Drivers, one of the most important assets for a team to attain success in F1. A team can have state of the art facilities, great financial resources, a very talented bunch of engineers and mechanics who can build a race winning and probably a championship winning car; but all this comes to naught if the man behind the wheel cannot bring home the desired results. Sometimes a car is only as good as its driver and we have seen instances in the past when good drivers drove mediocre cars and produced decent results.
This year, the Driver Markets Scenario can be termed the silliest of them all. There are various theories circulating in the paddock and barring 2 teams, each team has at least one seat on offer for the 2019 season.
I shall make a conscious attempt of exploring the possibilities of driver lineups for 2019 based on all the information that I could glean off team insiders, reporters and friends from the F1 paddock, but first those who have locked down their drives for 2019.
Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team :
Mercedes is in a fierce contest with Ferrari for supremacy this year. Their focus is solely on retaining both the Drivers' and Constructors' Titles; so its no surprise that they announced their driver lineup with no changes fairly early in the season. Drama due to media speculations can become a big distraction for a team in a highly stressful environment so kudos to them for steering clear. Valtteri Bottas will partner Lewis Hamilton for 2019 with an option to extend for another year for the Finn.
Renault Sport F1 Team :
Nico Hulkenberg is on a long term contract with Renault but the team from Oxfordshire acquired one of the hottest properties of 2019 - Daniel Ricciardo! His acquisition left the entire F1 Community in shock and awe. What triggered this decision? Will it prove to be a masterstroke or a debacle? Lets try to answer these questions.
What triggered this decision?
Daniel Ricciardo is a successful product of the Red Bull Driver Program and enjoyed a fair amount of success with the A team since 2014. However he is yet to win a Championship with them and with the arrival of a much younger Max Verstappen ( almost all believe he will be a World Champion eventually ) maintaining parity is becoming a challenge. The Biggest Factor that has triggered this decision though is that Red Bull switches to Honda power for 2019. Honda's return to F1 is a fiasco. The situation hasn't changed much in 2018 and Toro Rosso has suffered their fair share of retirements. Will Red Bull be a force to reckon with in 2019? Aerodynamically yes, in power hungry circuits, an emphatic no. I would be surprised if they even manage to be on the podium regularly. Mercedes shut the door and Ferrari refused to offer Daniel a drive. Only one Works Team remained. A team with the resources to return to the top end of the grid, win races and even challenge for Championships - Renault F1.
Will it prove to be a masterstroke or a debacle?
Red Bull are 3rd in the Constructors' at the summer break, 141 points ahead of Renault. Renault is yet to score a podium since their return to being a full works team while Red Bull notched up 3 victories this year. Statistically its a howler of a decision; for many it is like going from a front running team to a mid table team. However 2019 and 2020 will give us a very different story.
Let us look at 2 recent examples of such decisions : Lewis Hamilton's switch to Mercedes in 2013 and Fernando Alonso's switch to McLaren Honda in 2015.
Mercedes were nowhere near the front in 2012 or 2013. McLaren was one of the cars that could challenge the dominance of Red Bull but come 2014, the advent of the 1.6 V6 Turbo era and the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team were untouchable. They have won 4 titles on the trot while McLaren have slipped back into oblivion. Lewis' decision to switch at the end of 2012 was viewed as a disaster by some, the results thereafter suggest a totally different story.
Alonso tried to win a title at Ferrari for 5 years. It was not to be. He chose to return to McLaren in 2015 with the hope of returning to the top step of the podium and rolling back the years to the golden era of Senna and Prost ( who ran Honda Powered engines ). The result is a disaster. Honda struggled to find their feet and the alliance was terminated at the end of 2017. Fernando Alonso has not been on the podium for 4 years. The biggest difference between the 2 decisions is that Mercedes was a full works team ( chassis + powertrain ) while McLaren are only chassis designers. A good chassis working in tandem with a reliable and quick powertrain can win you races, titles. Hence in the case of Lewis, it was a masterstroke and in the case of Alonso, a debacle.
Renault build both and are expanding their personnel and R&D facilities with every passing week. They are not there yet but have taken giant steps in that direction. Their results in comparison to last year's speak volumes of the progress made. 2019 will see him as a regular on the podium. A win? Probably not...but come 2020, Ricciardo will be in a Championship winning car ( in my opinion ).
Now onto the teams that have a seat each on offer!
Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team :
Sebastian Vettel stays with the Prancing Horse for 2019 and that is no surprise. Its an excellent alliance and they should lift the title this year...a long wait but worth it. Kimi Raikkonen's seat, like every year is the hot topic of discussion. Rumours that Charles Leclerc will replace Kimi Raikkonen in-season gained a lot of traction. Some even claimed that Kimi would return to Sauber and finish his career where he started it. This really is the most retarded theory out there. Another publication claimed that Kimi would return to McLaren to replace the outgoing Alonso ( Another fictitious theory ). Then the Iceman upped his game and silenced all critics. He finished on the podium 5 times in a row, the only one to do so in both the Triple and the Double Header. Suddenly news that he was being offered another contract extension started doing the rounds. Nothing is official yet and the 2nd seat at Ferrari is still up for grabs.
