Driving in the dark: Williams decline to end Russell speculation

Portimao (Portugal) (AFP) –


The new owners of the struggling Williams team on Friday declined to end speculation linking them with a move to sign Sergio Perez and dump George Russell next year.

Less than 24 hours after Russell, a highly-rated and contracted Mercedes driver who won the 2018 Formula 2 title, had rejected suggestions that his position was threatened, acting team boss Simon Roberts refused to discuss his future.

Russell told a virtual news conference on Thursday that he had "a contract for next year", but admitted that there were "a lot of great drivers on the grid looking for race seats, some of which have a lot of backing."

His words echoed those of Perez earlier this season before he was told by Racing Point that he would be replaced by four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who in turn is to be released by Ferrari after this season.

Roberts was asked several times to confirm that Russell and Nicholas Latifi would remain with Williams, as per their contracts, in 2021, but evaded the question.

"I'm not going to say anything about either of our drivers," he responded.

"They’re both doing a great job. There's so much speculation around, I don't want to inadvertently fuel it."

He added that since American company Dorilton Capital took over Williams in August they had become aware that "there are a lot of good drivers around that are looking for seats. I can't say more than that."

In an exceptional year, the unprecedented pressures created by the coronavirus pandemic, have created an equally unique 'silly season' – with more top drivers on the market for 2021 than available race seats.

This unusual situation means that with few vacancies remaining, several well-known drivers are likely to be out of a job, in F1 at least, as the music stops and team bosses make their decisions.

At Mercedes, team chief Toto Wolff is out of contract this year along with superstar driver and six-time champion Lewis Hamilton, but few expect either man not to re-sign for next year and beyond.

Nearest rivals Red Bull will retain Max Verstappen, but doubts swirl over the future of London-born Thai driver Alex Albon who has struggled to match expectations this year.

With super-sub German Nico Hulkenberg and Perez both available – and regarded as reliable points-scorers – the pressure on Albon has mounted, but he has refused to contemplate moving on.

"I'm still focused on this year," he said.

"That's the goal. Obviously, I want to stay in this team and I'm pushing hard for that so there's no kind of external mindset – I'm focusing on what I can do."

Pierre Gasly, the Frenchman who won last month's Italian Grand Prix for the Alpha Tauri team, has also been linked with a return to Red Bull or a switch to Renault where Daniel Ricciardo is leaving to join McLaren and replace the Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz.

Sainz in turn will replace the Racing Point/Aston Martin-bound Vettel, who is leaving Ferrari.

Renault are also to be re-branded, as the Alpine F1 team next year, with two-time champion Fernando Alonso returning to F1 to lead the team, but the identity of his team-mate for 2021 remains uncertain.

Esteban Ocon has the seat, but it is anyone's guess as to who will be there next year.

Gasly said his future is not in his own hands because he is employed by the Red Bull stable.

Following the Haas team's decision this week to release both Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, there could be six or more experienced drivers seeking seats.

However, in a bid to reduce costs, the teams could turn to a crop of talented younger drivers led by Mick Schumacher, the 21-year-old son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.