Charles Leclerc's F1 Practice Drives at Sauber Are Confirmed
Marcus Ericsson will give up his seat for Free Practice One in Malaysia, but does that mean he is the one on the way out at Sauber?
Sauber F1 has officially confirmed that F2 star Charles Leclerc will get four Free Practice One drives with the team before the end of the season. Leclerc will handle FP1 duties in Malaysia, the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. He won't be driving for the team in Japan as he'll be in Spain for a Formula 2 race.
Sauber has also confirmed that in Malaysia, Marcus Ericsson will be the one to loan his car to Leclerc for FP1. The team did not say which car Leclerc will drive during the other three FP1 sessions, but it will either be Ericsson's or Pascal Wehrlein's. How that plays out might be an indicator as to who Leclerc might replace at Sauber in 2018. While nothing is official yet, it would be more surprising if Leclerc didn't end up at Sauber at this point.
As the Silly Season drags on with engine supplier changes and no word from Fernando Alonso as to his plans for 2018, Sauber finds itself in a unique but familiar position. They have two race seats and as many as four drivers linked to them.
The team's current line-up of Ericsson and Wehrlein would both very much like to stay in Formula 1 and right now, there are not many options other than Sauber. Swedish driver Ericsson has connections to the Swiss investment firm that owns the team and he brings in much-needed sponsor money. Wehrlein has scored the team's only points so far this year and is arguably the better driver of the pair.
This is where things get complicated. Sauber uses Ferrari engines. Leclerc, a Ferrari-back junior driver, will almost certainly be joining Sauber next year. Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne has mentioned, as reported in Autosport, that Ferrari is looking into using Sauber as a junior team to ready drivers a for a seat in The Big Red Car.
Further complicating matters is Antonio Giovinazzi. The former GP2 (which is now Formula 2) driver is also a Ferrari junior driver and reserve driver for Sauber. He drove for Sauber in the first two races on 2017, filling in for the injured and recovering Wehrlein. While the results weren't exactly perfect, Ferrari would love to get him a full-time F1 drive. Giovinazzi is a skilled driver and has done everything asked of him to earn a race seat.
Does Ferrari clean house at Sauber and place both Leclerc and Giovinazzi in race seats? Will Leclerc get a drive while one of the Sauber vets stays on? As mentioned, Ericsson has connections and money but has been outperformed by Wehrlein. On the other hand, Wehrlein has a longstanding relationship with Mercedes. Ferrari might not be too keen to keep him around if they are going to treat Sauber as a junior Ferrari team.
If Giovinazzi doesn't get a promotion, he might feel snubbed by Ferrari and Sauber. He could jump ship for another team or maybe to some Ferrari-back sports car team in another series. Life as a Ferrari driver isn't always fair, but that risk is well-known when you sign up.
This whole mess could be solved by Alonso. If he were to leave Formula 1, that would open up a seat for someone like Wehrlein to move to. But he isn't the only one playing musical chairs, so who knows what would happen in that scenario.
Going forward at Sauber, the race results in Malaysia and Japan will likely determine who's car Leclerc will drive in his other three FP1 appearances. That will most likely be who will be getting the ax from Sauber to make room for Leclerc.
As far as Giovinazzi and the whole Ferrari junior team idea goes, that will likely be decided behind closed doors and with contracts. Specifically, engine contracts. Sauber has said it isn't looking to be Ferrari's junior team, but money talks and Sauber needs money. Ferrari could cut Sauber a sweet deal on engines in exchange for getting Giovinazzi in the car alongside Leclerc.
For now, we wait as the Silly Season drags on and on.