As every Formula 1 season heads towards its final quarter, a game of bingo can be played as drivers who seem destined for the exit door are asked by journalists what alternative racing series they’re looking at.
Often those responses come across like a plucked-from-the-air list of whatever non-F1 championships are considered ‘fashionable’ at that moment. Sometimes the answers perpetuate the stereotype of the coccooned F1 driver with little idea what’s going on outside their own bubble, assuming they’ll be able to walk into top drives in the series they’re naming even though those grids are long since full.
Others are clearly wise to what’s going on ‘outside’ and might even sound like they’re looking forward to racing for wins elsewhere.
Four or maybe five of the current F1 field will lose their place on the grid for 2021. Where is it genuinely sensible for them to look for new employment right now?
We assessed the realistic options.
On the face of it, IndyCar is a perfect destination for exiled Formula 1 drivers and has proved so in the past. But in terms of modern reality, it’s a move we won’t see often.
IndyCar is still the little brother to NASCAR in America, and doesn’t boast as many paid drives as its stock-car sibling. Ultimately, IndyCar is one of the most exciting single-seater series to watch, but it’s not accessible enough outside of North America to the average fa – unless you’re somewhere like Sweden, now that two of its best drivers compete in IndyCar – to attract much foreign sponsorship.
Speaking of which, Marcus Ericsson is the last major F1 to IndyCar convert and a perfect example of why few others will follow right now.
His move was possible as he has a combination of talent and budget from personal backers. But often drivers exiting F1 are accustomed to lavish salaries. By the time their (lack of) F1 future is clear, most of the paid IndyCar seats are filled, or teams have been working for months on securing a budget elsewhere.
As most of the drivers leaving F1 have less appeal in North America than is necessary, finding last minute funding is tough. For someone like Fernando Alonso it’s doable, but would be much more difficult for, for example, the Haas duo Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen.
There are no paid drives left on the table in IndyCar for 2020. Ultimately if an ex-F1 driver brought budget, theoretically any team would make room for them with an extra car, knowing the talent level on offer and the competitive edge that could provide in a tough series like IndyCar.
But because of the lateness in the year of this F1 silly season, it’s likely too late to draw the funding together.
And though IndyCar’s highly-open competition and the US single-seater scene’s heritage of success for F1 converts (see Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and Alex Zanardi) might give the impression that an ex-F1 driver will be competitive immediately, it’s not that easy.
Ericsson only has one podium from his two seasons so far, and Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 results still read DNF – DNQ – 21st. An ego check awaits any ex-F1 driver expecting an easy ride stateside in 2021.
VERDICT: Still one of the best post-F1 options, but too easy to underestimate and the best ships have sailed for 2021.
Prospects for displaced F1 drivers are scant, if not completely closed off for 2021 in Formula E, but more realistic for 2022 and beyond.
As outlined by The Race last Friday, the chances of the likes of Romain Grosjean, Daniil Kvyat, Kevin Magnussen, Alex Albon or Sergio Perez snaring a drive for this coming season have already been declared zero by the competitive FE driver market being completed.
So, beyond an injury or illness induced opportunity that may present a one-off cameo the F1 exiles would have to do with a seat at either NIO333 or Dragon Penske Autosports.
However, with NIO333 believed to be choosing either Tom Blomqvist or Daniel Abt as a partner to Oliver Turvey within the next week after a solid testing period, any outsider coming in at this stage is highly unlikely.
And as revealed by The Race recently, Dragon Penske Autosport has plans that currently revolve around Nico Mueller and Sergio Sette Camara.
Even if there were a slot to fill, the problem for supplanted F1 drivers is the clash between the pre-season test at Valencia and the first Bahrain grand prix on the final weekend of November. Additionally, late FE deals are unlikely to be financially fruitful for drivers with the COVID-19 pandemic causing cut-backs in most areas.
The issue of zero testing experience in a category of the sport which is brutally harsh on the underprepared, and cares little about reputation (Felipe Massa) or one lap speed (Esteban Gutierrez, pictured above), makes a significantly hostile environment for a Formula E rookie regardless of where they have come from in the motorsport pecking order.
The 2021/22 marketplace looks like a much more open proposition with many more seats likely to be available for the final season of Gen2 action.
It will also be clearer what the future commitment of manufacturers is. This will make longer-term plans for the advent of Gen3 for the ’22/23 campaign much more structured for new drivers to come into the electric world championship.
VERDICT: No room at the inn. Yet.
Depending on how you look at the global endurance racing arena at present it could either be a promising or abysmal time to make a Nick Heidfeld or Sebastien Buemi style F1 to sportscar jump and join the world that embraces maximum skill and minimum sleep.
The jury is still out on just how the LMDh cars and LM Hypercars can successfully compete against other in the World Endurance Championship and IMSA SportsCar Championship in the future.
It will probably centre on whether vested interests on both sides of the Atlantic can be cast aside for greater good and true convergence not just be promised but effectively executed.
And with few serious manufacturers having absolutely confirmed their long-term plans it’s a pensive sportscar driver market right now.
