Clearly, Formula 1 didn’t feel inclined to indulge the sport’s journalists in a much-needed rest after five races in six weeks. Instead, perhaps for the first time since Nico Rosberg’s bombshell retirement, the F1 community finds itself in a state of shock. Having given every indication that the summer break would simply be an opportunity for Daniel Ricciardo to dot the ‘i’s on his widely reported Red Bull extension, the Aussie has instead stealthily flung a wrecking ball through a 2019 driver market that was previously starting to take shape.
Ricciardo’s move is fascinating in of itself. Is it audacious or reckless? Does it raise questions over Ricciardo’s status relative to Max Verstappen? Were Red Bull unwillingly to give Daniel contractual parity with the Dutchman? Has Ricciardo underestimated the man he will line-up alongside at Renault in 2019? Have Renault, in fact, landed themselves the best driver line-up on the grid next year?
However, all these intriguing questions must for the moment play second fiddle to the disruptive domino effect that Ricciardo’s announcement has inflicted on the driver plans of the rest of the field. Previously locked-in driver moves; such as Ocon to Renault or Sainz to McLaren; are now either impossible or highly unlikely.
Re-establishing some clarity over the driver market now depends on who Red Bull will draft in Ricciardo’s stead. Having spent three seasons in Red Bull’s junior driver waiting room only to sign a short-lived deal with Renault, Carlos Sainz Jr is surely the obvious candidate. However, the chances of a like-for-like Ricciardo/Sainz swap is threatened by increasingly credible reports of poor relations between the Verstappen and Sainz camps whilst the pair were at Toro Rosso. Helmut Marko, keen not destabilise his Dutch protégé, is believed to be opposed to reuniting the pair.
However, if Pierre Gasly is therefore due to be promoted by default, it would be rather uncharacteristic for Red Bull to have allowed themselves to be undercut by Ricciardo’s announcement. In 2014, Red Bull confirmed Daniil Kvyat’s promotion before Ferrari could announce Sebastian Vettel. The delay indicates an internal debate over Ricciardo’s successor, with Red Bull risking squandering their investment on Sainz’s career by failing to promote a driver who is probably faster than Gasly. Sainz would also be in jeopardy of falling off the grid entirely should he fail to get the nod from Red Bull.
Incredibly, another driver seemingly now in the danger zone is Esteban Ocon. Throughout the weekend in Hungary, the impressive young Frenchman was reportedly on the cusp of signing for Renault, a deal which quite obviously won’t be going through. Instead, Ocon appears to have two options: staying at Force India or signing for McLaren. The former is entirely dependent on the uncertainties surrounding the future of the Silverstone-based team.
With Lawrence Stroll looking increasingly likely to headline a programme of new investment in the squad, Ocon’s future appears to depend on whether Stroll Sr’s involvement automatically goes hand-in-hand with a deal for his son. For added bemusement, Sergio Pérez has been linked with a possible move to Haas (which would presumably depend on Charles Leclerc being promoted to Ferrari) and Mercedes is rumoured to be linked to Stroll’s bid, which could strengthen the hand of Stuttgart-junior Ocon.
Unfortunately however, in the short time at least, Force India doesn’t look like a team that can afford to pass up on driver sponsorship opportunities, and given the how adamantly the paddock was reporting the Renault deal that wasn’t, it is entirely likely that such an effective little team is already well advanced in making alternative arrangements.
In that case, and if Red Bull does nominate Gasly, Ocon could find himself in a race with Sainz to secure a seat alongside Fernando Alonso at McLaren. Albeit in a market rife with uncertainties, the speculation that previously linked the Spaniard with a stateside sabbatical in IndyCar does appear to have subsided. However, if Ricciardo’s news proves anything it’s the F1 paddock’s talent for keeping major stories under wraps.
One thing does appear increasingly certain, however: Stoffel Vandoorne is highly unlikely to keep his seat given the sheer number of quality drivers currently displaced. The Belgian’s only realistic chance of remaining on the grid now appears to be at Sauber, with Frédéric Vasseur a confessed fan of Vandoorne, and with the team perhaps looking beyond Marcus Ericsson having secured such a close relationship with Ferrari. Antonio Giovinazzi, who performed strongly during this week’s post-race test, is considered a shoo-in to Charles Leclerc’s seat should he move up the food chain. Following the death of Sergio Marchionne, Leclerc is another driver with little notion of where he will be driving next year.
However, if established F1 drivers are having trouble predicting where they might land in 2019, the prospects of F1 hopefuls like Lando Norris and George Russell is now simply the topic of sheer unbridled speculation. Formula 2 championship leader Russell had previously been cautiously linked with a seat at Williams, amid the reported talks between Lance Stroll and Force India. George can count himself as one of a plethora of drivers whose careers are now intertwined with the delicate situation surrounding Vijay Mallya’s former team. By contrast, F2 title rival Lando Norris’ situation is markedly less complex. With McLaren blockaded by midfield hotshots, Lando’s only hope for 2019 looks to be a loan agreement, otherwise, the young Brit looks set for a second year in F2.
In that vane, the team with perhaps the most mystery surrounding it for next season is Toro Rosso. With one driver linked with promotion and the other with demotion, Faenza appears to be on the hunt for at least one new driver for 2019. A loan agreement for Norris would make the most competitive sense, and provide a chance to benchmark the incumbent, but that appears not to compute with the squad’s historic doctrinal constraints.
And yet Red Bull’s instinctive candidate, F3 racer Dan Ticktum, does not have the requisite experience points to qualify for a superlicense, and whilst an exception was made for DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein in 2016, the FIA has adamantly denied a request for test mileage. Certainly, now appears an appropriate opportunity for Red Bull to look beyond the scant array of affiliates when selecting drivers for its B-team.
Appropriate because 2019 is not a year that is going to pander to the usual maxims of the driver market. Talent will out, but this year widely reputed drivers could fall off the grid entirely whilst teams juggle precarious finances and delicate relations with the paddock’s powerbrokers. As the collateral effects of Ricciardo’s move become clear, it will be worth asking: has all of this happened because the Aussie fancied a change of scenery?