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Can F1 Drivers Move Teams Mid Season? (Full Answer)

Every year, the F1 rumor mill churns out stories about drivers moving teams mid-season, quirky contract clauses, and the possibilities of rookies working their way into the pinnacle of motorsport. For many, it will beg the question of whether F1 drivers can switch teams mid-season.

F1 drivers can move teams mid-season, as teams can make changes to their driver line-up all year round. This isn’t always easy, as drivers will often be tied to expensive contracts, making it tough to take them away from their current teams, especially without paying huge financial compensation.

This current system can lead to all sorts of instability for drivers, especially if they were to start underperforming. In this article we will discuss the ins and outs of an F1 driver’s contract, as well as mentioning some high-profile cases of drivers switching their allegiances mid-season.

F1 Driver Contracts Explained

Signing on the dotted line of an F1 contract will be the proudest moment of many a driver’s life, as it will mean that they have managed to secure themselves a seat for the upcoming season. However, F1 contracts can be filled with various performance-based clauses as well as small print that can make them volatile, especially if things start to go wrong on the track.

The two main features of an F1 contract are the driver’s salary, and how many years the contract will stand for. In recent years it has become commonplace for teams to secure their top talents with long-term contracts, with Max Verstappen signing an unheard of six-year deal with Red Bull in 2022. This is a real statement of intent and will prevent any teams from trying to lure him away.

Secondary And Young Drivers

Not all drivers will be tied down to huge long-term contracts. Some drivers are often placed on short-term deals as they are seen as replaceable, and if they do drastically underperform, the team can let them go at the end of the season without having to pay to terminate their contract.

The same can be said for rookie drivers and other unproven talents, as it greatly reduces the risk of a team taking them on when they aren’t up to standard. Some younger drivers may not want to be tied down to long contracts either, especially if they are at a smaller team and see themselves one day racing for one of the title challengers. 

Contract Clauses

Some contracts will include performance clauses, which can include bonuses for race wins or podium finishes. These often remain confidential as, after all, the contract is meant to be a personal agreement. Clauses that enable either the team or driver to terminate their contract may also be included, which we will delve into shortly. 

Teams can terminate a driver’s contract should they not fulfill their side of the deal. This can be for reasons such as poor conduct or unprofessionalism, failing to cooperate with team strategy and team orders, as well as showing a lack of commitment to the team.

Can F1 Drivers Break Contract?

F1 drivers can break their contracts in 3 ways: termination clauses, by being bought out, or through a mutual decision. But with so much money on the line – often upwards of $10 million/year – coupled with the fact it’s not always easy for a team to source a replacement, it’s not a simple process. 

Termination Clauses

The fine print of an F1 contract may include a clause that allows the driver to terminate their contract should certain circumstances arise. These clauses can be included to prevent talented drivers from being held hostage by their contract to a team with a poorly performing car. Not every driver will have a termination clause in their contract.

Charles Leclerc has a termination clause included in his Ferrari contract, which allows for termination should the team not finish in at least third place in the Constructors’ Championship by 2022. This gave Ferrari an incentive to keep improving their car, as well as ensuring that Leclerc wouldn’t see out his best years in a car that can’t mount a title challenge. They finished P3 in 2021.

Termination clauses aren’t always stacked in favor of the driver, with Sebastian Vettel having a performance clause in his contract during his time at Ferrari in 2019. The clause stated that if he failed to win the Drivers’ Championship that year, then Ferrari could oust him before the expiration of his contract. 

The clause was never exercised however, with Ferrari instead deciding not to renew Vettel’s contract when it expired the following year.

Contract Buyouts

Just as easily as it can be signed, an F1 driver’s contract can also be bought out. This is the route that teams will have to go down if they wish to sign a driver contracted to another team. As a lot of money will be exchanged in order to relieve a driver from their contract, it will usually be the bigger teams with more financial backing choosing this method.

It is a similar sort of process that you’ll find in other team sports, although not as common, as there are only 20 seats available in Formula 1. A recent example of a contract buyout happened in 2017, when Mercedes purchased Valtteri Bottas’ services from Williams after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement. It was a move that cost Mercedes just over $12 million.

Contract buyouts aren’t always set into motion by rival teams and can instead be instigated by the driver’s own team. This can involve an ugly fallout between driver and team, or just involve a team’s desire to go forward with someone else. This will be an expensive move for a team, as they’ll not only have to front up the wages of the departing driver, but also pay for their two active drivers.

Mutual Decision

Sometimes things just won’t work out as desired for a driver and their team, resulting in a mutually agreed contract termination. This can happen for various reasons, including team/driver fallouts, poor performances or personal reasons. Mutual terminations usually involve little to no payout for the driver upon their exit and are the preferred method of contract terminations for teams.

Drivers may also wish to retire before seeing out the remainder of their contract, as was the case with Nico Rosberg’s early retirement in late 2016, with his contract not due to run out until the 2018 season. While Mercedes could have pushed him to see out his contract, there remains little logic in holding onto a driver who may not fully be invested in team’s long-term project.

