Six teams have confirmed their driver lineups for 2019 (most recently Sauber this week), leaving four teams with spaces and a whole bunch of drivers hoping they won’t be left without a seat. As one of the most turbulent driver markets in recent memory draws to a close, we speculate on how the final few moves will play out.
The two seats at Force India have become a key part of the driver market this year. Lawrence Stroll’s acquisition of the team over the summer means his son Lance is expected to make the switch from Williams next season, which in turn is likely to leave current Force India driver Esteban Ocon out of a drive.
The legal action taken by Sergio Perez at the start of July triggered the chain of events which eventually saved the team and allowed it to be sold to Stroll and his consortium of investors. That, combined with Perez’s funding from Mexico, means it is likely he will stay at the team next year.
Ocon is on a long-term Mercedes junior driver contract and that now appears to be working against him with the seats left available for 2019. Ahead of the summer break, a deal was all but done for him to move to Renault next year but Daniel Ricciardo’s shock signing put an end to that plan. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has made clear that he is not willing to enter a bidding war to secure Ocon a seat and has hinted that it is now more likely that the Frenchman will spend a season on the sidelines.
With Stroll almost certain to be driving at Force India next year, there’s at least one seat up for grabs at Williams. Mercedes is keen to place its other junior driver, George Russell, the current Formula 2 championship leader, at Williams and he has been in talks with the British team at a number of rounds this season.
In theory, Mercedes could place Ocon at the team instead, but that would represent a step backwards in many respects. If he wins the F2 title, Russell will have more to prove and gain from a season at a struggling Williams team than Ocon — and for that reason the British driver is more likely to secure the drive. Any deal will probably be linked to a new gearbox and technical partnership between Mercedes and Williams.
Sergey Sirotkin has been hampered with the worst car on the grid for his rookie season but brings significant financial backing to the team. That looks likely to secure him a second season in F1 at a time when Williams will be losing both its Martini title sponsorship and the backing of Lawrence Stroll. Robert Kubica has also been waiting in the wings as reserve driver this season, gaining several on-track appearances in the process, and he will be high on the team’s list if either of the Russell or Sirotkin deals fall through.
Ricciardo’s move from Red Bull and Pierre Gasly’s elevation to replace him has left Toro Rosso in a bit of a bind when considering options for next year. Red Bull’s line of eligible young drivers with superlicences has dried up in the past 12 months, meaning it is now looking to the past rather than the future. As a result, Daniil Kvyat is expected to be announced by the team over the Russian Grand Prix weekend, giving the ‘Torpedo’ an unexpected third chance with Toro Rosso.
To recap, Kvyat made his F1 debut with the team in 2014 before being promoted to Red Bull in 2015 when Sebastian Vettel went to Ferrari. He then got demoted back to Toro Rosso in 2016 after crashing into Vettel at the Russian Grand Prix — earning himself the nickname ‘Torpedo’ in the process — just as Max Verstappen’s exploits in the Toro Rosso were proving too impressive to ignore. In 2017 he raced 14 rounds before he was replaced by Gasly at the Malaysian Grand Prix, but then made one last appearance in Austin because Gasly was fighting the final round of his Super Formula season in Japan. At the end of the 2017 season he was dropped by Red Bull altogether and signed a deal to become a Ferrari simulator and test driver. But despite all that, the machinations of the 2019 driver market have put him back into contention for a drive with Toro Rosso and another shot at making a career as an F1 driver.
Kvyat’s story is almost as remarkable as Brendon Hartley’s, who returned to the Red Bull junior driver fold at the end of last season eight years after he was originally dropped from the programme. Sadly, the fairy tale hasn’t continued into his first full season at Toro Rosso and results have been hard to come by this year. Whether his performances have been enough to convince the notoriously hard-to-please Helmut Marko to give him another chance in 2019 remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Pascal Wehrlein has come back onto Toro Rosso’s radar after leaving the Mercedes junior team earlier this month. Wehrlein last raced in F1 in 2017 for Sauber but found himself without a seat when Alfa Romeo money came flooding into the Swiss team at the end of last year. At 23 he still has a huge amount of potential and Marko would likely get a kick out of making a success story of a former Mercedes driver.
In terms of Red Bull’s own junior programme, Dan Ticktum would be next in line for a Toro Rosso drive but doesn’t have the points needed for an F1 superlicence. He is currently second in the F3 title fight to Mick Schumacher, but even if he wins the title he would still be short of the 40 superlicence points required to secure a drive in F1 — a legacy of a year-long ban he received in 2016 for overtaking under a Safety Car and crashing into a rival driver.
Although it has not been talked about as much as the teams above, Haas has yet to confirm its line-up for 2019. In Singapore, team principal Guenther Steiner said an announcement would be made in the next two weeks, so keep an eye out for something official over the Sochi weekend.
There is very little doubt that the team will exercise its option on Kevin Magnussen for next season as the Dane has been one of the standout performers of 2018. The future of Romain Grosjean was less certain for much of this season, but a run of good performances since the summer break may have saved him.
With such an open driver market for much of the year, Grosjean picked a bad season to struggle for form, but with Ferrari-backed Antonio Giovinazzi now confirmed at Sauber, another possible threat is off the radar. The only other one could come from Perez if a deal with Force India falls through, but that looks unlikely at this stage.
The confirmed grid so far…
Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas
Mercedes locked down its current driver line-up during its home race in Germany. Valtteri Bottas has been retained on another single year deal with an option for 2020, while Lewis Hamilton will remain with the team until the end of 2020. Ocon’s current position means there is already talk that he could replace Bottas in 2020.
Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc
After extensive speculation, Charles Leclerc was confirmed as Sebastian Vettel’s teammate following the Italian Grand Prix. The plan was put in place by former CEO and Chairman Sergio Marchionne before his death and once new leadership was fully in place it decided to action the move. Kimi Raikkonen, who was informed of the decision after qualifying his Ferrari on pole position at the team’s home race, then signed a surprise deal to return to Sauber.
Max Verstappen, Pierre Gasly
Red Bull did not wait long to confirm its plans for 2019 after Ricciardo dropped his summer bombshell. The confirmation of Carlos Sainz to McLaren opened the door for the elevation of Gasly from Toro Rosso. On the Monday ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, the team made the announcement, meaning the French driver will partner Max Verstappen in 2019.
Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg
After months of courting Daniel Ricciardo, Renault finally got their man in August after the Australian made the shock decision to switch to the French manufacturer for next season. The team had also been in talks with Mercedes about a loan deal for Esteban Ocon. The Ricciardo acquisition puts the Australian alongside Nico Hulkenberg, who signed a multi-year deal in 2017.
Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris
It is clear McLaren feared Fernando Alonso would walk away from F1, as it spent much of this year (unsuccessfully) courting Ricciardo. When it became clear that wasn’t possible, it went after Sainz and was able to complete the deal when Red Bull’s option on the Spaniard expired during the summer break. Soon after, the team confirmed it would be starting with a clean slate in 2019, with plans to drop Stoffel Vandoorne — who has struggled all season — and promote junior driver Lando Norris from F2 next year.
Kimi Raikkonen, Antonio Giovinazzi
Although it was rumoured before the summer, very few people paid attention to the stories linking Raikkonen to Sauber. But when it became clear that Ferrari would go ahead with Marchionne’s plan to promote Leclerc in 2019, Raikkonen wasted no time confirming his switch in the opposite direction. He will be joined by Ferrari junior driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who raced for the team at the opening two races of the 2017 F1 season.