One of the biggest talking points from the start of the 2021 F1 season is if we’ll see a driver swap at Mercedes half way through the year. Toto Wolff and Valtteri Bottas have both done their best to shut down the rumours, saying they’ll leave that kind of thing to Red Bull. But, driver swaps during the middle of a season can happen. It’s not just a Red Bull technique either.
These are some of the best mid-season driver transfers in F1.
MORENO OUT – SCHUMACHER IN
Michael Schumacher joined F1 as a stand-in for Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot who’d been arrested for pepper-spraying a London Taxi driver in self-defence. Michael only did one race for them, and he didn’t even finish the race. However, his qualifying pace was enough to make him F1’s hottest property.
Quickly Eddie Jordan signed a contract with him to get him to stay at Jordan, but the cunning Benetton boss, Flavio Briatore, was already sniffing around himself. Flavio also signed a deal to get Michael in his car from the next race.
Contracts became complicated with the Jordan contract being altered to say that Michael would sign “a” driver agreement. That driver agreement became a straight driver swap with Benetton’s Roberto Moreno going to Jordan and Michael Schumacher taking the vacant Benetton seat.
PALMER OUT – SAINZ IN
At the end of the 2017 season, Carlos Sainz was signed by Renault to replace Jolyon Palmer, who had been struggling a lot in his second season in F1.
Jolyon had one points finish to his name, and his teammate Nico Hulkenberg was fighting at the top of the midfield every race. It became obvious that he would lose his seat, and just before the Singapore GP, Renault announced that Palmer was out and Carlos would join the team in 2018.
However, Renault was impatient. Just weeks after announcing Carlos’ new contract, they decided to put Sainz in the car from the 2017 US Grand Prix. He qualified in the top 10 and scored points in the first race – something Jolyon had only done occasionally all year. It was the right decision for Renault and Carlos because if he didn’t take that step out of Toro Rosso, he probably wouldn’t be with Ferrari now.
TRULLI OUT – VILLENEUVE IN
Jarno Trulli’s 2004 season is famous for two things: his only F1 victory at Monaco and being sacked by Renault at the end of the year after having a HUGE falling out with boss Flavio Briatore.
The start of the year was brilliant. He was in his third season with the team and looked to earn himself a fourth, but when he lost a podium to Rubens Barrichello on the last lap of the French GP, the team was not happy.
Gradually the relationship got worse, and so did Jarno’s results. He was no longer scoring points, and with three races to go, he was replaced by 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve who was on the sidelines for 2004.
It worked out alright for Jarno, though. He was able to go to his new team, Toyota, two races early when he started with them in 2004 rather than in 2005.
MONTOYA OUT – DE LA ROSA IN
Juan Pablo Montoya was hot property in F1 in the early 2000s. He was the exciting Colombian who was taking the fight to the domineering Michael Schumacher and Ferrari from his very first few races.
He was so compelling that the famously boring Ron Dennis even got caught up in the buzz, and in 2003 he signed Montoya to McLaren for a 2005 start date. Deals for drivers are rarely done so early, but that was brilliant Montoya was.
But unfortunately for the two parties, it didn’t go very well. Montoya found the McLaren very unpredictable to drive, and for most of the season, he couldn’t get on Kimi Raikkonen’s level. He did win the odd race later in the year, but Kimi was fighting for the championship.
The following year, Montoya announced midway through the season that he would be driving in NASCAR in 2007 rather than F1. He was promptly sacked from McLaren, who thought there was no point in paying for a driver who didn’t want to be there.
They brought in reserve driver Pedro De La Rosa, who had performed well as a stand-in the year before. De La Rosa saw out the season for McLaren, who then promoted a young GP2 ace called Lewis Hamilton? Never heard of him.
RED BULL – ALL THE TIME
Valtteri’s badass response to questions about Mercedes potentially dropping him was to throw some mega shade at Red Bull. “I think there’s only one team that does that kind of thing in F1, and we’re not that.”
He isn’t making it up. Being a Red Bull driver is cutthroat. They expect perfection, and when they get it from one driver, it makes it even harder for the second driver.
LIUZZI IN/OUT – KLIEN IN/OUT (2005)
This was Red Bull’s weird, innovative three-driver strategy which they decided would be a good idea for their first-ever F1 season.
David Coulthard was the proven race winner who had come from McLaren, so he was made number 1 driver. The number 2 role was split between Vitantonio Liuzzi and Christian Klien. Seriously, the strangest game of musical chairs we’ve ever heard of.
Liuzzi was a Red Bull driver who had performed very well in Formula 3000 and earned an F1 shot and Klien had been driving for the team the year before when it was Jaguar. Both drivers switched seats for certain races throughout the 2005 season, but the idea of swapping drivers every other race didn’t really catch on.
KVYAT OUT – VERSTAPPEN IN (2016)
One of the most famous driver swaps of recent years was when Max Verstappen was promoted to the Red Bull senior team at only 18 years old and after only one full season in F1.
After four races of 2016, Daniil Kvyat was not performing up to scratch. He managed a podium at the Chinese GP – which was great – but his teammate Daniel Ricciardo had been leading before a puncture.
For the Spanish GP, Kvyat was demoted to Toro Rosso, and Max was promoted to the Red Bull. The move was vindicated straight away when Max won that race and became the youngest ever race winner in F1 history. Kvyat did get the fastest lap, but that’s slim pickings.
GASLY OUT – ALBON IN (2019)
If you want pure Drive to Survive drama, you can’t look at anything other than Pierre Gasly’s demotion to Toro Rosso midway through the 2019 season. Pierre had failed to match Max’s pace all year, and for Red Bull, it just wasn’t good enough. Max won two races in the first half of the year and took a pole position. Pierre’s best result was one fourth place.
The pressure mounted, and over the summer break, they brought in Alex Albon, who’d had some stellar races for Toro Rosso. He fought for a podium in the wet legitimately at Hockenheim and earned a shot with the senior team in his very first season.
Albon did do better than Gasly for the most part in 2019 and got close to a podium. In 2020, Albon stayed but couldn’t bring the fight to Max and was demoted out of F1 altogether to just the reserve driver.
Gasly won with AlphaTauri in 2020 and is now the team leader there, but any avenue to the senior team looks off the cards for him.