Last weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix wasn’t exactly Lance Stroll’s finest hour.
With Europe sweltering in its Saharan heatwave and the championship fight lacking tension, the 2019–20 silly season has suddenly kicked into a very silly gear indeed.
Talk of the 2020 driver market is accelerating as the midseason break draws closer, the summer shutdown typically being the time the puzzle pieces begin falling into place and the greater picture starts to emerge.
But ironically the first domino in this season’s market was one left behind around this time last year. Esteban Ocon, the 22-year-old Frenchman and Mercedes junior, is in desperate need of a seat lest his rising star begin waning during a second season on the sidelines.
Of course, he was supposed to be provided refuge at Renault this season before the French team reneged on an agreement and courted Daniel Ricciardo in the shock move of the season instead. It burnt Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who accused Renault counterpart Cyril Abiteboul of not being gentlemanly, but he’s certain this season he’ll find a home for his young charge.
“We are looking at all options,” Wolff said in France. “Esteban is a hot topic because he’s clearly one of the most promising young drivers and he deserves to be in Formula One…I am very optimistic that we will see him in a Formula One car next year.”
The driver market is a trickle-down device, with the top teams almost always having the luxury of making their decision first, the effects of which influence the choices of the smaller squads. Mercedes is unlikely to change its driver line-up for 2020 — Lewis Hamilton’s position requires no justification, while Valtteri Bottas has been at minimum a dependable teammate this season — and with Ferrari and Red Bull Racing obviously not options, Ocon will have to be placed further down the grid.
But in the hyper-partisan world of Formula One, there are only so many destinations.
Neither Mercedes-powered team is an easy fit. At Racing Point Lance Stroll, the boss’s son, holds a seat, while Sergio Perez provides much-needed counterbalancing experience. At Williams George Russell, a fellow Mercedes junior, is already contracted, and signing Ocon next to him risks destroying one of Mercedes’s investments.
Moreover, reserve driver Nicholas Latifi, second in the F2 championship, is already tipped to replace Robert Kubica at the end of the year.
Attention then turns to the neutral Renault-powered teams, and with McLaren already spoken for with its own set of hungry young drivers, only Renault remains an option — and this is where things get really interesting.
Nico Hulkenberg is out of contract at the end of the season and has already been linked to Pierre Gasly’s seat at Red Bull Racing, as considered here last month. Such a move would be problem solved for Ocon, but both Nico and RBR have talked down the rumour, even in light of Pierre’s continued poor performances.
“We still believe in him and we’ll give him all the support we can to try and nurture the talent we know he has,” Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner said after Gasly finished a lap down on his race-winning teammate in Austria. “There is no intention to change Pierre. He’s our driver, we’re going to work with him, we will try to get the best out of him.”
Perhaps Red Bull Racing really is losing its ruthless streak — or perhaps it’s worried Max Verstappen will trigger his oft-rumoured exit clause in his contract and will be caught short for drivers. Whatever the case, Hulkenberg’s speculated upon switch to Red Bull Racing is far from certain.
But there could yet be an alternative — Daniel Ricciardo could be the driver set to make way despite being contracted to Renault through to the end of next season.
A report from distinguished F1 journalist Dan Knutson last week revealed Ferrari has approached both Ricciardo and Bottas to fill possible vacancies next season, with the latter out of contract with Mercedes and the former rumoured to have a get-out clause in his contract should a front-running team come knocking.
It would be the second successive year Ricciardo would make the most substantial move in the driver market, sensationally concluding a switch tipped to take place 12 months ago before the Italian team decided to promote internally with Charles Leclerc rather than hire the first Australian full-time driver in its history.
Ferrari is, of course, all signed up for next season, with Leclerc on a long-term deal and Vettel covered until the end of 2020, but the Scuderia is apparently sufficiently concerned that Sebastian may call time on his F1 career prematurely that it considers it prudent to have a back-up plan in place.
That isn’t to say Ferrari thinks it’s likely Vettel will hang up the helmet next year — indeed Ferrari is often said to have some kind of connection with just about every driver on the grid to cover all eventualities — but then the German’s demeanour after losing the Canadian Grand Prix and describing F1 as “not the sport that I fell in love with” would hardly have alleviated concerns.
Still, Vettel insisted in the lead-up to last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix that he wasn’t preparing for a surprise retirement announcement.
“As I said before, we’ll see what the future brings — but I’m here now and as far as I know I’ll be here next year, so I’m not thinking about that.”
Alternatively, Ferrari may simply be preparing for Vettel to leave the sport at the end of his contract, when Ricciardo, among others, will be free agents, preparing us for a major realignment ahead of the 2021 regulation changes.
Every driver market story carries with it a kernel of truth, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the 2019–20 silly season comes together.