Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has indicated that Esteban Ocon and George Russell may find themselves without an F1 drive in 2019, and that he is not willing to enter into a bidding war for the remaining seats on the 2019 grid.
Both Ocon, who is currently driving for Force India, and Russell, who is leading the F2 championship, are on long-term young driver contracts with Mercedes, but do not have seat in F1 confirmed for 2019. Ocon is set to lose his drive to Lance Stroll — the son of Force India’s new owner Lawrence Stroll — in 2019, while F2 regulations will prevent Russell from completing in the category for a second season if he wins the championship this year.
Wolff insists the two junior drivers have the potential to win F1 races for Mercedes in the future, but with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas contracted to the team in 2019, it’s looking increasingly likely that at least one will have to sit out of next season.
“There are many good drivers who merit a drive in Formula One, both young ones and more experienced ones, but at the moment cockpits are a limited commodity,” Wolff explained. “Both Esteban and George certainly deserve to be in Formula One; we are still working on options and will carefully decide what’s best for them. If that means having to play the long game, then we will continue to prepare and develop them.”
Russell has held talks with Williams about a drive for 2019 and is a strong candidate to replace Stroll when he moves to Force India. But such a deal is likely to hinge on a wider engine and gearbox agreement between Mercedes and Williams and the possible discount that will come with it. But if Russell does get the Williams seat, it would result in a scenario where Mercedes has no options left for Ocon.
However, Wolff said such a scenario would not mean Mercedes is allowing Russell to skip the queue ahead of Ocon and that the next step in the two drivers’ careers look quite different.
“I think because the two of them are at very different stages in their career, George is still in the fight for the F2 championship and it’s not done, and he clearly has the talent and would merit a go in Formula One.
“He’s not in as tricky position as Esteban. I don’t think the two of them will… how do you say, stumble across themselves or get in each other’s way.”
The ‘business case’
Wolff also made clear that he would not broker deals for Ocon and Russell to race in Formula One at any cost. Ultimately, Ocon could be a candidate for a Force India drive in 2019 if Mercedes was willing to better Sergio Perez’s financial package, but Wolff said he could not lose sight of where Mercedes should be applying its resources in F1.
“We are all keen in finding the next superstar but as Mercedes our core objective is to run our racing team and have the best possible driver in the car to win races and compete for championships,” he said. “You can see that for most of the other junior programmes, if you’re lacking either a partner team like Red Bull has with Toro Rosso or contractual relationships like Ferrari has with Sauber, Haas, then it’s very difficult to find the right place for young drivers and all our resource or 99 percent of our resource goes into running the team and a young driver, beyond the emotional aspect, also needs to make commercial sense.
“If you continue to just open the floodgates to pay for young drivers to place them in Formula One then it’s not what we want to pursue. We supported Pascal [Wehrlein] for two years and we did with Esteban for two years, and we’ve obviously helped George to come to where he is now, but at a certain stage the business case doesn’t make sense and then this is not for us.”