Its no secret that Charles Leclerc, Scuderia Ferrari Academy Driver is destined to occupy this seat. When rather than whether is the question. He has been a revelation in Sauber, comprehensively beating his more experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson. Is he ready to step into the big league? I don't think so. He has the talent but rushing him into a top seat with only a one year experience in F1 might turn out to be a disaster. It would be better for Leclerc to go to the stronger customer team Haas F1 for 2019 and then join the A Team in 2020. Kimi is having his strongest year in Ferrari since his return to Maranello in 2014 and is the perfect team-mate to Vettel. They share a no-nonsense, friendly and transparent relationship; both push each other to their limits and when needed, Kimi is a true team player. His experience in the sport cannot be matched. He definitely has another year of racing in him and as most experts agree, his recent performances and his current position ( 3rd ) in the Drivers' Championship has earned him the right to be a Red for another year.
Ferrari, like Mercedes must lock down their driver lineups soon to eliminate unnecessary media attention and the drama that comes with it. They are in the Driver's seat so their focus should be on winning the title rather than addressing issues for 2019.
I expect Scuderia Ferrari to announce a contract extension for Kimi Raikkonen in Belgium. GO ICEMAN!!
Red Bull Racing F1 Team :
Red Bull will lose a star in Daniel Ricciardo for 2019. Christian Horner, Red Bull Team Principal, thought Ricciardo was joking when the latter expressed his desire to leave the team at the end of the season. Well a seat is vacant and Red Bull are spoilt for choice for 2019. Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz Jr, Fernando Alonso are all vying for this seat. ( Brendan Hartley, former WEC Champion won't make the cut ( below par debut in F1 ) and hence not in the reckoning )
Carlos Sainz Jr. was loaned to Renault for 2018 and considering the fact that he started his F1 career with Max Verstappen, he would be the logical choice to jump into the seat next year. Astonishingly Red Bull are not in a hurry and will bide their time to make their choice. It leaves Sainz in a very unfortunate position. If he were to not be the chosen one, he could find himself out of the sport. McLaren seem one destination but that would mean going backwards on the grid. No disrespect to McLaren but they are a shadow of their former self. Sainz is a talented driver and deserves to be on the sharp end of the grid. Sainz has a sponsor in Estrella Galacia and that can be a trump card.
Pierre Gasly another Red Bull Protegee is having a strong year in F1. He is already working with Honda at Toro Rosso so that is a bonus. His relative inexperience is a negative and having 2 young drivers can be a recipe for disaster.
Fernando Alonso, the opportunist, a man who can move mountains in order to have a winning car under him. He is believer to be one of the contenders for the seat but will he team up with Honda again? Considering his rants in races in years that Honda raced with McLaren, it doesn't seem that Alonso and Honda have an amicable relationship. Red Bull is a team that practices parity between team-mates but should Alonso join, will this practice continue? Politics come into play too and the atmosphere within the team might not stay healthy. In my opinion, Alonso will stay put to head to WEC next year.
I really wish that Sainz Jr. gets the Red Bull drive in 2019 but Gasly seems the favourite according to experts. It might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Sainz Jr. if he opts to go Renault Powered McLaren and it ends up beating a Honda Powered Red Bull!
Time will tell...
Now onto those who have both seats up for grabs!
Sahara Force India F1 :
Force India F1 isn't Force India anymore but will have a new name after a consortium headed by Mr. Lawrence Stroll got them out of administration today. Both seats are available for 2019 but after Lawrence Stroll, Lance Stroll's father acquired the team, the Canadian will ply his trade there. ( Official announcement pending ). Esteban Ocon, Mercedes backed and part of their informal program should stay. Any speculation linking him with Renault is now over and Mercedes will ensure he stays at their strongest customer team. This means Sergio Perez will be without a drive. Perez too has a sizeable sponsor in Telmex backing him and as per his recent admission, his future in F1 lies elsewhere. McLaren is the best option, Haas an alternate. Williams also might not be a bad choice if they are able to improve their performances.
Force India will retain Ocon and Lance Stroll will be his team-mate for 2019 according to me.
Haas F1 Team :
Haas F1, like Red Bull is spoilt for choice for 2019. Magnussen is having a great year and Grosjean the complete opposite. The general consensus is that Grosjean is set to lose his drive. Charles Leclerc is the ideal replacement. Ferrari would want him there to assess him in a faster car and if he can better his performances, Haas F1 will cherish this decision. Magnussen, also without a contract should end up renewing with Haas since the team will want an existing driver to help with the development for next year. Perez has an outside chance but its a very slim one.
Haas will field Magnussen and Leclerc in 2019.
