During the winter months preceding the 2015 world championship, it was evident the former Banbury based team were facing their darkest days. After the tragic accident of Jules Bianchi, a domino effect occurred whereby the team were forced into administration and shut down their operation shortly after the Russian Grand Prix.
The team rose from the ashes under new ownership and with two new drivers for the 2015 season. Max Chilton decided to leave the sport, focussing on sports car and American racing opportunities. In came Essex boy Will Stevens and Spaniard Roberto Merhi on a short term race contract.
After not being able to take part in the first round in Australia, the newly named Manor team have participated in every race since, recording a best result of 12th courtesy of Merhi in what has been a character-building year for the team.
Although Stevens has seemingly had a solid yearlong contract with the team, Merhi has had quite possibly the longest short term contract in the history of F1, which came to an end in Singapore. Here it was announced that GP2 driver Alex Rossi was to participate in the remaining races of the season bar Russia and Abu Dhabi where Merhi will return to the cockpit.
Up till then, Merhi seemingly had the upper hand in the races with not much separating them in qualifying, putting Stevens in the shade, outracing the Brit in four out of the last five Grand Prix. American Rossi came in and although was out qualified by Stevens, did outrace him despite losing all radio contact around the streets of Singapore. So the question that springs to my mind is why wasn’t Stevens dropped and if the obvious answer is money, then what on earth will Manor do next year with regards to their driver line-up.
Things are definitely improving for Manor. They have confirmed that they will use a 2016 power unit supplied by Mercedes. However, they have said their driver line-up will be announced much later in the season. The obvious contenders at the moment appear to be Stevens, Merhi, Rossi and Mercedes F1 reserve and DTM driver Pascal Wehrlein. Also in the mix are reserve driver Fabio Leimer and GP2 driver Jordan King. But with Manor so dependent on money, will this be the only factor in their search for two drivers next year? Whatever the case, there is certainly a Manor Marussia driver conundrum just around the corner.
2016 Driver Conundrum:
Stevens has had a solid first year in Formula One. Nothing spectacular. He appeared as the top dog in the team at the start of the season, however as Merhi gained traction was soon finding himself slipping behind his teammate. The Romford lad seems to have some good backing, but with a Mercedes engine coming Manor’s way, he could very easily find himself ousted in favour of a Mercedes linked driver.
Merhi clearly has some backing, but not nearly enough as Stevens or Rossi for that matter. However, he has done his reputation no harm and has really integrated himself well in his first year in Formula One. Whether he’s beating or matching teammate Stevens, it’s clear both have a good relationship with the team and have moved them steadily forward in preparation for a better 2016. Whether Merhi is a part of that, money will decide. If a Mercedes link is what Manor are looking for, Merhi could well be deemed acceptable having raced for a couple of years in the DTM for Mercedes, which included him scoring a second place for their premier HWA team.
Rossi has dabbled on the edge of F1 for a while now with occasional Friday drives over the last two years with the now defunct Caterham team. He almost got the chance to race in place of Max Chilton for Marussia last year in Spa when the Briton’s sponsorship money failed to come through. However, this did not prove the case. This year though is when everything seems to be falling into place for the American driver. He is currently fighting in the GP2 championship with Mclaren young driver Stoffel Vandoorne securing it in race 2 at Sochi. However, although Rossi lies second in the championship, he has now secured a race seat with Manor for the rest of the year, bar Russia of course and Abu Dhabi. If his performance is stellar I can see Manor wanting to keep him and although the new for 2016 Haas F1 team has said they want experienced drivers, I can’t help but wonder why they have only confirmed one driver thus far.
On the verge of winning the DTM World Championship, Mercedes protégé Wehrlein looks likely to make the F1 switch, much like teammate Paul di Resta did in 2010. Having tested for Mercedes and Force India, the young German is clearly angling for a 2016 seat. However, both teams are booked up, except for Manor who takes over from Lotus as a Mercedes powered team. This could well be Wehrlein’s way in.
The 2013 GP2 champ’s career has truncated since leaving the feeder series. Failing to secure a role in any capacity within F1 in 2014 he left to race in the WEC for private LMP1 outfit Rebellion before being ousted after a year. A drive in the highly rated Super Formula looked likely before sponsorship troubles. A one off drive for Virgin in Formula E for the final two races in place of Jaime Alguesuari saw him finish outside the points in both races. So it’s been a difficult time for the Swiss driver, however, now as a reserve driver for Manor, he has had a few Practice drives, but unless he cobbles together an overwhelming amount of money, he might well stay as a reserve driver or fall out of F1 all together.
Son of former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King, with his father’s role in the reformation of Manor, Jordan was made Development driver at the start of the season while racing alongside Rossi in GP2 for Racing Engineering. A race drive doesn’t look likely, however, a solid first year in GP2 alongside his strong links to the team could see him increase his role with Manor next year to participate in some Friday practice drives.
Money, money, money seems to be the key factor here, which is a huge shame. However, all of the drivers discussed, regardless if they have money or not, are respected and highly skilled. Manor has a tough decision on their hands, and the decision in the end, may not be theirs to make.