Formula One teams are only just returning from a compulsory summer shutdown but face an entirely different driver market to that of a fortnight ago.
Daniel Ricciardo’s shock switch to Renault and Fernando Alonso’s decision to ‘move on’ has opened F1’s Pandora Box with so many 2019 seats still up for grabs.
With difficult decisions comes a huge question. Who will be driving for who come Australia next March?
With next year’s lineup so unclear, the best place is to start by assessing what we know so far, using this table below.
|Mercedes||Lewis Hamilton||Valtteri Bottas|
|Red Bull||Max Verstappen||??|
|Renault:||Daniel Ricciardo||Nico Hulkenberg|
Mercedes and Renault have their line-ups finalised so can focus on car and potentially finding their youth talent a seat at some of the midfield teams.
Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull meanwhile are halfway there but still have a vacant spot up for grabs, which could provide some of the midfield drivers an opportunity to impress.
As for rest of grid, it’s anyone really and some of F2 stars will surely be circling as teams race to fill their seats.
Ferrari and Red Bull face tough decisions in coming months over whether to stick youth or experience in their second car.
At Maranello, Charles Leclerc will be hoping to have done enough in his Sauber to earn a promotion to the works team but faces competition from the ever reliable Kimi Raikkonen.
Raikkonen plays the no.2 driver role to perfection and currently has the momentum amongst front runners, with five podiums from last five races despite approaching F1 retirement age.
If he can keep that form going and potentially get into the title fight then he surely will justify keeping his seat against Ferrari’s young protégé, even if its an one year deal unlike reported two.
Most importantly, whoever gets the seat will have to play second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel, who would surely want to maintain the status quo rather than risk Leclerc doing a Ricciardo on him from 2014 at Red Bull.
Over in Milton Keynes, Helmut Marko will be assessing if Pierre Gasly is ready for promotion from Toro Rosso.
If it is decided that Gasly needs another season in their junior team, they have a serious problem because none of Honda’s junior drivers would qualify for a FIA Superlicense.
They of course, have an ex academy member in Alexander Albon who has delivered in F2 this season. Would he be worth a punt given his improvements in recent years and would do a decent job as no.2 to Max Verstappen?
Should Albon not be viewed as an option, the only option left would be to shop around for an experienced driver to fill in for one season.
Should that option happen, Red Bull will most certainly have to sit back and watch as other teams fill their seats before looking at those who face 2019 driving elsewhere.
Now, that is a risk because they could well end up with someone like Stoffel Vandoorne or Marcus Ericsson available, therefore forcing them to look into F2 which would be a gamble for such a top team.
Youth vs Experience therefore could play a pivotal role in the 2019 driver market and potentially 2020 too.
With talks of Mercedes and Ferrari, perhaps setting up B teams next season for their youth drivers, the market could get even tougher for the midfield teams and further raise questions around youth vs experience.
Mercedes are expected to effectively use Williams as their testing ground with George Russell looking set for a loan move.
He could well find himself joined by Esteban Ocon with Force India set to release the Frenchman and bring in Lance Stroll, now that Stroll’s dad owns the team.
Ferrari meanwhile have formed close partnerships with Haas and Sauber so theoretically could create a mini ladder of Sauber then Haas before promoting their youth once ready up to the Prancing Horse.
If that theory was to come to fruition, I wonder if Leclerc would swap with one of Haas’ current drivers in Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen and Antonio Giovinazzi replace Marcus Ericsson at Sauber alongside the Haas switcher.
This would therefore provide tough teammate opposition from the very moment a Ferrari youngster arrives in F1 and enable the Scuderia to assess them thoroughly.
Renault meanwhile don’t seem to be interested in the ‘B team’ talk so they could well be the ointment in the air, if decide to loan out one of their youth drivers to a midfield team.
Here is now I see the driver market playing out and who ends up where.
|Mercedes||Lewis Hamilton||Valtteri Bottas|
|Ferrari||Sebastian Vettel||Kimi Raikkonen|
|Red Bull||Max Verstappen||Pierre Gasly|
|Renault||Daniel Ricciardo||Nico Hulkenberg|
|Haas||Charles Leclerc||Kevin Magnussen|
|Force India||Sergio Perez||Lance Stroll|
|McLaren||Carlos Sainz||Lando Norris|
|Toro Rosso||Brendon Hartley||Alexander Albon|
|Sauber||Antonio Giovinazzi||Romain Grosjean|
|Williams||George Russell||Esteban Ocon|
Mercedes and Renault are already sorted but I can see Ferrari keeping hold of Raikkonen just to appease Vettel.
With Carlos Sainz gone, Red Bull now surely have little option other than to promote Gasly unless they want a backlash for ignoring own youth system by poaching another driver from elsewhere.
Leclerc needs to be tested against tougher opposition in a stronger car so I can see him ending up at Haas against Magnussen whilst Grosjean moves over to Sauber and provides Giovinazzi with serious competition.
Over at Mercedes’ customers, Stroll is a cert to move to Force India so I would keep Perez there because of his knowledge and experience in the team.
The Silver Arrows however want to keep Ocon in F1 but will need to find Russell a seat, so I can see Williams becoming Mercedes’ B team in exchange for cheaper power units by taking Ocon and Russell.
McLaren has an option on Norris which needs activating by end of October if want to keep him. I therefore expect them to put him in their second seat with Vandoorne moving on after two tricky seasons.
Finally over at Toro Rosso. they have limited options as none of Red Bull Academy drivers look set to achieve a FIA Superlicense. As a result, they will be wise to retain Hartley and hand Albon a chance to impress, after previously being backed by them in 2012.