[Updated] The Comprehensive 2018 Formula 1 Driver Market Breakdown
Inside, we dissect F1 free agency and make the connections which may lead to a major change in the 2019 ecosystem.
Formula 1's summer break is in effect until the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on August 26. Historically, this month-long downtime has brought about major news in terms of team management and, especially, the driver market. The rumor mill churns while everyone is away and more of the same is expected here in 2018; that being said, much of this so-called silly hearsay often comes to fruition.
A handful of the sport’s biggest names like Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and Daniel Ricciardo are already signed through 2020, but the remaining puzzle pieces will continue to shape Formula 1 in the pending season. Questions still remain as to who will fill Red Bull’s empty seat as well as McLaren’s slot in 2019, thus making it a challenge for team executives to conquer while the getting is still good.
In all, the contemporary free agency is monumental regarding F1's future direction, so The Drive is here to break down the "what ifs" of the annual silly season.
We'll divvy up the market by team and dissect the possibilities of their potential driver lineups in 2019.
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
- Engine Supplier: Renault branded as TAG-Heuer
- Constructors' Championship: 3rd (223 points)
- Drivers: Max Verstappen (The Netherlands), Daniel Ricciardo (Australia)
- Best Race Finish(es): P1 (Ricciardo in China and Monaco, Verstappen in Austria)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Ricciardo
- New Contender(s): Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz Jr.
Red Bull Racing was intent on continuing with its current driver lineup of Max Verstappen—who is under contract until 2020—and Daniel Ricciardo, who the team expected to extend its deal with. Ricciardo’s shock move to Renault means Red Bull suddenly has to find a replacement to partner Verstappen, however, and it seems that for a top-tier team its options are relatively limited; not in the least because of its philosophy to promote from within its own junior driver program.
Logically, Carlos Sainz Jr. would be Ricciardo’s replacement next season since he’s the most experienced and acclaimed Red Bull protegé on its talent ladder. The Spaniard, who is currently on loan at Renault, doesn’t seem to be at the top of Team Principal Christian Horner’s and Red Bull chief Helmut Marko’s list, however, due to his previous strained relationship with Verstappen at junior team Toro Rosso.
Instead, it seems that current Toro Rosso racer Pierre Gasly might be the frontrunner. The young Frenchman, who has impressed in his rookie season, has experience working with the Honda power unit that will be in the back of the Red Bulls from 2019 and comes without the baggage that Sainz has, but with the support of the highly influential Dr. Marko
Should Red Bull uncharacteristically look outside its own stable, it has options including two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso and 2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, or younger drivers like Lando Norris or Esteban Ocon. The latter two are tied to other teams’ talent programs, however, whereas Räikkönen, who turns 39 in October, seems a tough fit despite his previous relationship with the Red Bull Brand in the WRC. As for Alonso, although the Spaniard came close to a Red Bull deal back in 2008, the team has consistently ruled him out as an option in recent years, whereas he’s also soured his relationship with Red Bull’s incoming engine partner Honda when it worked with McLaren from 2015-2017 and there is the issue of his deal with Honda-rival Toyota in the WEC.
Williams Martini Racing
- Engine Supplier: Mercedes
- Constructors' Championship: 10th (4 points)
- Drivers: Lance Stroll (Canada), Sergey Sirotkin (Russia)
- Best Race Finish(es): P8 (Stroll, Azerbaijan Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Stroll
- New Contender(s): George Russell, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez, Robert Kubica
Sergey Sirotkin signed a "multi-year contract" with Wiliams in January, according to Motorsport, cementing his place at the team in 2019. Lawrence Stroll, invested in his son Lance's career as a driver, bought a stake in Force India during the summer break. As a result, Lance is expected to vacate his seat at the struggling Williams team for 2019, reportedly taking Williams driver Robert Kubica with, if he has his way.
