Despite the 2017 F1 season still being in its infancy, one team has already raised their proverbial hand in respect of the 2018 season.
The on-track action at Sochi saw both Sauber drivers struggle all weekend, however Marcus Ericsson put on, what Monisha Kaltenborn described as, a fighting performance, to finish in fifteenth place ahead of team mate Pascal Wehrlein who brought home the car in sixteenth place.
It was however the off-track activity that garnered attention after the Swiss outfit announced that they would part ways with long time partner Ferrari in favour of a new engine supplier in 2018—Honda.
Honda, who have faced a barrage of detractors this season including two-time world champion and incumbent McLaren-Honda driver Fernando Alonso are looking forward to the challenge that Sauber will bring, according to Katsuhide Moriyama, Chief Officer, Brand and Communication Operations for Honda.
Kaltenborn likewise sees this as yet another milestone in the storied history of the independent team, who celebrate 25 years in F1 during this 2017 season. The move is in line with changes envisioned by the new ownership of the popular team.
While a feature-length debate could be made about the decision and the advantages and disadvantages to both sides, it has led to an interesting, albeit early look at possible 2018 driver line up.
THE McLAREN SIDE AND OTHER MOVES
Kaltenborn has not confirmed any links with the McLaren team; however, if history is to be relied on then it is possible that McLaren may supply Sauber with a gearbox and technical knowledge. This could lead to a driver placement, akin to that utilised by the Mercedes team in recent years. Two names stand out as far as McLaren are concerned:
NYCK DE VRIES
The 22-year-old McLaren Development driver, who is managed by one Anthony Hamilton, is currently racing in the Formula 2 series for Rapax and had been considered for the Ferrari GT programme, but McLaren had retained the faith in their protégé, keeping him in single seaters.
It is faith that seems well-placed, albeit with just the Bahrain F2 round complete, with De Vries finishing in the points in both races, and ahead of his very experienced teammate, giving him 9th place in the championship standings.
Why could De Vries make the hypothetical jump to F1 in 2018? For one, he is incredibly quick and a fast learner who could slot in a role next to the more experienced Ericsson (who is fancied to be retained) with ease. In Hamilton, he has a manager who is au faire with the ever-evolving animal that is the F1 paddock and who could make the transition an easier one that most.
His Dutch nationality could also count in his favour: ever since the arrival of Max Verstappen and the entrance of Heineken into F1, the Netherlands has seen an upsurge in the popularity of the sport, which can only be an advantage to De Vries.
The 2014 LMP2 Le Mans winner is a favourite in the motorsport world and is McLaren’s test driver having been signed in 2012, and is spending the 2017 season in the Formula E series with NextEV NIO.
Turvey’s racing acumen holds him in excellent stead for a possible entry into F1 and he has the intelligence to take on the technical side given that his Masters dissertation is based on F1 aerodynamics. Turvey will bring a wealth of racing knowledge to a team and would need very little time to learn the dynamics of F1.
SHAKEN AND STIRRED?
The Sauber Honda partnership has the potential to shake up other driver moves. The current lineup of Ericsson and Wehrlein have not been paired together for very long, given the latter’s slow recovery from injury.
Ericsson has carried the proverbial can at Sauber through the very difficult seasons of late and is expected to be retained by the Hinwil team as a reward for his hard work.
Wehrlein is the heir-apparent at the Mercedes team, albeit only after and if Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas leave the team. If neither of them do in 2018, his position in the Sauber team would fall under the spotlight. Wehrlein is a talented driver but has been unsettled in F1 with the Manor team falling out of the sport and the Sauber 2018 decision.
In the hypothetical scenario of a McLaren man at Sauber-Honda, could Wehrlein be moved to another Mercedes engine team? The simple answer is an obvious yes, but at whose cost? Esteban Ocon has been placing well for the Force India-Mercedes team and has impressed hugely thus far.
Williams have the unique dynamic of Felipe Massa, who retired and then emerged to replace the moving Bottas, and the rookie Lance Stroll. Wehrlein could conceivably replace Massa at Williams, if the proverbial powers that be are happy to pair relative “rookies” together.
If Wehrlein leaves Sauber, it seems likely that his best fit would be at Williams, rather than upsetting the good pair Force India.
The crystal ball of F1 is one that is foggy at the best of times. Sauber’s decision is not merely confined to that of an engine supplier (which is a debate for another time). It has the potential to affect the driver market much like a domino ripple. In a sport where tenure is as certain as a few seasons ago, this thought, we can assure you, is not lost on the drivers, even this early in 2017.
Sauber have always been the dreamers and chance takers of F1 and the Honda decision is no different. All that remains to be seen is who will take this jump with them.
Rhea Morar, deputy F1 editor