Haas has confirmed it has terminated Nikita Mazepin's contract to race in Formula One, leaving a space open on the grid just a few weeks before the start of the new season.
Haas will need to move quickly to find a replacement at such short notice and says it plans to make an announcement next week. Below is a list of likely (and less likely) drivers who could fill the position alongside Mick Schumacher at Haas.
Brazil's Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of former world champion Emerson, seems like the most obvious Mazepin replacement in the short term. Fittipaldi is the team's reserve driver, a role which exists in F1 purely because teams occasionally need to replace one of their two lead drivers. It's likely Fittipaldi will get some kind of running at next week's Bahrain test, although something more full-time beyond that might be a stretch.
Fittipaldi's two F1 starts came in his reserve driver capacity for Haas as the stand-in for Romain Grosjean after the French driver's big accident at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. While his results were unspectacular, he was parachuted in at short notice and didn't make any huge mistakes.
Fittipaldi's rise through the ranks was generating significant interest a few years ago but seemed to be stopped in its tracks in 2018 when he broke both legs while qualifying for a World Endurance Championship race at Spa-Francorchamps. That cost him a debut appearance at that year's Indy 500 with Dale Coyne Racing and he had to wait until 2021 for the opportunity to come back around.
One thing against Fittipaldi at this stage is that there is a more obvious candidate with more F1 pedigree to his name.
Antonio Giovinazzi seems like the best fit for Haas as a full-time replacement for Mazepin. Giovinazzi left Alfa Romeo last season but has remained in F1 as Ferrari's reserve driver, a role he shares with Mick Schumacher. Ferrari and Haas enjoy a close relationship and putting Giovinazzi in the car would be straightforward and may come with some added incentives from Maranello.
Giovinazzi had a mixed time in F1 but showed some real flashes of talent, such as his fifth place finish at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, in what was usually an uncompetitive Alfa Romeo car. Giovinazzi's problem was these flashes were just that and he did not show enough consistency to justify staying around, although he comfortably out-qualified 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen in their last season as teammates.
Giovinazzi publicly voiced his frustrations with Alfa Romeo on multiple occasions last year and it might be that the Italian driver excels in a different environment, especially at a small team like Haas. That goes both ways, as Giovinazzi would provide Haas with some recent F1 experience which could prove vital with 2022's new cars, which are expected to be developed and improved significantly over the season. Giovinazzi could be expected to get up to speed fairly quickly, especially if he got a day and a half of a test under his belt. This would be a step forward from running two rookie drivers in 2021.
Giovinazzi would be a far better measuring stick for Mick Schumacher than Mazepin has been so far or Fittipaldi would be -- good news for Haas and good news for Ferrari as it continues to evaluate Schumacher's rise up the ranks. The Italian is currently racing in Formula E with Dragon Penske, but is likely to have an exit clause in his contract if an F1 team comes knocking.
Kevin Magnussen would be a popular candidate for a return to F1 with his old team but has to be considered as an outsider for the seat.
Magnussen drove for Haas between 2017 and 2020 but ultimately did not have the backing to continue beyond that despite being the kind of hard racer Gene Haas admires. When Haas signed Schumacher for 2021, neither Magnussen or his teammate Romain Grosjean could compete with the money Mazepin and Uralkali were bringing to the team for the other seat.
Funding has always been an issue for Magnussen despite his clear talent. He contested a solitary IndyCar race as Felix Rosenqvist's stand-in at Road America last year and has become a regular at IMSA with Chip Ganassi Racing. He is also signed up to compete in this year's World Endurance Championship for Peugeot Sport, meaning he may not be able to make the switch back to F1 even if he wanted to.
While racing in sportscars he's often talked about how much he's relished having the opportunity to arrive at a racing paddock with a car capable of winning, so the prospect of returning to a team which could be at the tail-end of the F1 grid again might not appeal to him. That said, it's still Formula One, and Magnussen might not get another opportunity to force his way back into a race seat at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Despite the famous outbursts he provoked from Haas team principal Guenther Steiner in the Netflix series 'Drive to Survive', Magnussen left the team on good terms and would be a natural fit back in a familiar environment.
If the decision was made purely on promoting young talent there would only be one candidate: Oscar Piastri.
In the past three years the Australian has won three titles in Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3 and Formula 2, meaning the only logical step for 2022 was Formula One. However, with little movement on the driver market in 2021, there was only one opportunity for a rookie to join the grid this year -- at Alfa Romeo -- and that seat went to one of the men Piastri beat to the F2 title last year, Guanyu Zhou.
The decision underlined the fact that money speaks louder than talent at the back of the F1 grid, which is also a likely factor in why Piastri won't be considered as a viable candidate to replace Mazepin. Piastri is backed by Alpine -- which was unable to offer him a place at its team in 2022 due to existing contracts with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso -- and it seems unlikely the French team would stump up the cash to buy a drive at a rival team.
Nevertheless, the prospect of pitching Piastri against Schumacher is tantalising. As the two most recent F2 champions both have promising careers ahead of them and finding out which one is quicker in a straight fight would be great to watch. Piastri would provide stiffer competition for Schumacher than Mazepin did last year, but it would also be an opportunity for Schumacher to prove his doubters wrong by going up against a genuine talent of the same generation.
It seems no conversation about replacement drivers is complete without Nico Hulkenberg's name being thrown into the mix. The veteran of 179 grands prix starts was Racing Point's super sub in 2020 when COVID-19 impacted the team's driver line-up on two separate occasions, ruling Sergio Perez out of two races at Silverstone and Lance Stroll out of a race at the Nurburgring.
Hulkenberg impressed on all three occasions (although he didn't start the British Grand Prix due to a car issue ahead of the race) and has therefore become a candidate every time the question of replacement drivers is raised. However, he is currently contracted as Aston Martin's reserve driver, so any negotiations with Haas would have to start with getting him out of that contract before the tricky question of money is also raised. As a result, it's almost certain he won't join Haas as Mazepin's replacement.