3 August 2018

The 2019 F1 Driver Market - Ocon out of F1!?

Welcome to the transfer window. The clock is ticking before it slams shut, etc...

A week is a very long time in Formula One. Daniel Ricciardo, who was out of contract with Red Bull at the end of 2018, has moved from "the contract for 2019 with Red Bull will be signed at the Hungarian Grand Prix" to "the contract will be signed in the summer break" to "sod it, I'm out". What is happening now is anyone's guess. But first and foremost on the lips of most people is a very simple question: why is Ricciardo leaving Red Bull?

For a start, Red Bull have been incredibly unlucky this year. The most unreliable team on the grid in 2018, they have squandered the chances afforded to them to the extent that they have thrown away a chance of challenging for the world championship. Furthermore, they have regularly been the 3rd-fastest team on the grid, and this may be artificially inflated by the two drivers, Ricciardo and Verstappen, who are very fast and may be potentially addressing the shortcomings of the car.

Let us also remember that in Azerbaijan, Renault, who have the same engine as Red Bull (and thanks to a new-for-2018 regulation, neither side has a newer-spec engine), were easily racing the Red Bulls in the first few laps after the restart. Until Hulkenberg threw it in the wall and Sainz ran out of tyre life. Azerbaijan marked a watershed moment for Daniel Ricciardo. Max Verstappen got his elbows out in the race and the consensus was he was probably too aggressive. Verstappen regularly put the car in a position where if Ricciardo had not yielded they would have both retired. Then when Ricciardo finally did overtake him, Red Bull gave Verstappen a better strategy by leaving him out one lap longer, putting VES back ahead of RIC. On Lap 40, the two collided when Ricciardo attempted to go down the inside. Not only did the team throw away a solid haul of 22 points, but Verstappen's actions throughout the race were heavily criticised. In my house, however, we all laid the blame at Ricciardo. He was way too late on the brakes. But for most others, Niki Lauda included, Verstappen's infamous habit of moving in the braking zone caused the incident. Racers need to appreciate the difference between hard but fair and overstepping the line. Senna on Prost at Germany 1991 was hard but fair. Verstappen bumping and grinding his way past Daniel Ricciardo all day in Azerbaijan was overstepping the line. Having slogged for 30+ laps to overtake him and then only to find Max back in front of him, how demoralised must Ricciardo have felt? A race where they were no quicker than the two Renaults, a race where Verstappen appeared to have been given preferential treatment to him, and a race where he ended up walking back to the pit lane. For Ricciardo, that may have been a message: this will not do at all.

Reliability has been the biggest issue for Red Bull for this season. They are the most unreliable team on the grid. Christian Horner always lays the blame at "Squirrel Irritable" and his Renault engines, but these are the same engines that have had no problems at Renault and McLaren this season (although McLaren's gearbox has let them down on several occasions, they are one of the most reliable teams on the grid). Just read the list of retirements - Bahrain: double retirement when Red Bull looked like they could win the race in Ricciardo's car after Verstappen binned it in qualifying. Azerbaijan: double retirement after crashing. Austria: exhaust failure for Ricciardo. United Kingdom: brake failure for Verstappen. Germany: Ricciardo forced to take engine penalties, then suffered power failure with a brand new engine on Lap 27. Hungary: turbo failure for Verstappen. Throw in some bad luck and some questionable strategy calls in Hungary's qualifying session and Red Bull, not for the first time, made Ricciardo's weekend exceedingly difficult.

Following on from that, next year the team will be switching to Honda engines, which have been incredibly variable between "OK" (2016, 2018) and "terrible" (2015, 2017). Is it one big gamble for Ricciardo to stay at Red Bull? Quite possibly. The improvement at Renault has been impressive, he knows what he'll get with Renault power, and he may be able to drag Renault into the top 3 in 2019. The addition of number one status (which he only ever had for 23 races at Red Bull) will aid his cause too.

