After the shock announcement that Daniel Ricciardo will move from Red Bull Racing to pursue a seat at Renault, the whole Formula 1 driver market has been tipped on its head with plenty of predicted moves now void. That’s why this time of the year is called ‘the silly season’.
Riccardo’s signing now locks in six drivers for the 2019 season.
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have both retained their seats at Mercedes for next year with Hamilton signing an extended two-year deal prior to the team’s home Grand Prix in Hockenheim. Bottas’ one-year extension with the Silver Arrows – with an option for 2020 – was announced that same weekend.
Sebastian Vettel is locked away at Ferrari until 2020, agreeing to a three-year contract extension which was confirmed by the Maranello squad last year.
Meanwhile at Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen put pen to paper back in October last year extending his contract with the Milton Keynes squad by one year – also until 2020.
Now Renault is the second team to confirm their drivers for 2019 as Ricciardo’s teammate Nico Hülkenberg is already locked in on a “multi year deal” with the Enstone outfit.
With the news of Ricciardo joining, Renault’s signing of the Australian forces Carlos Sainz out of the team. The Spaniard was essentially on loan from Red Bull as part of a complex set of terms agreed between Red Bull and Renault to release its junior team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, from its Renault engine supply deal and allow it to switch to Honda power units for the 2018 season.
With all this happening, there’s still plenty of questions to ask about where drivers like Sainz – and others – will be heading for 2019.
Ferrari and Red Bull Racing could look to emerging star drivers
Kimi Räikkönen still has a question mark over his head regarding his future. The Finn, Ferrari’s last championship winner, has been signing one-year deals with the option for the following year since his return to the Italian squad back in 2014. While he’s shown flashes of speed and is proving to be a quite capable number-two to teammate Vettel, the bare facts remain that he is yet to claim a race victory in his second stint with Ferrari.
His only threat now comes from Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari ‘B’ team, Alfa Romeo Sauber. Leclerc, who dominated last year’s Formula 2 Championship, is a Ferrari Academy Driver and has been showing solid pace since his debut in Melbourne at the start of this season. The Monégasque driver has appeared in Q3 three times this season with a career-high finishing position of sixth in Azerbaijan. Ferrari has the oldest driver pairing on the grid and it needs to prepare for the next generation of drivers.
Ricciardo’s departure from Red Bull Racing leaves a vacancy with Pierre Gasly tipped to be the favourite for the seat. The Frenchman, a part of the Red Bull Junior Program, has out-paced his Toro Rosso teammate Brendon Hartley for the majority of this season with a best result of fourth in Bahrain. He shows enough maturity and speed to step up to the top team.
Red Bull has historically gone for drivers from their own program, overseen by Dr Helmut Marko, therefore proving that anyone outside of the Red Bull family is highly unlikely to claim the empty seat.
Carlos Sainz can also be in the running for the seat being a Red Bull driver, however, his friction with Max Verstappen during their days at Toro Rosso in 2015 could likely hinder the Spaniard’s chances at claiming a seat in the senior team.
Carlos Sainz Jr is a key player
So where does Carlos Sainz go then? He is Red Bull talent with no seat at Renault, holding a small chance to go back to his roots. His options are theoretically either McLaren or Toro Rosso – the latter would be a step backwards for Sainz Jr., which he would be reluctant to accept.
McLaren has yet to announce any of their drivers for the 2019 season waiting for veteran Fernando Alonso to decide whether he wants to move on from Formula 1 and pursue other championships or stick with the Woking team. Alonso has been receiving plenty of interest from around the motorsport world and there’s somewhat of a chance this could be his last season in the pinnacle of motorsport.
His exit can be fuelled by many factors. McLaren CEO Zak Brown co-owns motorsport giant United Autosport where he could help Alonso secure an IndyCar Series drive at Andretti Autosport and achieve the final leg of his Triple Crown ambitions by winning the Indianapolis 500. A career in the IndyCar Series alone may be more appealing to the two-time World Champion than Formula 1, with McLaren continuing to be uncompetitive despite ending its diabolical three-year marriage with Honda.
The FIA World Endurance Championship also poses an interest to Alonso as he holds a valuable seat at Toyota. The Japanese manufacturer is leading a one-horse race in the 2018-19 WEC ‘Superseason’, being the only LMP1 class entry running with hybrid technology. Alonso, in the two races he has had with Toyota in the current season, has triumphed in both with solid winning margins at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Meanwhile, Stoffel Vandoorne has had a tumultuous season, rarely beating his world-class teammate Alonso this year. If Alonso were to leave McLaren, Vandoorne’s chances of staying in the team would improve as an experienced driver in the team would be needed.
In either eventuality, Sainz – who is a very attractive proposition for McLaren – has to be considered a contender.
McLaren could also turn to their academy driver in Lando Norris who’s currently racing hard in the supporting Formula 2 Championship. The question is if he is really ready for Formula 1, given he’s only 18 years’ old, or whether he should have more time in the feeder categories. Much will depend on how he finishes this year’s F2 season – he was an early championship leader but has since been overhauled by Mercedes junior driver George Russell.
