As the annual Formula 1 silly season comes to an end, there’s still one final seat available. Could Australian rising star Oscar Piastri suit up alongside Valtteri Bottas for Alfa Romeo in 2022?
During the summer break, it seemed like all the teams with a vacant seat were working tirelessly behind the scenes to formally sort out their drivers line-up, in preparation for a massive 2022 in Formula 1.
With only McLaren, Ferrari and Aston Martin confirming their drivers for the upcoming season prior to the break, there was a feeling of a big shakeup in the grid for next season.
The first domino fell when Kimi Räikkönen called it a day on his incredible Formula 1 career, this left the door open for Bottas to replace him at Alfa Romeo.
Mercedes junior and current Williams driver George Russell moved up to replace Bottas at the powerhouse Mercedes team, whilst Alex Albon was chosen to replace his good friend Russell at the resurgent Williams team.
As the vacant seats began to fill, many questioned the future of current Alfa Romeo driver and Ferrari academy product Antonio Giovinazzi.
As part of Alfa Romeo using Ferrari engines, it is widely known that they can pick one of their junior drivers to occupy one of the seats.
However, if the rumours are to be believed there is a strong suggestion that the Sauber group may move away from the Ferrari engines, in favour of a switch to the dominant Mercedes power units.
With the final spot in Formula 1 for 2022 still up for grabs, it’s time to look at the potential drivers who could line-up alongside Valtteri Bottas.
Rumours amongst the F1 paddock suggest that current F2 driver and Alpine Junior driver Guanyu Zhou is in the driver’s seat to take the final spot next season.
Zhou has spent three seasons in the feeder series where he hasn’t finished better than 6th in the driver’s championship.
The Chinese native currently sits in 2nd in the standings for 2021 – 36 points behind fellow Alpine junior and Australian star Oscar Piastri.
Although it’s his best season to date, Zhou’s substantial financial backing from Chinese sponsors seems to be the sole reason for any chance of an F1 seat.
With a jaw-dropping 30-million Euros in backing from sponsors, Alfa Romeo could seize the opportunity to substantially increase their cash flow.
However the Swiss-based team recently confirmed an extension with the Alfa Romeo brand to stay on as title sponsors until 2024.
With this new influx of cash, Alfa Romeo may no longer have to resort to a ‘pay driver’ like Zhou and could look to bring in one of the brightest young talents in motorsport like Oscar Piastri.
Zhou has shown a much improved all-round driving game in 2021, however his massive financial backing will seemingly be the leading factor in him landing the Alfa Romeo seat next year.
If Alfa Romeo were to strike out with Zhou, they shouldn’t look any further than his fellow Alpine junior, Oscar Piastri.
Piastri has made his presence felt throughout the motorsport world in recent years, after winning the F3 championship last year, he is on course to run away with the F2 title, making it his second consecutive junior title.
With only George Russell and Charles Leclerc being the only two men to complete such a fete, Piastri has an outstanding case to gain a seat in Formula 1.
The 20-year-old has downplayed his chances of making an F1 debut in 2022, claiming he expects to put all his focus on becoming the test and reserve driver for Alpine before replacing two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in 2023.
The Australian native has undoubtedly the best case out of anyone on this list to take the spot, however it seems that politics and money of F1 will see him sit on the sidelines for the 2022 season.
Former F1 driver and current agent of Piastri, Mark Webber hasn’t completely ruled out Piastri’s chances of an F1 seat in 2021 saying,
“Well mate, let’s see … It’s going to be an interesting few months, nothing is totally sorted yet, there’s a little bit of shenanigans to be sorted out, that could fall in his favour.
“Alpine are very, very keen on him, Alpine do not want him to slip through their fingers to say the least, they’re sort of looking to try and re-engage and commit to the future.”
With Alpine seemingly desperate to keep the talented Australian on board, it would be tough to see them allow him to join a rival team.
It may be a boring year for Piastri in 2022 as he will likely be on the sidelines in hopes of a shot in 2023 at Alpine.
Antonio Giovinazzi, the man currently in the Alfa Romeo seat has had an interesting F1 career since signing on as a full-time driver with the Sauber group in 2019.
The Ferrari junior has been inconsistent in a very average car throughout his years in F1, only managing to bag 19 points thus far, with his best finish coming at Brazil 2019 where he finished 5th.
‘Italian Jesus’ has failed to live up to his potential shown in the junior categories thus far, however his lack of a strong race-car hasn’t helped his case.
Giovinazzi has shown flashes of brilliance this year, making two Q3 appearances in consecutive weekends, despite this Giovinazzi has only managed to score one point in 2021.
With team-boss Frédéric Vasseur claiming he’s in “not in a rush” to name his second driver for 2022, if Giovinazzi can keep his good-form up there’s a chance he could retain his seat alongside Bottas.
It seems fairly unlikely that Giovinazzi will able to compete with the rest of the field for this final spot, however could his experience with the team help his case?
As the 27-year-old’s Formula 1 future remains up in the air he may be given a lifeline by way of his connections at Ferrari, if Ferrari were to have the final say, we could see Giovinazzi extend his stay with Alfa Romeo for the foreseeable future.
Théo Pourchair has had high praises on his driving ability since he entered Formula 3 as a 16-year-old.
The Sauber-Junior driver has impressed in F2 in 2021, sitting in 5th on the championship with two wins and 120 points.
He holds the record for the youngest driver to win a race in F3 and F2, but is he ready to make the massive leap to Formula 1?
If you ask current Alfa Romeo boss, Frédéric Vasseur, he has suggested his junior driver is too young and may have to wait in the support categories for a few more years before moving up.
For the Sauber group it would be a match made in heaven for Pouchaire to become the first Sauber Junior to take an F1 seat.
However the Frenchman has the odds stacked against him and will likely find himself back in F2 for the forseeable future.
It’ll be a matter of time before Pouchaire is in and around the Alfa Romeo F1 setup, whether that’s as a full-time driver or as a test/reserve driver is yet to be seen for now.
The biggest wildcard on the list, Nico Hülkenberg has been searching for a way back into the sport since he was let go by Renault in 2019.
Hülkenberg has been the reserve driver for Aston Martin/Racing Point since 2019, where he famously filled in three times during the 2020 season due to both drivers testing positive for COVID-19.
The German native has a history with Sauber, racing for them in 2013 in a very rocky season that finished a lot better than it started.
Hülkenberg has gone on record to say he regretted the move as he believed it derailed his chances of getting a drive with Ferrari or Red Bull the following season.
The 34-year-old recently ruled out a move to Indycar outfit Arrow Mclaren SP stating ‘personal reasons’ for not taking up the opportunity.
Hülkenberg’s outstanding fill-in performance in 2020 led many F1 fans to believe he is worthy of another shot in the premier class.
He still holds the unwanted records of most race starts without a podium (170) and most points without a win (520).
However considering the signing of Bottas, it’s hard to see them putting two experienced and ageing drivers together, as they usually combine an experienced driver with a promising up-and-comer.
Stranger things have happened in Formula 1, as unlikely as this may seem, never say never.
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