McLaren F1 Team :
McLaren's status in F1 is now reduced to a mid-field runner. Its embarrassing to see a team with such a decorated past to be struggling with mercurial performances week in week out. The patience of their Spanish Matador Fernando Alonso is also running low. He is exploring the possibility of joining WEC next year ( someone close to the team confirmed the same ). Many predict a career in Indy but Honda might be the roadblock in that endeavour. It would be a major setback for the team if he were to leave F1. Stoffel Vandoorne has been a disappointment this year and his lacklustre performances leave his drive in jeopardy. He might be retained if Alonso leaves. The options available are many for 2019 and the team must bide their time before zeroing in on their lineup. Landon Norris, a part of their driver program is performing well in Formula 2 but it might be an year too early to rope him in into F1. The team must do everything in its capacity to hold onto Fernando Alonso. Carlos Sainz Jr is one of the frontrunners for a race seat, a move that will be effected if he is left high and dry by Red Bull, albeit a second time. Sainz Jr will be delighted to partner his hero in 2019. He also brings a sizeable sponsorship in Estrella Galacia as mentioned earlier. However if Sainz does go to Red Bull, then Sergio Perez is a good option. Financially, he has an equally strong backing. He drove for the team in 2013 but was ousted in a not-so-amicable way ( much like Fernando at the end of 2007 ).
Factoring in the current situation, its safe to say that McLaren will end up having an all Spanish lineup with Alonso and Sainz Jr in 2019.
Alfa-Romeo Sauber F1 Team :
Sauber F1 are extremely pleased with the performances of Leclerc this year. Marcus Ericsson like his previous year is nowhere in terms of performances. Astonishingly he retained his seat in 2018 and he might in 2019 as well! Leclerc is bound for Haas according to me and Antonio Giovinazzi ( Ferrari's Reserve Driver ) is a regular feature in tests and practice sessions for the team this year. I believe he will make a return to the grid in 2019. I don't see Sauber going outside the Scuderia Ferari Academy umbrella to hire a F1 Pilot. Antonio Fuoco ( from Charouz Racing Team in F2 ) will have to wait another year, maybe he will be roped in as a reserve driver this year.
Marcus Ericsson and Antonio Giovinazzi is the lineup for Sauber according to me.
Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 Team :
Toro Rosso is in a serious dilemma. Gasly ( according to many ) is set for the Red Bull Racing seat in 2019. Brendan Hartley was slated to be replaced but the Red Bull Driver Program has no one ready for the big jump into F1. The man closest to the seat is Dan Ticktum who is plying his trade in Formula 3. The biggest hurdle will be that he will not gather enough superlicense points ( even if he wins the F3 championship ) to warrant a drive next year. However the FIA reviews its points criteria every year and maybe they might have modifications made that will enable him to enter F1. Hartley, if Gasly was to leave might just be retained for another year ( I am being a bit biased towards him here ). He is a great guy and a genuinely quick driver but for some reason is not able to find his feet in F1. If Ticktum can't make the cut, Toro Rosso will be compelled to see someone outside their program and Perez, Vandoorne will be options. Perez should win this bout with the experience and the money he brings.
Toro Rosso will have Perez and Hartley ( if Ticktum can't make the cut ) in 2019. ( Bold prediction ).
Williams Martini Racing F1 Team :
Williams is last in the Championship and with the latest news of Lawrence Stroll buying out Force India, they have lost a sizeable amount of finances for 2019. Sergei Sirotkin, the debutant this year will retain his drive in all probability ( taking into account the money he brings into the team ). George Russell, the F2 Championship leader and Mercedes Protege should get a drive with Williams. He is set to win the F2 Championship this year and Williams will be a suitable fit to assess his abilities in the big league.
Sirotkin and Russell look certain for Williams next year.
So to sum it all up :
Mercedes : Hamilton & Bottas ( Confirmed )
Renault F1 : Ricciardo & Hulkenberg ( Confirmed )
Scuderia Ferrari F1 : Vettel ( Confirmed ) & Raikkonen ( Predicted )
Red Bull Racing : Verstappen ( Confirmed ) & Gasly ( Predicted )
Force India : Stroll & Ocon ( Predicted )
Haas F1 : Magnussen & Leclerc ( Predicted )
McLaren : Alonso & Sainz Jr ( Predicted ). If Alonso leaves, Vandoorne will be retained.
Sauber F1 : Ericsson & Giovinazzi ( Predicted )
Toro Rosso F1 : Hartley & Perez ( Predicted )
Frankly, its a bold prediction and I might be well off the mark so apologies in advance!
Williams F1 : Sirotkin & Russell ( Predicted )
So Grosjean and Vandoorne ( if Alonso stays and that is a BIG IF ) might not feature in 2019. I would be gutted if Vandoorne doesn't make the cut. He still has time to turn it around and I am hoping that I am proven wrong in my prediction!
These are my predictions ( my views based on my assessment ) taking into consideration the information collected in the last few weeks. I might be completely wrong when the lineups are confirmed officially by the teams. This year it really is as unpredictable as it can get.