Candidates for the seat alongside Sirotkin are little more than speculative at present. Should he win the Formula 2 championship, Mercedes junior George Russell will force his keeper's hand to promote him in the direction of Formula 1, as F2 champions are not permitted to repeat the series. Motorsport Magazine speculates him to be a top candidate for Williams' second race seat in this scenario, though Mercedes can keep him in limbo if he doesn't win the championship.
Esteban Ocon is not formally linked to Williams, but because he has seniority over Russell in the Mercedes driver pipeline, he may be in position for a seat in the FW42 should his efforts to stay at Force India not pan out (more on that below). Another long-shot option could also be the other Force India driver, Sergio Perez, whom Autosport alleges spoke to the team during 2016's silly season. He would look to Williams for the same reason Ocon might, as neither has secured the one Force India seat believed to be available.
If Mercedes makes no move on the behalf of Ocon or Russell for the second Williams seat, current reserve driver Robert Kubica may be another option, but only if he isn't dragged to Force India with Stroll.
When contacted, Williams declined to discuss its driver plans for 2019.
- Engine Supplier: Ferrari
- Constructors' Championship: 2nd (335 points)
- Drivers: Sebastian Vettel (Germany), Kimi Räikkönen (Finland)
- Best Race Finish(es): P1 (Vettel in Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and Britain)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Räikkönen
- New Contender(s): Charles Leclerc
Sebastian Vettel is set for another two years at Ferrari and the German has spoken out in favor of retaining his favorite rear-gunner Kimi Räikkönen. The Finn’s second tenure at Ferrari (he previously raced for the team from 2007-2009) has in recent years become an annual tale of ‘will he, won’t he?' with rumors about the 2007 World Champion’s retirement proving just as enduring as false.
Momentum building behind Ferrari’s impressive protegé Charles Leclerc, who has been placed at Sauber for his rookie year, ostensibly saw Räikkönen edged toward the exit, but recent events seem to have put Räikkönen firmly back in the frame at Ferrari. Part of it is courtesy of Räikkönen himself, who notched five podium finishes in a row before the summer break while playing a dutiful support act to Vettel. The other part of it is—as cruel as it sounds—the passing of Ferrari President Sergio Marchionne, with his replacements reportedly unwilling to further disrupt the team’s stability in this trying time.
It seems a straight pick between Räikkönen and Leclerc then for the Scuderia, but recent paddock rumors suggest Fernando Alonso may have thrown his head in the ring in a bid to return to the red team. In fact, Sky Sports F1 commentator Martin Brundle wrote in a recent column that he’s “pretty sure Fernando Alonso will be having a word with the new boss Louis Callimeri in one last desperate attempt to regain a winning car." It sounds unlikely, but who would’ve expected Alonso to return to McLaren after his bitter 2007 exit there?
Haas F1 Team
- Engine Supplier: Ferrari
- Constructors' Championship: 5th (66 points)
- Drivers: Romain Grosjean (France), Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)
- Best Race Finish(es): P4 (Grosjean, Austrian Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Grosjean
- New Contender(s): Antonio Giovinazzi, Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz Jr.
After a few years of moving around, 2018 marks the first time Magnussen has raced for the same team for a second season in succession and the Dane looks likely to make it three years in a row at Haas. The American squad has often been the fourth-quickest team this year behind the big three and Magnussen has delivered the goods, so it seems a near-certainty the team will take up its option on the 25-year old. "So I don’t think there’s much chance of me going anywhere else," Magnussen himself told ESPN earlier.
As for Grosjean, his 2018 struggles have belied his status as the team’s de facto leader and veteran driver. The Frenchman could blame bad luck for some early-season troubles, but things went from bad to worse when he himself got caught up in a series of spins, crashes, and collisions. It took a timely fourth-place finish in Austria—Haas’ best-ever in Formula 1—and two further points finishes in Germany and Hungary to even stave off rumors of a mid-season exit.
