Formula One: Here's why McLaren's first non-champion driver lineup for 2019 hardly comes as a surprise

One by one, the pieces of the 2019 Formula 1 Season jigsaw puzzle are falling in place. Carlos Sainz Jr was announced as McLaren’s driver for next season. He will race in the seat vacated by his childhood hero and two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Fernando Alonso. The McLaren-Sainz announcement is a domino effect of the earlier announcements made by Daniel Ricciardo (to Renault) and Alonso (to race elsewhere in 2019). From the 20 racing seats next year, 13 are yet to be announced and there’s good chance that your favourite team-driver combination from 2018 might not remain for 2019.

Exodus of drivers at Red Bull

Back to Sainz’s story, his move to McLaren can be interpreted in many ways. Firstly, he was released of his Red Bull Racing contract to allow his move to McLaren to be completed. After Ricciardo, Sainz is the second ‘senior’ driver to leave the team in a span of a few weeks. The exodus of drivers from the Red Bull Racing camp is surprising and will give the team headaches while trying to fit the four cockpits they have across both their teams (Toro Rosso being the other). But we will come to this point later.

Fernando Alonso decided not to continue with McLaren in 2019, instead shifting his focus towards IndyCar among other options. Reuters

McLaren's Fernando Alonso has decided to shift his focus towards IndyCar among other options in 2019. Reuters

Was Red Bull Racing pleased to let go off Sainz given his inability to match Nico Hulkenberg in the first half of 2018? Also, Pierre Gasly’s strong show in the same period would have made Red Bull Racing’s decision easier than one would have expected. However, Sainz isn’t new to receiving step-treatment from Red Bull Racing; he was overseen in 2015 when Daniil Kvyat was demoted and Max Verstappen (Sainz’s then-teammate) was offered the promotion. Similarly last year, in the McLaren-Renault-Honda-Toro Rosso swap, Sainz was the unexpected beneficiary when he was promoted from Toro Rosso to racing for Renault. However, Renault’s decision to hire Daniel Ricciardo for 2019 and 2020 meant that Sainz was overseen as dependable talent yet again.

Did Sainz choose to leave Red Bull?

One of the big lessons for drivers from 2018 is that while the overall season performance matters and is recorded in the history books, at times like these, race-wise performance matters too. Basically, the pressure to perform every fortnight remains as high as ever. In Sainz’s case, the Hulkenberg beatings would have cost him a potential race victory at Red Bull Racing for next season. However, did Sainz choose to not go to Red Bull Racing given their obsession with Verstappen? And like all No 1 drivers, did Verstappen have a say in which driver would be his teammate in 2019? For the latter, one would wonder if Red Bull Racing would allow their young and still-maturing driver such power in their team already.

While McLaren’s second driver is yet to be announced, one would assume that either Stoffel Vandoorne or Lando Norris would partner Sainz. In which case, Sainz has the opportunity to be the senior-most driver in the team and work to build a team around him. Given McLaren’s current re-building phase, Sainz does have his task cut out. It will be a tough journey, but an immensely rewarding one, if they get there together. But it would only be valid for fans to wonder if Sainz has the relative experience to rebuild an almost broken McLaren. He will start his fifth Formula 1 season when he begins his McLaren career next season.

After his novice days at Toro Rosso, this is the first time in Sainz’s career that he has a multi-year contract with a team. In fact, McLaren would be his third team in five seasons of racing. Let’s remember that at Renault, he had only four races towards the end of last season and before he could find his footing in the team in 2018, he was already replaced. While Renault’s impatience can be justified, Sainz has had limited time in the team to prove his potential. But then again, this is Formula 1 and impatience is often rewarded. Look at Max Verstappen!

If McLaren wasn’t the place for Alonso for 2019, it certainly seems like the place for Sainz to be. Both the Spaniards are in different stages of their career and would expect different things from McLaren. In Alonso’s case, he was chasing his third Formula 1 World Championship, however, in Sainz’s case, he would be happy with the stability that McLaren would offer his career and hope that he is able to lead the team back to their days of glory.

McLaren has hired a discard

However, in McLaren’s case, it almost seems clear that Ricciardo opted to not race for the former World Champion team from Woking and chose Renault instead. For the first time since 2006, McLaren’s driver line-up wouldn’t include a reigning or former World Champion driver and given their recent struggles, this doesn’t come as a surprise whatsoever. In fact, the story could also be interpreted as McLaren signing a driver that has been discarded by their faster rivals — Renault and Red Bull Racing. But McLaren would have known that given their current scenario, Sainz is the best they could have attracted and there is good chance that the team will play up his famous last name to keep fans and sponsors interested.

In the Red Bull Racing context, it is almost certain, and an announcement is in the waiting to see Gasly be announced as teammate for 2019. Gasly’s impressive performances this season (fourth in Bahrain, seventh in Monaco and sixth in Hungary) in the Toro Rosso-Honda deserve a promotion. Whether Gasly has performed better than Sainz did at Toro Rosso isn’t much of a question — the fact is that Gasly’s heroics in the Toro Rosso did create more buzz than Sainz’s struggles at Renault this season. Apart from that, Red Bull Racing would have enough driver data to make a judgment on who would be quicker — Gasly or Sainz. However, the bigger problem for Red Bull Racing would be to fill up two cockpits in Toro Rosso.

Ricciardo and Sainz’s exit from Red Bull Racing and Gasly’s promotion to the parent team could be a lifeline for the reigning World Endurance Champion and Toro Rosso driver, Brendon Hartley. The New Zealander’s name has done the rounds almost every Grand Prix weekend as the driver who would be replaced as early as the next. However, Toro Rosso might choose to retain Hartley for his experience while figuring who his partner would be over the next few months.

The Key To Red Bull’s Toro Rosso Problem

Red Bull Racing, who have otherwise had the ‘problem of plenty’ when it came to driving talent, might be forced to offer an early promotion to one of their younger drivers (eg: Dan Ticktum) or bring back one of their earlier discards (e.g. Sebastian Buemi or Jean Eric Vergne), like they did with Hartley in 2017. The senior-most driver in the Red Bull Junior Team is Nirei Fukuzumi, currently racing in Formula 2.

While Fukuzumi’s results in his maiden Formula 2 are far from impressive, one wonders if Honda would pressurise Red Bull Racing into giving the young Japanese driver a seat alongside Hartley. However, given Red Bull Racing’s otherwise cut-throat and no-nonsense approach when it comes to driving talent, such a move would be highly surprising. In the case of discards like Buemi or Vergne, they have settled in their racing careers outside of Formula 1 and probably wouldn’t risk coming back unless it was a drive with the parent team, Red Bull Racing.

However, the Toro Rosso driver problem could be solved by James Key, their Technical Director. Key has been signed by McLaren in their restructuring, but is yet to be released by Toro Rosso. There is good chance that Red Bull Racing would break this deadlock by asking for McLaren’s junior and Formula 2 driver, Lando Norris for their second seat at Toro Rosso in exchange for releasing Key. Norris is currently second in the 2018 Formula 2 Championship and is the 2017 European Formula 3 champion. The young British driver is talented and currently, McLaren seem content with letting him race in the junior series than bring him to Formula 1 ahead of time.

At the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix next weekend, one would expect more driver announcements coming their way, but which driver will go where in 2019? Well, we aren’t placing any bets yet!


Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 20:00 PM

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