But what does this mean for the driver market? It was thought that Esteban Ocon was taking the place of Carlos Sainz at Renault for 2019. And the near certainty of Lance Stroll going to Force India leaves the market looking very short shrift for several drivers. There appear to be three major developments on the circuit surrounding the three engine manufacturers and their young drivers. Esteban Ocon, a Mercedes junior driver, is currently at Force India but it looks as though there's no avenue for him there. The only option is therefore to move to Williams, but this has never been suggested. At Williams, Sergey Sirotkin looks certain to retain his place with the Grove outfit, and the question of who moves into the second Williams seat is hotly contested. It has been suggested that Mercedes want to put George Russell in the second Williams, but with Ocon now back in the dole queue, what does this mean for Russell? And Pascal Wehrlein, who appears to have been forgotten about completely after Sauber's move to closer links with Ferrari gave Mercedes' Wehrlein short shrift? This is the first piece of the puzzle: Mercedes' test driver looks likeliest for Ocon now, with Russell taking the second Williams seat. The only other alternative is to cast Sergio Perez out of Force India in favour of Stroll and Ocon, but I would be very surprised if this were to happen since it is Sergio Perez who has saved the team from a winding-up petition.

The second question is the Carlos Sainz question. Red Bull now have to choose between Frenchman Pierre Gasly or Carlos Sainz for promotion to the main Red Bull team. Sainz's contract with Red Bull (and Toro Rosso) will expire in September if Red Bull do not "recall" him from his loan at Renault into the main Red Bull outfit. Sainz is a very fast driver and was certainly very good in 2015. However, it is thought that Sainz and Verstappen did not get on at Toro Rosso and this is the main stumbling block. Carlos Sainz is a very good driver, make no mistake about it. The decision is in Red Bull's hands. They managed to just about keep a lid on the Vettel/Webber rivalry, so this is probably what they ought to do. They shouldn't bend over backwards for Verstappen. Gasly has shown flashes of speed in 2018, but in my honest opinion it's not enough to be promoted. Since Red Bull haven't signed a driver from outside the Red Bull academy since they signed Mark Webber in 2007, it would surprise me if they were to look elsewhere. If they do choose Gasly, the driver market becomes far easier. It was thought that Sainz was on his way to McLaren to replace Stoffel Vandoorne, leaving Fernando Alonso with the decision as to whether he leaves McLaren (and F1) or retains his place with protégé Sainz in the second McLaren. Further complicating matters is McLaren's Lando Norris, who is thought to be incredibly fast but could well be poached by Red Bull if things don't turn out. Lando Norris could well end up in the second Toro Rosso. A Sainz promotion, however, would leave McLaren almost inevitably taking Lando Norris into the second seat. Sainz holds the key to McLaren's relationship with Lando Norris.

The final piece of the puzzle is very much unrelated to this fiasco, but is related to the untimely death of Ferrari's Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne wanted to put Sauber's Charles Leclerc in the second Ferrari seat to replace Kimi Raikkonen, but Marchionne's death has potentially forced Ferrari to play it straight and keep things as they are. This is not to say that they will retain Raikkonen for sure, but it looks much more likelier than it did before the German Grand Prix. If they do promote Leclerc, Raikkonen's career in Formula One would come down to a shootout with the underwhelming Antonio Giovinazzi for the second Sauber seat. I'm not a big fan of Giovinazzi (nor Ericsson) and so I'd be putting Kimi back in the Sauber.

With Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas confirmed for 2019, the other little bits and pieces surround:
- Haas: will Grosjean be sacked? (No.) And who would come in for him? Giovinazzi, if he doesn't end up at Sauber? (Probably.)
- Toro Rosso: will Hartley be sacked? (Yes.) And who would come in for him? If Sainz is promoted, Daniel Ticktum. If not, Lando Norris.

tl;dr - my predictions for the 2019 grid:

Mercedes: L Hamilton, V Bottas
Ferrari: S Vettel, K Raikkonen
Red Bull Honda: M Verstappen, C Sainz
Renault: D Ricciardo, N Hulkenberg
Haas Ferrari: R Grosjean, K Magnussen
Force India Mercedes (or whatever they're called (Stroll Mercedes?)): S Perez, L Stroll
McLaren Renault: F Alonso, L Norris
Toro Rosso Honda: P Gasly, D Ticktum
Sauber Ferrari: C Leclerc, M Ericsson
Williams Mercedes: S Sirotkin, G Russell

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