Haas has been clear about what Grosjean needs to do to ensure a longer stay at the team: show consistency. The 32-year old seems to still have team boss Günther Steiner in his corner, with the Italian telling AUTOHebdo he has “a lot of respect for Romain on a human level,” due to his taking the plunge with Haas back in 2016. It seems a good sign for Grosjean, although Steiner had admitted to “a lot of people asking” about a seat at Haas. Among those people, no doubt, someone from Ferrari looking for a spot for the Italian team’s protegés Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi. No other names have really been mentioned, but considering Haas’ strong form, it’s tough to imagine drivers without a deal firmed up—like Force India’s Sergio Pérez and his backers, for instance—not making any inquiries after the recent silly season shake ups.
McLaren F1 Team
- Engine Supplier: Renault
- Constructors' Championship: 7th (52 points)
- Drivers: Fernando Alonso (Spain), Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium)
- Best Race Finish(es): P5 (Alonso, Australian Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Alonso, Vandoorne
- New Contender(s): Carlos Sainz Jr., Lando Norris
In theory, McLaren should be contending for podiums given its self-proclaimed stellar chassis and race-winning Renault engine. And while the Woking-based constructor is certainly in better standings than it was at this time last year, team execs are working to figure out how to propel the organization to the consistently high points-earning it's become used to throughout its history. However, there's one roadblock that could complicate McLaren's focus, and that's the saga of Fernando Alonso.
As of August 14, the Spaniard has opted to step away from Formula 1 to pursue unidentified glory. Many presume that he could soon head to IndyCar and compete for the final sector of the Triple Crown, while others believe that he may stick to the relatively-light WEC schedule. In order for him to jump across the pond and race in America's open-wheel series, pieces would need to fall in place, and quick. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles says that the series is "supporting" McLaren's efforts as a team to join in, and he doesn't "expect this to be resolved until closer to the end of this year.”
Meanwhile, beyond Alonso and his back-and-forth, Stoffel Vandoorne is yet to re-up his contract with the team for 2019. His mixed performances this season have led to some questions from outsiders, but it's uncertain what McLaren has in mind for the Belgian sophomore.
With Alonso on his way out, McLaren has a pair of potential options to put in his place.
First at the forefront of everyone's list, perhaps including McLaren's as well, is Carlos Sainz Jr. The stellar young Spaniard has put his talent on display during his time on loan to Renault and formerly at Toro Rosso, and many would argue that he deserves a top-level seat more than any other up-and-comer on the market. Zak Brown mentioned during the Hungarian GP weekend that Sainz would be "high on the consideration set" if a position were to open up, so now that the team has an availability, look for a possible tandem deal to acquire Sainz if McLaren doesn't promote internally.
On the other hand is Lando Norris, the star McLaren junior who's got a shot at the Formula 2 championship this season. If he were to win the title, Norris would not be allowed back into F2, forcing McLaren to either make room for him on its A-squad or rent a spot, possibly at Toro Rosso, in an undetermined role. While Norris is certainly on its radar, McLaren's mention of him moving up to drive full-time for the team next year hasn't been as suggestive as that of Sainz. After all, Norris admitted himself that his 2018 season has been his "worst ever," even though he's in contention for the championship.
Alfa Romeo Sauber
- Engine Supplier: Ferrari
- Constructors' Championship: 9th (18 points)
- Drivers: Charles Leclerc (Monaco), Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
- Best Race Finish(es): P6 (Leclerc, Azerbaijan Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Leclerc, Ericsson
- New Contender(s): Antonio Giovinazzi, Kimi Räikkönen
Thanks to added manufacturer support from Ferrari (neè Alfa Romeo), Sauber has had its best season in years with the promising talent of Charles Leclerc and longtime driver Marcus Ericsson in tow. The Swiss team, though still in the lower half of the championship standings, has displayed its worth and shown what it can do with its established and still-developing crew. The next step in this process could be acquiring a key driver to catapult it toward the top of the midfield.
