Ricciardo's future and what it could mean for the 2019 Grid
Daniel Ricciardo's heroics at the last race in China have put his future in Formula 1 very much back in the spotlight. He is out of contract with Red Bull at the end of this season and with seats potentially available at Mercedes and Ferrari, both of whom have praised the Australian's talent several times in the past, we could well see him wearing a different colour race suit by the time his next home Grand Prix comes around in 2019.
Ricciardo very much holds the keys to the driver market right now, so let's start silly season earlier than ever and try to work out what the grid will look like in 2019.
For the purposes of this article, let's assume that Ricciardo decides he's had enough of Red Bull and decides to move on. On Australia's Channel 10 after his victory in China, he reiterated his feeling that Red Bull need to prove to him this season that they can provide him with a championship winning car, saying that "The win helps, but if we were finishing sixth every race this year then that is not the most attractive option to me."
As impressive as his win in China was, there's no denying that it was very much aided by circumstance after the Toro Rosso clash caused a safety car and without that the Red Bull's would in all likelihood not even have made the podium. While the gap certainly looks smaller this year and you never know what performance upgrades will bring, you'd be brave to bet on more than another couple of wins for Red Bull in 2018.
So where does he go? Sadly for Finnish fans, the answer lies with either Raikkonen or Bottas. Both are out of contract at the end of the season and both have four-time world champion team mates in Vettel, who already has a contract with Ferrari for next year, and Hamilton, who is almost certain to sign a new deal with Mercedes.
Despite him having one of his best races for Mercedes in China until the safety car ruined his strategy, we're going to go with Bottas as the man who will have to make way. Unless he really ups his game for the rest of the season and beats Hamilton and Vettel on a regular basis, in a straight choice we think Mercedes will go for Ricciardo alongside Hamilton.
Ferrari meanwhile, are probably the only team that wouldn't choose Ricciardo over one of their drivers in a straight choice. It's no secret that Vettel is favoured over Raikkonen within the team, you only have to look at the way they compromised his strategy in China as soon as Bottas was ahead. As long as Raikkonen is happy to play that role, they are unlikely to rock that particular boat by bringing in a former teammate of Vettel who he had a somewhat fractious relationship with, and if rumours are to believed, Vettel has a veto on driver changes written into his contract. Plus, would Ricciardo even want to move to Ferrari knowing how they tend to operate?
So with all that being said, let's lock in our first team lineup:
Mercedes - Hamilton and Ricciardo
So what of Ferrari? Vettel is definitely staying put until the end of 2020 but who will be alongside him? Well, despite us and many others predicting an end to his career several times over the last few seasons, on this occasion we're going for another one year deal for Raikkonen. He's actually been driving better in the three races so far this year than he has for the last few seasons, he seems happy in his current position within the team (well, we think he's happy, it can be hard to tell), he and Vettel have a good relationship, and the obvious candidate for a future Ferrari drive, Charles Leclerc, probably needs at least another season of experience under his belt before they even consider promoting him.
Ferrari - Vettel and Raikkonen
Next, let's look at Red Bull, where we've left a big Ricciardo shaped hole. Verstappen signed a new deal last year tying him to the team until 2020 so we know he's not going anywhere, but the second seat could prove an interesting choice. Red Bull used to be a team oversubscribed with young drivers, but last years musical chairs with Sainz, Kvyat, Gasly and Hartley showed that they don't have quite so much choice these days.
We shouldn't forget that Sainz, while currently a Renault driver, is actually still under contract at Red Bull on an unusual loan deal. As part of the deal, they can recall him for 2019 if they want to promote him to the senior team alongside Verstappen. Otherwise, he'll be free to sign with Renault on his own terms.
Their second option would be to promote from Toro Rosso, most likely in the form of Gasly. The former GP2 champion is highly regarded by the team, even before his stunning 4th place in Bahrain and he would probably be chosen over Hartley who, while still a world class driver and former WEC champion and Le Mans winner, hasn't been outperforming his less experienced team mate so far.
This would, of course, mean a seat at Toro Rosso would need to be filled, which is where Red Bull may struggle. The most experienced candidate in their young driver programme is 18 year old British driver Dan Ticktum who won last years Macau Grand Prix and is about to embark on his debut F3 European Championship, but that still leaves him with less experience than even Verstappen before his F1 debut. A lot will depend on how he performs this year, but unless he really impresses, Red Bull would be forced to look a little further afield as they did last year with Hartley.