KEY POINTS

• F1 driver contracts are complex and expensive

• Drivers may break their contract, usually in one of three ways

• While rare, teams and drivers may exercise termination clauses

• Teams may also buy out the remainder of a driver’s contract

• Drivers and teams may even mutually agree to terminate the contract

F1 Drivers That Moved Team Mid-Season

DRIVERYEARORIGINAL TEAMNEW TEAM
Michael Schumacher1991JordanBenetton
Jarno Trulli1997MinardiProst
Mika Salo1999BARFerrari
Jarno Trulli2004RenaultToyota
Giancarlo Fisichella 2009Force IndiaFerrari
Max Verstappen2016Toro RossoRed Bull
Carlos Sainz2017Toro RossoRenault
Alex Albon2019Toro RossoRed Bull

It’s not been too uncommon over the years to see a driver switch teams mid-season. Some of the biggest names in modern F1, such as Michael Schumacher and Max Verstappen, have decided to start fresh halfway through a season, with Red Bull developing a reputation of not being shy to reinvent their driver lineup at crucial moments. 

Schumacher’s Switch

Michael Schumacher’s switch from Jordan to Benetton is one of the most eye-catching mid-season swaps in F1 history, as Benetton decided to sign him after just one race at the Formula 1 level. Schumacher was stepping in as a replacement for the imprisoned Bertrand Gachot at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. 

Although he only managed to complete one lap of the race, his qualifying time caught the eyes of the Benetton team, who managed to get him into their car for the next race. This was a contentious move, as it broke an agreement between Jordan and Mercedes that stated that Schumacher would race for Jordan until the end of the season.

Jordan took legal action to attempt to stop Schumacher from racing with Benetton that season. This failed, and Schumacher went on to race with Benetton for the next five seasons, winning two World Drivers’ Championships, before making his move to Ferrari in 1996, where he would enjoy the best years of his career, winning five more.

Red Bull’s Chopping And Changing

Red Bull have utilized a two-team system since 2006, running their main team alongside their secondary team Toro Rosso, which has since been rebranded as Alpha Tauri. This made it easy for them to negotiate mid-season changes, promoting and demoting certain drivers depending on their performances throughout the season.

One of the most notable mid-season swaps they made was replacing Daniil Kvyat with young Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen midway through the 2016 season. Verstappen went on to win his debut race with the Red Bull team, before becoming an immovable force in the years that followed. 

Verstappen wasn’t the only beneficiary of Red Bull’s two-team system, with Alexander Albon replacing Pierre Gasly halfway through the 2019 season. Unfortunately, Albon didn’t make the same impact at Red Bull as Verstappen and was subsequently demoted to the role of Red Bull test driver in 2021, but he now races for Williams.

Should F1 Drivers Be Able To Move Mid-Season?

Unlike a lot of other sports, Formula 1 doesn’t have a designated window where driver transfers can be made. A team can decide whether they want to release a driver at any time, leaving an air of uncertainty looming over any underperformers on the grid. 

This uncertainty is great for teams as it means that their drivers are less likely to rest on their laurels and will want to perform at their best every race. If they were guaranteed to be locked in for a full season, then the control would be put firmly into the drivers’ hands, increasing the risk of them undermining their team.

Formula 1 is a performance-based sport, so it makes sense that teams could swap out their drivers if they aren’t performing to the same level as their teammate. This has happened multiple times in the past, such as when Daniil Kvyat was replaced by Max Verstappen in 2016. 

However, teams will be reluctant to replace a driver who is performing at a good standard, especially when you consider the fee they would have to pay to buy them out of their contract. Ultimately, the deal is simple: if a driver does well, they will keep their seat, and if they don’t, they may be shown the door.

Transfer Window

The most obvious alternative to the current system would be to implement a window during which these swaps can be made. This could take place during the off-season, as well as during the mid-season summer break, allowing drivers and teams to negotiate their deals in a more structured manner, leaving the grid settled for the two main chunks of the season. 

It would also offer drivers a bit more stability as they would have the chance to prepare their next moves in advance, instead of being immediately cut from the team. One potential issue that it could throw up would be when a driver signs a pre-agreed deal with another team, yet still must race for half a season with their current team, and their dedication to the team could significantly drop.

This distraction could have knock-on effects to the team they are leaving, which would be a cause for concern. The same could be said for drivers that fall out with their superiors. Team fractures and poor morale would only lead to a season of failure and a lot of wasted money, rather than granting the position to someone with a stronger desire to fight for the team.

Despite the negatives, it would be interesting to see the drama unfold when a deal goes down to the very last minute of the window. It’s certain that there would be thousands of F1 fans on the edge of their seat watching a live broadcast of the deadline day

Swapping Mid-Season Wouldn’t Be Easy

However, this would not make it any easier for drivers to swap teams mid-season. One of the main reasons drivers don’t do this often at the moment is the learning curve required to learn how to drive a new car. Every F1 car is unique, and requires a slightly different setup and driving style to be able to perform well with it, making the winter testing period with a new team vital.

If drivers move mid-season, it makes it hard for them to catch up to their new teammate as they must learn how to perform in the new car, and it also leaves the respective teams struggling too as they must be able to get their new driver up to speed quickly. This takes investment of both time and money, and it is undesirable for everyone involved.

‘Silly Season’

Not having a dedicated window for transfer activity doesn’t stop press and fans alike from engaging in and sharing theories and rumors of who will end up driving for who. This yearly process, usually taking place from the summer break onwards, is nicknamed ‘silly season’ and keeps a lot of fans and broadcasters occupied while no racing is taking place. Some love it, others not so much!

KEY POINTS

• It’s very unlikely for F1 drivers to swap teams mid-season, but it has happened in the past

• One famous example was Max Verstappen joining Red Bull midway through the 2016 season

• There is no ‘transfer window’ in F1 like there is in soccer for example

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 drivers can move teams midway through a season should they receive the right offer. To do so, they would need to break their contract with their current team. This usually doesn’t happen, and it can be very expensive for the team that has to buy them out.