Serving as a testbed for Maranello protege Leclerc, Sauber could add yet another driver of the same likeness in 2019: Antonio Giovinazzi. The skillful Italian currently works as a test driver for multiple teams in the Ferrari ladder, but tracing back two years, he could be called to run with the team led by Frédéric Vasseur. In F1's mid-season testing at Hungary, the 24-year-old set a track record in the big boy Ferrari SF71H and wowed the higher-ups to a degree that may earn him a full-time role. His eagerness to prove himself as more than a "simulator driver" has worked well for Giovinazzi, and if Leclerc does step up to the Scuderia in 2019, he's likely on the shortlist for Sauber; that is if Kimi Raäkkönen doesn't land there first.
The Finnish driver has been infamously linked to replacement at Ferrari in recent years and seeing Leclerc's rapid improvement could potentially hurt his role as a strong number two driver to Sebastian Vettel. The 17-year F1 veteran touts an incredibly respectable track record with a Drivers' Title in 2007, the most recent for Ferrari, but his age and tenure left in the sport could relinquish him to Sauber sooner rather than later. Consistency does bode well for Kimi with his podium tear as of late, so conclusively, it'll be a decision made by comparing and contrasting the benefits of keeping him in Vettel's repertoire versus making room for Leclerc up top.
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda
- Engine Supplier: Honda
- Constructors' Championship: 8th (28 points)
- Drivers: Pierre Gasly (France), Brendon Hartley (New Zealand)
- Best Race Finish(es): P4 (Gasly, Bahrain Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Gasly, Hartley
- New Contender(s): Carlos Sainz Jr., Lando Norris, Dan Ticktum, Stoffel Vandoorne
Regardless of how things shake out for Pierre Gasly with regards to a possible promotion to the big Red Bull Racing team, the Frenchman is guaranteed to race for one of the organization's stables after chief Helmut Marko previously told Motorsport-Total Gasly was at least assured a Toro Rosso drive for 2019.
As for Brendon Hartley, there was a time at the start of 2018 when it seemed the New Zealander wouldn’t even be in Formula 1 anymore come time for the summer break. Hartley failed to impress and mostly caught the eye with a couple of spectacular shunts, so it didn’t take long for him to get Marko’s infamous "hurry up." With Toro Rosso failing to strike a deal with possible replacements, however, Hartley was given a reprieve. Things subsequently picked up for him on and off track, with Marko telling Motorsport-Total that “the plan is to have Hartley see out the season.” Somewhat surprisingly, the recent shake-up within the Red Bull stables may now even offer him a future beyond 2018.
Should Toro Rosso have one, or more, seats to fill, however, a lot will hinge on whether its British Formula 3-prospect Dan Ticktum manages to acquire a super license. Should he get one, chances are he’ll step up in 2019. Another Briton on Toro Rosso’s shopping list is Lando Norris. Norris is tied to McLaren as part of their junior driver programme and Toro Rosso couldn’t get a deal done for him to replace Hartley earlier in the year. The BBC has reported, however, Norris may be free to move if McLaren doesn’t offer him a 2019 race seat. Further, Norris could yet be involved in negotiations on technical director James Key’s move from Toro Rosso to McLaren. Another name that’s been mentioned (according to the Autosport podcast) is Stoffel Vandoorne, the Belgian whose seat is currently under threat at McLaren.
Force India F1 Team
- Engine Supplier: Mercedes
- Constructors' Championship: 6th (59 points)
- Drivers: Sergio Perez (Mexico), Esteban Ocon (France)
- Best Race Finish(es): P3 (Perez, Azerbaijan Grand Prix)
- Seat(s) Thought Available: Perez, Ocon
- New Contender(s): Lance Stroll, Robert Kubica
Seats at Force India are some of the most sought-after outside those offered by frontrunners because of the team's ability to constantly produce an upper-midfield car despite its minuscule budget.
