Formula 1 pre-season testing gets underway in two weeks, and 20 of the 22 drivers who will line-up when the lights go out in Australia have been revealed. It’s only Manor who haven’t announced their pairing, and we’ve run the rule over the contenders…
Will Stevens, Alexander Rossi, Rio Hartyanto, Pascal Wehrlein, and Roberto Merhi appear to be the drivers in the running, but who will be behind the wheel at the season-opening race in Melbourne?
Stevens turned out for the team in 17 of 19 races last year and said in December that he was “100 percent confident” of a seat in 2016. That talk has died down somewhat, but Stevens remains the only driver on the shortlist with a full season of racing behind him.
The Briton made his F1 debut with Caterham at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix before switching across to Manor ahead of the 2015 campaign. For the most part Stevens was on par with team-mate, Merhi, if not more impressive. However, when the Spaniard was replaced by Rossi, Stevens struggled to match the American despite having the edge in terms of F1 experience, with Rossi placing higher than Stevens in three of the four races in which they both finished.
Stevens would bring some sponsorship money with him, but not a significant pay packet. There are a lot of young British drivers looking for backers, and not that many companies keen to make the investment.
As a result, the 24-year-old is caught in the middle where he is a decent driver with middle of the road sponsorship, and not being at the top end of the spectrum in either category is likely to mean that he misses out on a drive.
It appears unlikely that Merhi will race with Manor in 2016. While he had his highlights last season, Merhi’s removal in favour of Rossi at the back end of the season suggests that the team are ready to cut ties with him.
In addition, not even Merhi himself has been talking up his chances, an indication that perhaps he already knows he’s out of the running.
Having served as a reserve driver for the team in 2014, Rossi got his shot in late 2015 and made the most of it, putting in some strong showings.
Rossi has been on the fringes of F1 for some time, despite not having a great record in the junior formula prior to last season when he finished a distant second between now-McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne.
While Rossi may not bring that much in terms of a up-front sponsorship, the American does potentially open doors in the North American market that no other driver is tapping into.
Rossi would be a good bet for Manor, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’ll get a drive.
If Manor decide to follow the money then Haryanto will be their man. What Haryanto doesn’t have in talent and experience, he makes up for with a reported €15 million in sponsorship money from the Indonesian government.
The 23-year-old has struggled to make his mark in the GP2 series, with a fourth-place finish last season his best result after notching up just two podium finishes across three seasons.
Haryanto has some history with the team, having had a test drive with what was then Virgin Racing in 2010 after finishing fifth with Manor in the GP3 Series. He also turned out at the Pirelli tyre test after the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Haryanto may not have the pedigree of a driver you would expect to make the step up to F1, but Manor’s decision may be motivated by more than just racing ability.
The Mercedes protégé appears the best out-and-out driver among the contenders for a spot at Manor. As a member of the Mercedes young driver programme, the German is certainly seen as a future F1 driver, it’s just a matter of whether 2016 will be the year in which that happens.
Wehrlein has spent the past three years racing in the closed cockpit world of DTM, the German touring car series, making a possible jump to F1 an interesting step, but one that will be well deserved. Last year he became the youngest winner of the DTM title, wrapping up the Championship shortly before his 21st birthday.
Manor will be powered by Mercedes this season, and the German outfit are eager to see Wehrlein get some F1 experience under his belt. It is believed that Mercedes are willing to throw some sponsorship money into the pot to sweeten the deal for Manor, but they’re not willing to match the numbers that other contenders command.
Wehrlein is most talented driver in the mix, and will should get a drive if Manor don’t go the money route.