Pierre Gasly was confirmed for another campaign at AlphaTauri, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel looked set to extend their deals at Alpine and Aston Martin, with Oscar Piastri poised to graduate to Formula 1 with Williams.
But that continuity quickly turned into chaos over the summer break when Vettel’s retirement caused a domino effect that would radically shake up the look of the Formula 1 grid.
Now only two seats remain unfulfilled, with several drivers still in with a shout of landing a drive. So here’s a rundown of the contenders for the remaining seats on the 2023 grid.
After a quiet but moderately successful rookie year, Mick Schumacher was expected to shine in a Haas that had proved quick in pre-season testing, but he could not profit from the team’s upturn in form, missing out on the points twice in the opening quartet of races through minimal fault of his own.
Schumacher didn’t help himself with a slew of mistakes, drawing the ire of team principal Guenther Steiner who criticised the German in public.
The German finally broke his points duck with eighth at Silverstone after going wheel to wheel with Max Verstappen in the final few laps, with Schumacher making it back-to-back points finishes in Austria, finishing sixth.
With Haas slipping back in the development race, Schumacher has been unable to add to his tally, with rumours of a breakdown in relations between the Schumacher camp and Steiner adding to the German’s problems.
Schumacher’s woes have thrust Nico Hulkenberg back into the Formula 1 ascendancy, with the veteran German now the closest challenger for Schumacher’s seat at Haas.
Hulkenberg, who has been without a full-time drive for three years, made a cameo for Aston Martin at the start of the season in place of Sebastian Vettel who had tested positive for Covid on the eve of the season curtain raiser.
Despite having no track time beforehand, Hulkenberg out-qualified regular driver Lance Stroll in Bahrain and nearly scored a point in Jeddah when Aston Martin struggled for pace and was only fighting Williams at the back of the field.
That two-race cameo gave Hulkenberg a chance to find his way back onto the Formula 1 grid. With Haas looking for a cheaper, more experienced driver and the German’s rumoured persistent phone calling, it’s no wonder the ex-Le Mans winner is in contention.
Antonio Giovinazzi/Robert Shwartzman
Looking in from the outside are Ferrari’s reserve drivers, Antonio Giovinazzi and Robert Shwartzman.
Ferrari have been keen to get Giovinazzi a seat in Formula 1 after he departed from Alfa Romeo at the end of 2021, with the Italian getting an FP1 outing for Haas at the Italian Grand Prix finishing the session 18th fastest and just over three-tenths down on regular driver Kevin Magnussen.
Shwartzman has also tested for the team in the past and will also make an FP1 appearance for Ferrari at the 2022 United States Grand Prix giving Haas the perfect opportunity to evaluate him in case talks with Hulkenberg and Schumacher break down.
Two years ago, Logan Sargeant was staring down the barrel of his single-seater career ending because of a lack of financial backing preventing him from graduating to Formula 2.
But the American didn’t give up on his dream, and two years from that make-or-break decision, Sargeant is two races away from earning a super licence and a potential Formula 1 drive with Williams, which would make him the team’s first American driver since Mario Andretti in 1982.
Sargeant, a member of the Williams Driver Academy, has had a superb rookie season taking two victories and is currently the highest placed of the rookies in the championship standings, residing in third behind series champion Felipe Drugovich and Theo Pourchaire.
If Haas swoops in for Hulkenberg, Schumacher may find refuge at Williams alongside former Red Bull driver Alex Albon.
Even though the Williams package is not as competitive as Haas’ offering, Schumacher will have the full support of the team’s CEO Jost Capito who has been an admirer of Schumacher’s abilities and has been keen to bring him to Williams.
‘‘Mick deserves to stay in Formula 1, we’ll see if that happens, but he’s definitely an option for us,” Capito said.
“He could really come forward and be a very good driver in Formula 1. He’s now in his second year. If you look at George Russell, he made mistakes as a sophomore at Williams, and he still developed.”
From the opening weekend of the Formula 2 season in Bahrain, Jack Doohan has punched above his weight and is currently Sargeant’s chief challenger for rookie of the year honours after taking three wins for UNI-Virtuosi putting him fourth in the standings.
Although Doohan had completed some testing in a year-old Alpine, instant promotion to Formula 1 seemed unlikely. Still, when Piastri snubbed Alpine for McLaren, Doohan was thrust forward in the academy’s pecking order and suddenly became a candidate for the seat at Williams.
That speculation might have cooled, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Doohan in Formula 1 sooner rather than later as Williams may have to look for an alternative option if Schumacher re-signs at Haas and Sargeant fails to get the super licence points required to race in Formula 1.
What will happen to the two remaining F1 seats?
In a silly season with more twists and turns than your average thriller, it’s tough to predict who will complete the grid.
One would expect Schumacher to be retained on a one-year deal with Haas, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Hulkenberg gets his third and potentially final bite of the Formula 1 cherry.
As for Williams, it should be Sargeant who gets the nod providing that Schumacher gets retained at Haas. If Haas, however, goes down a different route, then Schumacher should be able to find a landing spot at Williams.