Team owner Vijay Mallya expressed intent to retain both Perez and Ocon for the 2019 season in mid-July, according to RaceFans. Force India's shaky financial foundations began to crumble just days later, when a creditor took the team to court, threatening dissolution of the team if its debts were not paid. Perez reacted with a legal claim of his own that placed the team into administration, wresting Force India's control from Mallya's hands.
This allowed the team to continue operation until ownership could be transferred to a group of investors led by the Stroll family, which will presumably have say in the team's 2019 driver lineup, and an interest in slotting Lance Stroll into one of Force India's race seats. If the Stroll family has its way and lands Lance a drive, the remaining race seat will be contested among the team's current race drivers, Perez and Ocon, and potentially even Robert Kubica.
Ocon was linked to a Renault transfer prior to Ricciardo's signing, leaving the Mercedes-backed driver fighting to stay in the sport. He can wield his 2018 race record—better than Perez's overall—as a weapon to defend his drive, though Perez claimed his worries about the team's future have taken a toll on his driving this year. According to a tweet string by well-connected journalist Will Buxton, Perez may have "recommitted" to a 2019 drive, though the Mexican has many potential exit strategies if he isn't chosen. Ocon lacks any reported links to other teams and may be banking on his performance buying him a 2019 seat at Force India.
A dark horse candidate is Williams's current reserve driver, Robert Kubica, whom Lance Stroll reportedly wants to take with him to Force India as a teammate and mentor according to Motorsport Magazine. Kubica may be financially bonded to Williams, and the Strolls would need to take action to transfer him to Force India. The Drive approached Williams for information on its relationship with Stroll and Kubica, but the team's spokesperson declined to comment.
There has not yet been any suggestion of Force India's reserve driver Nicholas Latifi moving up to take the race seat, and as a more experienced (and well-established) Mercedes-backed junior driver, Ocon would likely take priority over George Russell in considerations for 2019.
Market Keystones: Who to Watch
Lance Stroll looks to be the cue ball ready to break the market, propelled by his father Lawrence into Force India, which will have a tough time deciding its second driver from a wealth of options: Perez, Ocon, and potentially Kubica. The remaining two may ricochet into Williams or Haas, the latter of which is the only team within the Ferrari engine supply family with even tenuous links to drivers from outside the Maranello pipeline.
Haas may even squabble with the Red Bull organization and McLaren over Sainz, who has four teams on the hook. Four total seats are thought to be available between Red Bull, Toro Rosso, and McLaren, and four total drivers are believed to be in line for these positions. The Red Bull drive will likely go to either Sainz or Gasly, and the remaining three seats will likely be assigned to McLaren and Toro Rosso based on who proves the hottest commodity (Ticktum's promotion looks improbable).
Sainz's contract stipulates that he be promoted to Red Bull for the 2019 season by the end of August, so he'll either make varsity or enter free agency and become an option for McLaren (or Haas). If Red Bull wants Sainz, they will want to secure him by the end of the month.
Even if they win the title, Formula 2 prospects Norris and Russell are not necessarily guaranteed an immediate drive in Formula 1, even though the winner cannot re-enter the series. Japan's Super Formula or a reserve driver role could be used to keep either under control, though the desirable Norris may enjoy promotion regardless of championship results. Russell's best hope seems to be a Williams seat, and even then, he looks more likely to end up in reserve driver limbo for the near future.
Ferrari's driver shuffle will probably be internal. Räikkönen and Grosjean are on the ropes, while Leclerc and Giovinazzi are potentially ready to take their respective seats. Unless the Finn's performance appalls, though, Ferrari's management change and pushback from Vettel could put the kibosh on a Leclerc promotion, and Giovinazzi's chances largely depend on whether Grosjean gets it together.
Keep an eye on Sainz and Stroll during the summer break, then Räikkönen and Grosjean on track afterward. Their moves will be those crucial to determining grid makeup in 2019.