup option for the coming weeks as long as it takes the team to explore other options and perhaps eventually decide he’s the best choice, at least for 2023. But is he really the man the team wants? ?
Fernando Alonso, Alpine F1 Team, is interviewed after the race
Photo By: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Option 2 – Fernando Alonso
An obvious alternative is Fernando Alonso. Stroll was interested in the Spaniard before hiring Vettel, and he fits the bill of being a world champion and winner who can bring extensive technical knowledge as well as the marketing profile Stroll needs at Aston.
Leaving Alpine would also free up a seat for Oscar Piastri and keep the Enstone camp happy.
The downside is the baggage that some in the Aston camp may fear that Alonso will bring. He has a reputation for being disruptive and pursuing his own interests, which is not in keeping with the work of Lance Stroll’s teammate.
That said, much of that reputation goes back to his McLaren-Honda days, and in his two years with Alpine it was all very optimistic overall.
Alex Albon, Williams Racing
Photo By: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
If not Alonso, then who? The list of big names out of contract that might see Aston as an upgrade is very short.
Alex Albon is one and he could be an interesting pick. He would certainly fit the bill not to make waves with his teammate.
Mick Schumacher has no contract with Haas either, and Vettel will no doubt be singing his protege’s praises. He would also be great on the marketing side. But has the youngster really done enough to convince the Aston folk? And would he be willing to sever his ties with Ferrari?
Another potential candidate is Daniel Ricciardo, who is theoretically still under contract with McLaren. However, he could either be ousted by McLaren or leave in a “controlled manner” suitable for all parties if offered an Aston deal. That would free up a seat for Colton Herta or anyone else who wants to promote McLaren.
Ricciardo ticks a lot of boxes, but will Aston really want to take on someone who has struggled so much at McLaren and shows few obvious signs of digging himself out of the hole he is in now?
If Aston doesn’t take Alonso, it won’t want Piastri. Stroll would not want to hire a rival team’s protégé, train him and send him back to Enstone and former Aston boss Otmar Szafnauer.
There is another rookie who could be an outside bet. Nyck de Vries is highly regarded in the paddock and his recent FP1 forays with Williams and Mercedes have done him no harm.
Nyck de Vries, test and reserve driver, Mercedes AMG, arrives in the paddock
Photo By: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
He is on the list of Aston reserves, at races where Hulkenberg is not present, so there has been contact. Aston also has two more FP1 rookie sessions to put in this year where they can assess him.
The team uses Mercedes engines and that there are all kinds of connections between Stroll and Toto Wolff that would make such a deal painless. And it would be very easy for Mercedes to transfer him to Aston with no ongoing contractual ties to the Brackley team, so that he would join Stroll with no strings attached.