Red Bull like to promote promising drivers quickly and by the end of 2018 Gasly will have entered roughly the same number of races that Verstappen did before he moved up. But so far Gasly hasn't been making a name for himself quite so quickly, plus he doesn't have the Kvyat factor on his side, so we're going to leave him at Toro Rosso for another year, instead calling Sainz back for what is in many people's eyes a long overdue promotion.
Red Bull - Verstappen and Sainz
Toro Rosso - Gasly and Hartley
That leads us nicely onto Renault, a team very much on the up who right now have arguably one of the most evenly matched lineups on the grid. Losing Sainz would be an unfortunate blow for them and they'll need someone with speed and experience to replace him if they want to continue their upward trajectory and challenge the other Renault engined teams. Enter the only person left on the sidelines so far, Valtteri Bottas. We considered sending Bottas back to Williams, they definitely need someone like him given their current plight, but now he's a race winner we can't see him wanting to return to his former team while they're struggling at the back. Renault feels like a good fit for him and it'd be great to see how Hulkenberg measures up against him.
Renault - Hulkenberg and Bottas
Force India next, who are having a tough time so far this year after their back to back 4th places in the constructors championship in 2016 and 2017. Perez and Ocon have had a fractious relationship in their two seasons together, but it's one that may be about to come to an end. Mercedes already have one of their young drivers at Force India in Esteban Ocon and there's another waiting in the wings. George Russell, currently in his debut F2 season, has already driven for Mercedes in the Budapest test last year, as well as for Force India in FP1 in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Regardless of whether he wins the F2 title this year, Mercedes seem keen to move him through the ranks and may well sweeten their engine deal with Force India in exchange for another seat. They're not going to want to swap one of their young drivers for another, so it'll likely be Perez who gets left out in the cold. Now in his 8th season in F1, Perez, who was once considered a future contender for a Ferrari seat, looks like his chance of driving for a top team has been and gone.
Force India - Ocon and Russell
Next we'll look at Haas and Sauber, both with ties to Ferrari, another big team with young drivers looking for seats. Haas are pretty tight lipped about their driver contracts, but it seems likely that their current lineup of Grosjean and Magnussen, in their second season together as teammates, are both on one year deals. Despite saying publicly how happy they are with their current drivers, there are a lot of options available to Haas for next year. Firstly, their test and reserve driver Santino Ferrucci, currently in his first full season of Formula 2, is an attractive option for the future as the most likely American driver to make the step up to F1 from a feeder series. But as much as people may want an American diver in an American car, he's had very limited time in F1 machinery so far and hasn't really had the results to show he's ready.
Then, through their link to Ferrari, there is Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi. Giovinazzi has already had several FP1 runs for Haas in 2017, but team principal Guenther Steiner ruled out a return to the team in 2018, labelling his time in the car 'unhelpful' for his team and drivers. Ferrari still appear to be keen to find him a race seat after his impressive debut in Australia last season standing in for Wehrlein, but his two crashes in two days for Sauber in China and FP1 crash for Haas in Budapest have lowered his stock somewhat. With Haas seemingly off the table, Ferrari may instead opt to move him from his current reserve driver role at Sauber to a race seat with the Alfa Romeo backed team in 2019. Ferrari appear to have a 'one for us, one for you' deal with Sauber regarding their race seats, so we can expect their Swedish backers Longbow Finance to give Ericsson a 6th season in F1 (many would argue that their money would be better placed behind fellow Swede and arguably one of the best drivers outside of F1 today, Felix Rosenqvist, but that's a whole other discussion). Giovinazzi would instead have to replace Leclerc, who Ferrari can offer Haas, in turn giving him time in what should be much more competitive machinery which shares a lot of DNA with the Ferrari car, further preparing him for a potential promotion to the works team in 2020.
That means someone has to leave Haas, and while it's a close choice, it might be time to call an end to Grosjean's F1 career. He's as quick as he's ever been, but at 32 and being regularly beaten in qualifying and races by his younger teammate, like Perez it might be time for him to make way for the younger talent moving up.