The glamour seats will undoubtedly be with Peugeot, Toyota and Alpine in the short-term and opportunities do exist there.
Current Formula E stars could have a significant say in this pool of drives too, as at least Jean-Eric Vergne, Antonio Felix da Costa, Buemi, Nyck de Vries and Alex Lynn will surely be in the mix for some of these seats given their sportscar CVs. That could close off some opportunities for F1 drivers.
Of the F1 exiles Grosjean is the only one who has tangible sportscar experience with a handful of low-key outings in a Matech Ford GT car (pictured above) a decade ago. A seat with Alpine, perhaps?
His soon to be former team-mate Magnussen doesn’t have any sportscar experience but he does have good endurance genes passed down from his highly decorated father Jan.
Word is that Magnussen Jr is going all out to carry on the endurance racing lineage with approaches and discussions being made in recent weeks with all major manufacturers with and about to have programmes.
All eyes are now on the likes of Ferrari, Hyundai and Aston Martin to see whether they will have future factory Le Mans involvement.
F1 experience being used to foster an endurance career is a pattern as old as the hills and certainly for the two Haas refugees it appears the most natural choice. But it will be a gamble.
While IndyCar begins a new boom, Formula E is stabilised with so many manufacturers on board it can even afford to lose a couple ahead of Gen3 commitment, and F1 looking to a cost cap and new rules set, endurance racing is in a nervous time of unknowns and simply has to make the LMDh and Hypercar era work.
From both a competitive and financially attractive point of view there are some teams in Japanese Super GT that could be eye-catching as well as the WEC options.
Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button have enjoyed and thrived in Japanese sportscar racing in recent seasons and the likes of Daniil Kvyat and Alex Albon especially are young enough to be reborn there.
VERDICT: A wide enough pool of opportunities that some form of good employment could surely be found, but a far more complex situation than the easy win of chasing an Audi, Porsche or Toyota deal in the LMP1 boom years.
The successful exploits of Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly have re-established Super Formula as a very credible proving ground for talent on the cusp of F1.
However, despite the Japanese championship’s status as a high-profile, ultra-competitive top-level single-seater series, those leaving F1 don’t really tend to pop up there.
The two obvious recent exceptions were both Japanese F1 drivers. Kazuki Nakajima, Williams F1 flop turned Toyota LMP1 superstar, won Super Formula titles in 2012 (when it was still Formula Nippon) and 2014. Sauber podium finisher Kamui Kobayashi is also a regular presence in the series, albeit one who is still chasing his maiden win, having finished runner-up on five occasions.
But non-Japanese ex-F1 drivers have been a Super Formula rarity in the past decade. Vitantonio Liuzzi popped up for one season in 2014, and Narain Karthikeyan ran as many as five campaigns, but both enjoyed limited success – although Karthikeyan did record a pair of podiums.
And while the likes of Button and Kovalainen have been champions in the Super GT series that usually lends itself very well to twin campaigns in Super Formula, neither has dabbled in the open-wheel counterpart.
Super Formula isn’t even halfway through its 2020 season, so talk of how next year’s seats will be divvied up is probably extremely premature.
But with the series’ two engine suppliers Toyota and Honda exerting a big influence over which of their seats goes to which driver, it’s hard to believe that a place wouldn’t be found for a credible F1 outcast if they expressed sufficient interest.
VERDICT: Probably the best of the leftfield options if you can get Toyota or Honda on side.
This might seem a crazy F1 alternative given it hasn’t even held an event yet, but getting in at the start could prove very wise.
After all, the last time Alejandro Agag came up with a bold idea for a racing series that looked mad and over-ambitious on paper and had mockable quirky elements, the end product rapidly turned out rather well and was soon snaffling big manufacturers from established series. There’s every reason to expect Extreme E to follow Formula E’s trajectory.
An electric-based championship with a focus on sustainability and spreading environmental messages, and with a gender-equal driver line-up, does sound rather like the future of socially-acceptable motorsport, doesn’t it?
It’s the team line-up that proves how serious Extreme E is.
Getting both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton involved (separately!) at ownership level is an outstanding statement of intent, Adrian Newey has a foot in the door with Veloce, US powerhouses Ganassi and Andretti (with a side involvement from McLaren boss Zak Brown via his United Autosports squad) are on board, and Audi-affiliated Abt, HWA, QEV and Techeetah know from Formula E what Agag and his colleagues can make happen.
On paper, the thought of a 2020 F1 driver becoming the sixth person on the confirmed Extreme E roster after Kyle LeDuc, Sara Price, Mattias Ekstrom, Timmy Hansen and Catie Munnings sounds basically ludicrous. But as a long-term prospect, it would make a lot of sense. And wouldn’t be much more bizarre than Grosjean’s Auto GP, Andros Trophy, FIA GT1 route last time he was ditched from F1.
VERDICT: Well worth a punt given the people involved.
The DTM’s traditional status as a prototype-esque touring car series where big-shot manufacturers compete with nearly full works line-ups has made it a natural destination for F1 outcasts for many years now.
