In the same week that Ferrari promoted Charles Leclerc to its senior team, Pascal Wehrlein announced he was severing his Mercedes ties, while his fellow Silver Arrows development driver, Esteban Ocon, appears resigned to falling off the grid in 2019.
The German-Mauritian, who competed for Manor and Sauber, has been left at a dead end with Mercedes’ impending departure from the DTM, which Wehrlein returned to this season, meaning the 23-year old’s hand was effectively forced if he wishes to resume his F1 career.
Meanwhile, Ocon faces a similar decision, with Mercedes seemingly unwilling to invest into a midfield team as a breeding ground for its juniors, nor stump up the cash for a rival to field the Frenchman in favour of less worthy candidates.
Ferrari might be making a meal of its championship bid, yet the decision to blood Leclerc, directly from its notional feeder team in Sauber, is a pleasing exception to the wasteland which houses some of the brightest talents whose careers have been terminated prematurely through association.
Manufacturers are within their right to stockpile drivers and equally to cull those who don’t cut it, though failing to boast a viable pathway in any event is both negligible and counterintuitive to the entire premise.
While Mercedes’ refusal to futureproof remains at odds with their on-track dominance, the buck ultimately stops with the sport itself, and exposes an inherent flaw in the business of going racing, where independent outfits’ interest is restricted to those carrying the fattest wallet rather than ability.
Soaring development costs in the restless arms race means the non-manufacturers are being forced into taking on pay drivers just to meet bottom lines, and the inevitable lack of competitiveness cancels out the financial benefits, completing the vicious cycle.
It has become a greater issue in recent years as the depth of talent has proliferated, yet many drivers whose opportunity never arose won’t ever be known to casual F1 fans, as they’ve been forced to ply their trade in other categories purely on account of the lack of options at the top level.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff recently admitted that failure to source a drive for any of its development roster next season – including George Russell, the Briton who is set to claim the F2 title, would cause its program to face an internal review.
“If we can’t find a solution for these guys, I would question the junior programme in the future”, the Austrian remarked, adding, “this has come to a point now where we need to decide what we want to do.”
Mercedes’ owner Daimler’s strict emphasis on providing resources rather than outright capital means emulating Red Bull and its feeder team in Toro Rosso isn’t a consideration, a sentiment which Wolff echoes, arguing that “putting 80, 90, 100 million euros into a junior team every year just to keep drivers in place is not what I’d want to do.”
Therein lies the issue – if Mercedes are unwilling to absorb the monetary hit to justify the time they put into placing their drivers in F1 without a path to progression, the question must be asked why they bothered in the first instance?
Ferrari won’t die wondering about Leclerc, while McLaren – even in purgatory – have handed Lando Norris an opportunity, yet it beggars belief that none of Mercedes’ talent pool, which is considerable and not least in the case of Ocon, appears to have an immediate future in the sport.