Image: Manuel Goria/Sutton Images via F1.com
We all knew the silly season was coming, but come on…
In what was expected to be a quiet week — with the F1 summer break upon us and the mid-season testing just finished with — Daniel Ricciardo and Renault blew everyone away on Friday afternoon when the rumours broke that the Red Bull driver had signed a contract with Renault for 2019 before the news was confirmed first by Red Bull (that he wouldn’t be with the team in 2019) and then by Renault who were obviously delighted to announce the deal.
This comes as a surprise for many reasons but mostly because, with Mercedes and Ferrari looking beyond Ricciardo for 2019, everything pointed to Danny Ric re-signing with the only F1 team he has considered home (I think that’s fair to say) — it really was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
Heck, even Ricciardo himself gave a pretty strong indication that he would re-signing with Red Bull, telling reporters in Hungary that his extension with Red Bull “…will definitely be done by Spa,” and that “It’s just a little bit of fine tuning here and there…it’s all good.”
A pretty strong indication, you’d have to say.,,
It’s unclear right now (writing this the day the news dropped) what has caused this 180 turn but I have a few theories…
Firstly, I don’t think Red Bull’s decision to switch to Honda engines from 2019 onwards played that much of a role. Since Canada, where they brought a significant upgrade, that Honda engine has shown some solid competitiveness — how much worse, if at all, is it to Renaut’s engine now in terms of both pace and reliability? A lot more Red Bull-Renault engines seemed to have given up the ghost more than Toro Rosso-Hondas this season…
I do think finance has played a big part here. Being a works team, it’s no secret that Renault have a bit more disposable income at their discretion than a team like, say, Williams or Force India. I also think it’s no secret that Ricciardo is underpaid across the board, not only for what he delivers on track but off of it too — an extremely marketable (and fantastic) personality with the team itself and sponsors. We don’t know what the figures from the respective Red Bull and Renault offers were, but you’d have to imagine that the Renault offer was significantly more handsome than what Red Bull might have offered — who, it’s well documented and mentioned by team principal Christian Horner, already pay a handsome amount to Max Verstappen…
Speaking of Max Verstappen, I’m sure he played a part in this decision too. Not so much to do with Max himself (they seem to get on pretty well) but everything surrounding him — the hype, the attention (media and fans alike), Max’s growing position in the team (you can definitely sense small elements of Vettel-Webber) and possibly his salary compared to Danny Ric for all we know.
The reasons I’m sure will become a bit more clear when Ricciardo and the F1 circus arrives at Spa near the end of August but the fact of the matter is the Aussie will be donning yellow next season, leaving the team that have nurtured his 7-year Formula 1 career that started in the HRT at Silverstone in 2011…
I think it’s an extremely bold move to Ricciardo to make when he had a very safe option in Red Bull on the table. For sure, Renault have made gains in each season since their return to F1 in 2016 but they still have a long way to go if they want to be challenging Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari, and I don’t expect them to be challenging Red Bull next season either unless Renault make significant steps forward with their car and engine and Red Bull fall backwards with Honda power.
But there comes a time where every man has to make a change in his life, the bird must leave the nest at some stage in its life, and Ricciardo I think will do well with a new change of scenery — I’m just worried he’ll be fighting for P6’s, P7’s, P8’s next year instead of top 5 finishes, including race victories.
With this mega announcement, Renault have confirmed their driver lineup next year as Ricciardo joins Nico Hulkenburg, paving the way for what could be a lot of change down the paddock. The silly season had begun anyways but now it’s been ignited with jet propulsion.
And, really, it depends greatly on what Red Bull decide to do with their now vacant seat for 2019. A year ago, if this situation where Daniel Ricciardo leaves Red Bull had arisen, Carlos Sainz would’ve been the no-brainer to be his replacement. But it’s not that simple anymore.
Not only has Sainz, who has been in reported contract talks with McLaren, endured a difficult season at Renault (by his own standards) and has been outdriven by teammate Nico Hulkenburg, who many expected to trail the highly rated Spaniard, but the emergence of Toro Rosso starlet Pierre Gasly — who has performed brilliantly in his Toro Rosso this season, guiding his Honda-powered car to P4 in Bahrain and more recently P6 at Hungary — has thrown a spanner in the works when it comes to Sainz and Red Bull.
But more than that, according to RaceFans.net (article linked above), Red Bull’s advisor and head of young driver programme, Helmut Marko, is reportedly against the idea of reuniting former Toro Rosso teammates Max Verstappen and Sainz again at Red Bull. With Red Bull already nailing their colours to the mast that is Max Verstappen, that would be a problem for Carlos Sainz and Red Bull, so it would seem unlikely based on that and performance this season compared to Gasly (which may or may not be a factor), that Sainz will reunite with Verstappen…
Sainz has been discussing a possible deal with McLaren, who rate Sainz highly.
“We think Carlos is an excellent racecar driver,” McLaren chief Zak Brown said. “Of course Carlos is potentially on the market, I don’t know his exact situation at Renault and Red Bull but he’s certainly someone as you go down the shortlist of drivers that you’d consider putting in your car.
“If he was free, and if we had a seat, he would certainly be high up the list for a racing seat.”