But while by and large the ex-F1 contingent have all had their moments, they never really took the series by storm.
Former Toyota and Marussia driver Timo Glock has probably been the biggest recent success, making a spot in BMW’s six-man roster his own and scoring five wins, but never really challenging for the title (his peaks seeming to overlap with the troughs in BMW’s overall form).
The likes of Paul di Resta and Pascal Wehrlein had gone to F1 right after becoming DTM champions, and returned to the DTM with Mercedes once their grand prix careers were up – but neither reached the same heights as before, with di Resta’s most promising season coinciding with Mercedes’ exit.
This year Robert Kubica went from a Williams F1 drive to a privateer ART BMW gig in the DTM, but though he did score a standout maiden podium at Zolder, he’s been largely mired at the back otherwise, not helped by BMW usually being second-best to Audi.
There’s also reason to believe the F1-to-DTM pathway will end with Kubica for now, as the 2021 version of the series will bear little relation to the DTM of the last decade.
Audi following Mercedes and deciding to withdraw (and the R-Motorsport Aston Martin programme collapsing after one year) has forced series boss Gerhard Berger into major revamp, and from ‘21 onwards the DTM will be a spec GT3 championship contested by privateer teams.
That doesn’t rule out drivers on works contracts and some form of manufacturer involvement (although it is not yet known which exact teams and cars will line up on the grid, and thus no drivers are signed up), and it may well retain a big chunk of its current prestige – but GT3s might just be a less attractive F1 follow-up to ex-grand prix drivers than the Class One cars the DTM currently fields.
VERDICT: Once arguably the best post-F1 option. Not anymore.
Thanks to Kimi Raikkonen (pictured above) and Kubica, the concept of ex-F1 drivers heading for rallying for their next career isn’t totally bizarre. But Raikkonen and Kubica’s struggles also act as a warning for anyone who fancies that route.
Both were highly respected for taking on such a different challenge (especially in Kubica’s case as he used rallying to relaunch his career after his devastating injury) and impressed with their raw pace in that environment, with Kubica even managing a WRC2 title and an outright win in the European Rally Championship.
But both needed far more time to become truly, reliably competitive in the World Rally Championship’s top class. The drivers who’ve spent their whole lives in the world of stages and pace notes had such a vast experience advantage, and with the margins in rallying so fine, it never took a huge miscue for Raikkonen or Kubica to end up with a wheel missing and consequently losing out on yet more of the mileage they needed.
Even assuming anyone exiting F1 did want to try to improve on Raikkonen and Kubica’s efforts, there would be a huge question mark over whether there’s a decent WRC seat for them.
The championship is in an anxious period amid discord over the nature and timing of its long-awaited move to hybrid-based technical regulations. Only Toyota and Hyundai still have factory programmes, with M-Sport doing its best to keep Ford competitive against the odds too. A keen ex-F1 driver bringing a commercial package to a WRC team would surely be lapped up and the series would love it (teams were quick to express excitement about the idea of F1 drivers popping in for the Monza Rally before realising there was a date clash). But few would expect a truly competitive outcome.
VERDICT: The Raikkonen/Kubica rallying storylines were bold and wonderful, but there’s no repeat on the horizon.
Like rallying, US stock car racing owes its place on this list purely to a Raikkonen precedent. His 15th-place in a Truck Series race at Charlotte in 2011 was both impressive and bizarre.
Don’t expect anyone else in the F1 pack to follow Kimi’s lead and jump into NASCAR any time soon…
Ultimately, it takes years for even life-time stock car drivers to make it onto the NASCAR ladder, let alone graduate through the ARCA, Truck and Xfinity Series.
NASCAR offers more prize money and paid drive opportunities than most post-F1 options, and has moved in a more F1-like direction in the last two years with its high downforce package introducing tactical engineering from the teams and dirty air on the track. The addition of more road courses next season could also attract an outsider.
But it’s just so intricate in terms of learning how the car works and applying set-up changes through a race.
Just look at some of the incredible drivers that have tried and failed in NASCAR. Dario Franchitti stands out as a top example: despite his immense IndyCar success that will only be rated ever higher in the years ahead, his 2008 stock car switch was a nightmare. If you had any doubts over his ability after that, he won the next three IndyCar titles on his return there! Adaptation, not talent, was the problem.
Karthikeyan also (unsuccessfully) gave the Truck Series a bash a year before Raikkonen’s appearance (pictured above) too.
Juan Pablo Montoya (pictured leading below) is an outlier with his dramatic move straight from F1 to NASCAR in mid-2006. But in his nine-year NASCAR foray he failed to achieve anywhere near the success of his single-seater career.
Single-seaters and NASCAR are just so different. It’s almost a different sport compared to Formula 1.
And we’re going to be whimsical, it’s not like any drivers have gone the other way! Even though, prior to the 2020 season, Martin Truex Jr was only two points shy of an F1 superlicence…
VERDICT: A very entertaining prospect, but not realistic.