Force India’s troubles could spell a mid-season seat shuffle
Given its current administration woes, it would seem that the least of Force India’s concerns its who will be sitting in its cars in 2019. Incumbent drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez could both lose their seats depending on who steps in to rescue the team, although in the long run it would be a surprise not to see both drivers somewhere on the 2018 grid.
Ocon was considered a chance at the second Renault seat, but with Ricciardo signing on that avenue is now closed. Being a Mercedes junior driver, however, Ocon could find himself with a Mercedes customer team such as Williams in exchange for a reduced engine bill for the team. That is, of course, on the assumption that a seat at the Grove squad exists.
A seat could well open up at Williams, and the shuffling could take place by the next Grand Prix in Belgium. Reports up and down the paddock suggest that Lance Stroll’s father Lawrence will be a rescue party for the Force India administrators and use a cash injection to fund a seat for the Canadian youngster. This year’s Williams has been very uncompetitive and the elder Stroll is very keen to see his son in a more competitive car as soon as possible.
Meanwhile at Haas and Toro Rosso…
Pérez could also be in a spot of bother if Force India was to end up in a worse situation. The Mexican’s place on the grid has been secured by no end of talent, but perhaps more critically, the millions of dollars in sponsorship he brings from his homeland.
That could prove attractive to the Haas F1 Team, which has historically shown favour to Latin American drivers when it ran Pérez’s compatriot Esteban Gutiérrez for the 2016 season as teammate to Romain Grosjean.
Of Haas’ two current drivers, Grosjean and the bold Kevin Magnussen, it is the former who is more at risk. Magnussen has outpaced and outraced Grosjean for the majority of the year while the Frenchman has experienced plenty of bad luck and made some clumsy errors.
Haas’ strong connections with Ferrari could mean that Pérez may not be a shoe-in. If the team is perceived as another feeder outfit for Ferrari, then Charles Leclerc could be shuffled across from Sauber to what is perceived as a more competitive team should Ferrari opt to sign Räikkönen for another season.
The line-up at Red Bull’s ‘B’ team, Toro Rosso, will ultimately be determined by who becomes Max Verstappen’s teammate. Ricciardo’s departure and Gasly’s potential promotion is a possible godsend for Brendon Hartley, who looked most at risk of being forced out to either make way for Carlos Sainz Jr. (should he be brought back) or European F3 frontrunner Dan Ticktum.
The New Zealander has struggled in his return to open-wheel racing. He’s rarely outpaced Gasly and has a pair of tenth-placed finishes to his name this year, although in his defence he has been borne the brunt of the team’s reliability issues and been involved in a few freak accidents.
It’s about money and engine deals for Williams and Sauber
Williams is also yet to confirm their drivers for the following year, however, Sergey Sirotkin’s financial contribution to the team looks to satisfy his intentions for the future with the former World Champions.
They have got enough on their plate dealing with the aerodynamic issues of their FW41 chassis, which have frustrated the Stroll family to a point that if they can find an alternative team for Lance, they will make the transition. Keep an eye on news from Force India.
If Stroll leaves either in the next few weeks or at the end of the season, that could pave the way for Esteban Ocon – at the behest of Williams’ engine supplier Mercedes – to join its line-up.
Mercedes’ other young driver, George Russell, may also be in the running. The Brit is currently delivering stunning results in the F2 Championship and battling out with Lando Norris for the title. Of the two youngsters, Russell appears readier for F1 and is considered the most likely of the F2 drivers to be the next to graduate to F1.
Williams has another driver up its sleeve with in the form of reserve driver Robert Kubica, who is a fan favourite to rejoin the starting grid after his near-fatal rally accident in 2012 which forced him out of Formula 1.
Finally, at Sauber, their driver line-up for 2019 sits under the influence of Ferrari and the Swiss’s team’s anonymous owners. If Leclerc is subject to a call-up at either Ferrari or Haas, another Ferrari Academy Driver would be in the running for the valuable seat.
Candidates may include Antonio Giovinazzi who’s had brief Formula 1 experience racing for Sauber at the start of last season in replacement for the injured Pascal Wehrlein. His time there was clumsy with two accidents in China at the final corner on Saturday and Sunday. Many question whether he is ready for the advancement to Formula 1, but test driver duties for Ferrari, Haas and Sauber over the past 18 months may have improved his confidence for the elite level.
Another strong selection may come in the form of fellow Italian Antonio Fuoco, currently racing in the FIA Formula 2 Championship. Racing in his second year in the feeder series, the 22-year old has claimed a victory and three more podiums in 2018 with a solid performance around the streets of Monaco in Sunday’s sprint race. He is, however, rather erratic and does get in rather too many accidents of his own making.
As for Sauber incumbent Marcus Ericsson, Sauber’s owners seem very keen on keeping a driver of Swedish nationality in its line-up. Despite his rather limited results and long-term potential, Ericsson’s future seems safe – for now.
While the Formula 1 drivers take their much-deserved time off to wind down and come back strong for the second half of racing, eager eyes must now wait for more news to follow regarding seats for 2019. After Ricciardo’s bold move to the factory Enstone team, only one thing for sure is that potentially anything can happen!
Images via Ignite Image and Sauber AG