Formula 1 Driver Changes – the right moves?

Some breaking news has come out in the Formula 1 world this week, with four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel announcing that he would leave Ferrari at the end of this year, whether we have a season or not. That then led to a game of musical drivers’ seats amongst the other teams, with Spanish star Carlos Sainz Jr. being heavily linked to the vacancy with the Italian giants, and eventually confirming it today.

That then left his former McLaren seat empty, and this was very quickly filled by Renault’s Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo. In this article, I am going to look at both moves, seeing whether they are good for both the drivers and the teams, and why.

Sainz to Ferrari

Starting with Sainz’s switch to Ferrari, I think this has been both a surprising and a good move for both. For Sainz, who has proven in his years in the sport that he can challenge for places and is a good driver, this represents a chance for him to test himself at the very top. For Ferrari, this offers them a chance to, in effect, start again, because now they have two very good drivers, and they should now be able to challenge properly, keeping the news coverage to on the track rather than off it so much, as was the case last year.

Last year at McLaren, Sainz finished in sixth place in the Championship, placing between P1 and P10 in 13 of the 21 races last year. Of the 8 where he didn’t, three were because of retirements, at Albert Park (Australia), Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium) and Monza (Italy). When he finished in the top 10, normally he was around fifth or sixth place, so again, he was already mixing with the top 3 teams (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) whilst in an apparently slower car. Therefore, whilst he already has the experience of driving at this level, he now has the experience of finishing amongst the top 10, and that will give both him and Ferrari confidence in what might happen when his talent is allied to the power of the Prancing Horse.

As for Vettel’s decision to depart, it seemed inevitable that, after last season, something might happen. Nothing seemed to go as planned for team or driver in 2019, and his final Championship placing in sixth showed just how poor it was for him and Ferrari. The German did begin well, but performances started going more downhill, and mistakes kept creeping in to his races. These included not safely re-entering the track when he had left it (and this was not just in Canada, where he was controversially denied 1st place because of a penalty, but also in Italy, where he almost caused two more cars to crash because of the way he was trying to re-enter the race). The whole boiling situation finally exploded in Brazil, when Vettel and his Monagesque teammate Charles Leclerc collided with each other in the closing stages of the race at Interlagos.

Vettel was also outpaced by Leclerc in most races, particularly in qualifying, with Leclerc picking up seven pole positions, compared to Vettel’s two. Leclerc also started higher up the grid than Vettel in the majority of races and outscored him in points and wins too.

So going back to Sainz now, there is perhaps a fear that, given how well McLaren did and how badly Ferrari did on the whole, his career might be harmed by this move. However, I don’t think it will, because the trouble last year was that Ferrari didn’t have a team, like McLaren did. The top 3 like to have a main driver and a support driver, and ensure that they have the best possible opportunity to win the title. At Mercedes, it’s Lewis Hamilton, and at Red Bull, it’s Verstappen. However, Ferrari had two drivers who wanted that position – Vettel has been the number 1 driver since Fernando Alonso left the team back in 2014, but last season Leclerc was quite obviously the better driver. So who could they pick? It was a difficult decision, but Vettel felt he was the second driver, and that wasn’t something he could accept.

However, with Sainz and Leclerc, I think now that Ferrari will be able to do what they wanted to do last year with the Monagesque, and allow him to be their first driver. Sainz won’t mind too much being in his shadow, because he’s that sort of person. He will just love driving the Ferrari car, and will give it everything he’s got, and just enjoy it. Ferrari as a team may become more enjoyable to watch.

One thing they will need to be careful of is making the same mistake that Red Bull made last year when they promoted Frenchman Pierre Gasly from their junior team, then known as Toro Rosso, now known as AlphaTauri. Gasly didn’t seem to get on with the car, his performances were not at the level expected by the team, and he was demoted back to Toro Rosso halfway through last year, with Alexander Albon making the move up, where he flourished.

I don’t think that there will be any concerns with Sainz doing the same thing, simply because he has shown, particularly last year, that he can challenge the top drivers, and is happy to drive at that level. Therefore, whilst nothing is ever certain, I don’t see him having too many issues in the long term once he has got used to the car and the team, and vice versa.

Ricciardo to McLaren

So now let’s move to McLaren’s move to replace Sainz with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo. I have already talked in depth about McLaren last season, so let’s focus on Ricciardo. He finished in ninth place in the Championship last season, which was a good result given that he was mostly failed by the car’s reliability. It was never going to be the same for him at Renault as it was with Red Bull, whom he left to join the French team this time last year, but it did seem to be worse than expected in the early stages.

Renault finished in fifth place, out of 10, in the Constructors’ Championship in 2019, which was impressive given that they had so many retirements from races. Ricciardo alone had four and also one disqualification, at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan. This might not sound a lot, but when you are at Renault’s level, you are competing with three or even four other teams to be the best of the rest (outside of the top 3), and these results cost them any chance to be that team.

Therefore, this move may give Ricciardo a chance to reignite his career a little bit, and race for a team where he can be among the top 6 more often. Sainz and British driver Lando Norris, who will partner Ricciardo next year, both proved that the McLaren team is back to it’s best, but maybe now they can take it to the next level. It was going to be possible this year that McLaren would perhaps gain a few podiums, because of their incredible pace across 2019.

That might be what has made Ricciardo’s mind up – he can now challenge for serious points again in a faster car. Credit by the way must go to the team and in particular to team principal Andreas Seidl, who joined the team in May last year, and has played a big part in their revival.

Next year, the team will also be reigniting their historically successful partnership with Mercedes, which does mean the team will be called McLaren-Mercedes once again. Times are definitely looking good for the McLaren team, and securing the signature of Ricciardo, who they had serious talks with before he joined Renault, is another reason for them to have a smile on their faces next year.

? to Renault

The last thing to mention is which drivers have been linked with Ricciardo’s former seat at Renault. They will now be having two new drivers in the team, with another Frenchman, Esteban Ocon, lined up to race in the team from this season (if this season does get underway). So who is being linked?

  • Firstly, Niko Hulkenberg, who had to make way as Renault wanted Ricciardo and Ocon for this season. There could be a rapid return to the team for the German next season.
  • Fernando Alonso is a very unlikely replacement, but it could happen. The question is whether Alonso would want to come back, and whether he would want to join Renault? It would definitely give them experience to balance out Ocon’s relative “rookie-ness”.
  • The final immediate option is their current test driver, China’s Guan You Zhou, who was the top rookie in last year’s Formula 2 season. Both George Russell and Nyck de Vries, who now races for Mercedes’ Formula E team, have come out of Formula 2, and have both done well for their current teams (Britain’s Russell is with Williams).

We will have to see what happens with that vacant seat, but Renault will have some time to think about who they want, given the 2020 season is looking less and less likely to happen at all. It will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on over the coming days and weeks.

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