Haas - Magnussen and Leclerc
Sauber - Ericsson and Giovinazzi
Williams have some real problems on their hands. The only team yet to score points in 2018 so far, their car is barely faster than last years and they are in desperate need of development. Their problems are arguably compounded by having two young, inexperienced drivers who aren't going to be able to help develop a car in the same way someone like Bottas or Massa would have been able to. It's understood that Stroll's contract with the team ends this year, but the flashes of talent he's shown coupled with the tens of millions his father reportedly pays the team, we can expect him to keep his seat. Sirotkin on the other hand doesn't bring quite as much cash to the team, but his back to back 3rd places in the GP2/F2 championship show that he is a quick driver and Williams signed a 'multi-year' deal with him last year.
There is also Robert Kubica waiting in the wings, but given how good the PR around his return would be, the fact that Renault and Williams both passed on him for a race seat indicates that he's either not ready or not quick enough, for the time being at least. He might be a good person to help develop their car, but that could put Williams in the tricky position of him potentially getting in the car on a Friday and going faster than their race drivers.
Frank Williams, Claire Williams and Paddy Lowe are all people who rarely take prisoners so we can't rule out some big changes, but for now we're going to stick with the same lineup.
Williams - Stroll and Sirotkin
Finally, McLaren, where once again the success of their young driver programme has left them with a problem. Two years ago it was Vandoorne they needed to find a place for, eventually at the expense of Jenson Button. This time it's maybe the most exciting young driver we've seen in years, Lando Norris.
On his way to his current seat in F2 (where he's leading the championship after two races), Norris has notched up titles in MSA Formula, Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup, Toyota Racing Series and most recently the FIA European Formula 3 Championship, as well as picking up wins in Ginetta Junior, German and British Formula 4, British Formula 3 and a second place in the Macau Grand Prix. At this point in his career, he's had more success than Lewis Hamilton did when he joined the GP2 grid. Basically, we're saying he's really bloody good.
So where do they put him? McLaren don't have the luxury of a smaller team to place him in for a year or two, so they only really have two options - send him to Japan for a year of Super Formula as they did with Vandoorne, or replace one of their current drivers.
Looking at the results, the obvious answer if they were to replace a driver would be Vandoorne. Even ignoring the superstar status Alonso has in F1, in 2017 and the three races so far in 2018 Vandoorne has only beaten Alonso in qualifying five times, and in races they've both finished he's only been ahead once (although admittedly this is skewed somewhat by the shocking reliability of the Honda engine meaning they only actually both finished on five occasions last year). But given his single season of experience compared to Alonso's sixteen, his regular performances within a few tenths of his double world champion teammate are impressive enough for him to deserve to keep his seat.
And he just might.
There have been rumours of Alonso calling time on either his time at McLaren or his time in F1 for a few years now, but the ones currently doing the rounds in the Spanish press should maybe not be dismissed too quickly. After three disastrous years with Honda engines, the switch to Renault seemed to be all that kept Alonso at McLaren. This should have been the change that moved them back to the front, challenging for podiums and wins, but the reality has been nothing like that.
And Alonso almost certainly knew that before the season even started. Any driver that thinks they have a shot at a championship isn't going to sign up to a full season of another top level racing series in parallel, but that's exactly what what he has done with his Toyota WEC contract.
Alonso is a smart man and he knows that unless he's in a Mercedes or a Ferrari he's not realistically going to have a shot at a third world championship. His new goal of the triple crown is, in a way, an admission that his place in motorsport history isn't going to come from F1 alone, so maybe it's time he focussed fully on that and left F1 behind. That decision is probably going to depend on just how good the McLaren update is in Barcelona, but don't expect him to stick around for another year of picking up minor points.
McLaren - Vandoorne and Norris
So here's our final 2019 grid, but what do you think? Let us know where you think people will end up or where you'd like them to end up and we'll read the best ones out on the podcast.
Hamilton - Ricciardo
Vettel - Raikkonen
Verstappen - Sainz
Ocon - Russell
Stroll - Sirotkin
Hulkenberg - Bottas
Gasly - Hartley
Magnussen - Leclerc
Vandoorne - Norris
Ericsson - Giovinazzi