If it ends up that it’s not Ricciardo for Sainz in a like-for-like swap, it blows the driver market wide open.
Firstly, it opens up the Red Bull seat to, more than likely as discussed, Pierre Gasly. I’d love to see Fernando Alonso in that Red Bull seat but that seems unlikely given how Red Bull normally promote from within — usually from their young driver programme — and possibly Alonso’s relationship with Honda (given how he often threw Honda under the bus during their three-years together) could also play a part.
If Gasly is promoted, that opens up a spot at Toro Rosso and there could be two spots open should they decide not to bring back Brendon Hartley. I still think, if Alonso stays and Sainz joins his fellow Spaniard at Woking, McLaren and Toro Rosso could come into an agreement to send Lando Norris to Toro Rosso for a season/until Fernando Alonso calls time on his stellar Formula 1 career — especially if Norris wins F2, with F2 rules preventing champions from returning to the series. It’s beneficial for everyone: Toro Rosso get a quality driver for a year or two and McLaren have their man in an F1 seat (though the complications there are obvious, it’s just a theory of mine) And after that, I think Toro Rosso are better off sticking with Hartley over test driver Sean Galael… And as for the Red Bull junior driver programme, I think they’re a year or two from promoting another one to Toro Rosso.
At McLaren, there could easily be two spots going there too if the team elect not bring Stoffel Vandoorne back and Fernando Alonso either moves on to another F1 team or retires from F1. Vandoorne has had a terrible season compared to Alonso and he’s definitely under pressure for his F1 future. If Alonso retired, his McLaren career might be safe, depending on what McLaren choose to do with junior driver — and current F2 championship leader — Lando Norris and if they sign Carlos Sainz in the process.
With the Renault lineup confirmed, the Esteban Ocon-Renault rumours disappear immediately, leaving Ocon likely to spend another season with Force India. The other seat at Force India is up for debate, with Sergio Perez rumoured to be heading to Haas and who knows what else will go down there with the recent administration. And where Lance Stroll/Lawrence Stroll potentially figure into things remains to be seen in the midst of the administration/potential new ownership process.
I think it’s at this point in the driver market where the Ricciardo-Renault news begins to have less of an effect when it comes to drives. The likes of Ferrari, Mercedes Williams, Haas and Sauber…
With regards Perez, he’s rumoured for a seat at Haas, who don’t have anything lined up for 2019, though it’s safe to assume Kevin Magnussen has done enough to secure a seat. I personally believe Charles Leclerc would be best suited for that Haas spot rather than a promotion straight to the best seat F1 might have to offer if Ferrari move on from Kimi Raikkonen. Romain Grosjean is certainly still quick enough to be in F1 but his consistency has been left wanting this season — involved in a number of accidents/incidents this season.
Perez has also been rumoured to return to the team that gave him his first seat in 2011: Sauber. I’d be surprised if it happened but upon thinking about further, you can talk yourself into it. I certainly don’t expect rising star Charles Leclerc to remain with the Swiss outfit and I think time will finally expire on Marcus Ericcson’s Formula 1 career now that Sauber are in the points hunt again. With that said, and with Leclerc surely moving on, I expect another Ferrari junior driver Antonio Giovinazzi to take his place. That 2nd spot next to Giovinazzi could end up being the lifeline of drivers such as maybe Stoffel Vandoorne, Romain Grosjean or even Kimi Raikkonen, whose name has been mentioned with Sauber…
At Williams, I’d imagine Sergey Sirotkin will remain but Lance Stroll’s spot is a bit more questionable with this Force India link. Force India, obviously, need the cash and Stroll offers that. If Stroll moves on, I’d expect Mercedes to use their connection with Williams to try push junior driver George Russell into an F1 seat at Grove. Junior driver Olly Rowland would be a good shout for the second drive as is test driver Robert Kubica.
For Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas were signed to deals at Hockenheim, so nothing doing there.
And, lastly, at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel is secured for another season whereas Kimi Raikkonen’s seat is not guaranteed. Raikkonen has had a strong 2018 (certainly better than his 2017 season) and I think has done enough to earn one more season with the Scuderia. Charles Leclerc is the obvious replacement — and he will be one day — but I think it’s a year or two too soon for him. There’s a lot of pressures and expectations that comes with a Ferrari drive and I think the experience at Haas for a year or two would help round him out, improve as a driver and help iron out some of those little errors he makes at times that may not mean much in a Sauber but mean everything in a Ferrari — the difference between pole position and the second row. Plus, it’s not in Ferrari’s nature to promote young drivers to their seats, especially ones heading into just their second season — they just don’t do it. So for those reasons, I’d be very surprised if Ferrari actually went through with it — it would be incredibly un-Ferrari.
So, with all of that said, I’m going to (horribly) predict the F1 2019 grid.
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Valterri Bottas
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Kimi Raikkonen
Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Pierre Gasly
Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenburg
McLaren: Fernando Alonso & Carlos Sainz
Haas: Charles LeClerc & Kevin Magnussen
Force India: Esteban Ocon & Lance Stroll
Toro Rosso: Lando Norris & Brendan Hartley
Sauber: Sergio Perez & Antonio Giovinazzi
Williams: Sergey Sirotkin & Robert Kubica
Should be fun to see how wrong I am, but hey…always fun.