Sebastian Vettel's retirement from Aston Martin has left a sizeable void on next year's grid -- a lucrative seat at one of Formula One's most ambitious teams.
With the grid's biggest names -- Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc -- locked down for the foreseeable at their present teams, the top running options are limited. But there are some obvious candidates for team owner Lawrence Stroll, including a former world champion.
The best option
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who lost out to Vettel at title deciders in 2010 and 2012, is in his contract year with Alpine. He is yet to sign a renewal and instantly looks like the best option available to Stroll.
Alonso's on-track pedigree is massive. Many consider the Spaniard to be the most complete driver on the grid and he is arguably a better talent than Vettel. He is probably one of F1's most unfulfilled talents and has not won a race since 2013. His downward career spiral is caused by perhaps the biggest red flag around Alonso: his awful decision-making and the reputation he forged for being a malignant or toxic presence behind the scenes.
Alonso appears to have mellowed since returning from his sabbatical and he would still be a massive signing for Aston Martin. Stroll went after Vettel because he matched Aston Martin's big ambitions. The Canadian billionaire has invested big money in building new state-of-the-art facilities at the team's Silverstone headquarters. There can be no doubting how serious he is about turning Aston Martin into a title-winning outfit, but how realistic a proposition this is remains an open question.
The big question for Alonso would be whether his best chance at ever running at the front again is with Renault's factory outfit at Alpine or Mercedes customer team Aston Martin. Alpine is in a better spot right now but the French manufacturer has continually failed to match the output of F1's front-running teams since returning to the grid in 2016.
For Alpine, this would solve the headache of what to do with hugely promising youngster Oscar Piastri, who has already spent one year on the sidelines since winning the 2021 Formula Two title. Failing to find a place for him on the grid next year could risk the investment Alpine has put into Piastri's career to date.
Complicated, but good, options
Daniel Ricciardo recently reaffirmed his commitment to McLaren, where he has a contract until the end of the 2023 season. His poor form at the team has created huge doubts about his future and it seems likely McLaren is now regretting handing the Australian a watertight deal free of exit clauses on its side.
If McLaren wants rid of Ricciardo, CEO Zak Brown must rip up his contract and face the financial consequences that come with that. But Vettel's departure might give him an out. Like Brown, Stroll is a businessman and would likely see enormous value in striking some kind of deal to take Ricciardo, who is one of F1's most marketable drivers. Ricciardo would fit the Aston Martin brand perfectly.
Ricciardo would obviously still have to sign a deal and it is fair to wonder if he would want to. The eight-time race winner has struggled to adapt to two brand new cars with McLaren, either side of a big F1 rule change, and might not relish the idea of another change of scenery.
From what Ricciardo himself has said and from conversations with sources close to the McLaren driver, ESPN would rate the chances of the Australian wanting to make this switch at fairly close to zero. But it could be exactly what he needs. Lance Stroll is no Lando Norris and it is unlikely Ricciardo would face such a contrast in results racing alongside the young Canadian, even if he did have a similar period of adjustment. Valtteri Bottas has enjoyed a huge career resurgence at Alfa Romeo since leaving his Mercedes struggles in the rear-view mirror and Ricciardo might be able to do the same.
This could be the moment Pierre Gasly wrestles free of his ties to Red Bull. Gasly hardly seemed overjoyed with the announcement that he's staying with AlphaTauri for another season when it was made last month.
Gasly's story has been well-told now and the way he has revived his career and reputation since being unceremoniously demoted by Red Bull in 2018 has been remarkable. He won at Monza in 2020 and has consistently been one of the midfield's consistent performers, but his career feels capped for as long as he stays with AlphaTauri. Sergio Perez's new two-year deal at Red Bull blocks his path back to a front-running car for the foreseeable future and it's hard to ever see AlphaTauri being anything more than a competitive midfield team.
Like Ricciardo, Gasly might be an expensive option for Aston Martin but his upside is clear to see. He would relish the opportunity to lead the team's programme and be the face of its potential push for race- and title-winning machinery.
Whether Red Bull would entertain the idea of letting him go remains to be seen, but if ever there was a moment for Gasly to engineer a way out of his deal, now seems to be it.
Mick Schumacher's contract with Haas expires this year. He finally scored points in Great Britain and Austria but the repair bill he left the team earlier in the year delayed the team's upgrade. Despite the recent improvement, Haas has hardly been blown away by Schumacher's production on track and it is likely Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner assess other options this year before making a call on Kevin Magnussen's 2023 teammate.
Vettel grew up as a Michael Schumacher fan and there's a great narrative in Mick replacing him, but the younger Schumacher is still a Ferrari product and it's hard to see what Aston Martin would gain from an arrangement where it had a driver affiliated to another team. Still, with Schumacher available for next season, he has to be considered an outside shot, although a move to Ferrari customer Alfa Romeo would be the next best option if Haas did not want to keep him for a third season.
Piastri is the other side of the Alonso coin and there are lots of teams interested in his services for next season, but this does seem like a longshot. Any deal for Piastri would come attached to a piece of string leading him back to Alpine when a seat is available.
In that scenario, the team would retain Alonso for one or two more years and then turn to Piastri when they needed him. That's hardly an ideal scenario for a team looking for a big-name driver to build a team around and, if any Alpine-affiliated driver goes to Aston Martin, Alonso seems like the clear favourite.
Piastri's clear talent means he has to be considered a candidate for any available seat in F1 but this does not seem to be a good fit at all.
Nyck de Vries
Reigning Formula E champion Nyck de Vries is an interesting option, as he is still a Mercedes talent and the German company supplies Aston's F1 engines. However, he does not have a single F1 start to his name and it's unlikely Aston Martin would go for a rookie to replace Vettel.
Formula One's favourite supersub Nico Hulkenberg has remained affiliated to Aston Martin and actually deputised for Vettel when he missed the opening two races of the year due to COVID-19. The German driver is a known quantity to the team and is a steady hand in a race car. However, the most obvious blot on his name is his unenviable record of most race starts without a single podium finish. It's fair to argue the German driver is not the man you want in a team with race- or title-winning ambitions.