Palmer or the Pole? Analysing Renault’s 2018 driver dilemma

At last count, the Renault Formula One team had more drivers on its 2018 shopping list than it knew what to do with. Nico Hülkenberg is contracted to stay and was initially set to partner Fernando Alonso, if the team didn’t promote Sergey Sirotkin or Oliver Rowland instead; then there was talk of poaching Esteban Ocon or Carlos Sainz from their respective junior programmes, though that chatter has cooled now that Robert Kubica is firmly back in the frame. And just where does that leave Sergio Pérez?

Renault Sport F1 Team

Of course, that number has thinned considerably since the rumours started flying at the beginning of the season. Alonso at the very least has seemingly dropped off the shortlist, and whilst Sainz may be available for the right price, the likelihood of Mercedes setting free their prized Ocon is far, far lower.

As for Sirotkin, Rowland and Nicholas Latifi, Renault’s test and development trio would have been hoping for much better results in GP2 and Formula Two in recent years to prove themselves an improvement on Jolyon Palmer.

As of now, Renault’s options seem much less cluttered than they were a few months ago. Kubica’s Hungaroring running in the RS17 suggests quite clearly that Renault is pitting his capacity to drive next year up against Palmer’s ability to deliver now. But as simple as a straight Palmer vs. Kubica shootout would appear from the surface, the decision becomes much more complicated when considering the prospect of Kubica not being capable of driving next year’s Renault.

Renault Sport F1 Team

This is, of course, no criticism of Kubica’s abilities as a driver—only a very real possibility, given the extent of his injuries and the physical demands of F1’s new generation of cars.

The blotted debuts of Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne this season have been proof enough of the great leap a move to F1 now represents; and although many will argue that Kubica is no rookie, that doesn’t change the fact that the Pole has now been out of F1 for more years than he has competed in it. With his most recent Grand Prix experience coming from the days of low-downforce cars, Bridgestone tyres and straightforward V8 engines, Kubica’s five years and 76 starts in F1 will be as alien to what he is about to face as was Stroll’s time in Formula 3 or Giovinazzi’s in GP2.

Whether or not Kubica is ready for a full F1 season next year, it will be impossible to make a conclusive call based on just the one Hungary test—that kind of proof will only come after Kubica’s actually had a chance to race again. But if for some reason he or the team feel more time to prepare is needed, that will leave Renault looking for a tricky stopgap solution until Kubica is fit for a full-time drive.

Renault Sport F1 Team

The easiest solution would be to simply renew Jolyon Palmer’s contract for another year. The Briton might find such a brazen offer hard to accept, but unless the driver market undergoes any seismic changes over the summer it may well be his only option to stay in F1 for a third season: better a stay of execution and a last chance to impress next year, than rejecting an extension now with nowhere else to go.

However, that scenario hinges very much on whether or not Renault want to keep Palmer on for yet another season. As much as the focus would be on Kubica’s eventual return, the team will still have one eye on the present and must have a second driver capable of scoring points next year, which at present is simply not something Palmer has to offer. With just the one point to his name after thirty Grand Prix starts, it’s hard to see Renault wanting the Briton back even as a short-term option.

But if not Palmer, then who? Renault has long been keen on signing Sergio Pérez up for their second seat, but with the Mexican on the cusp of breaking into the top ranks of F1 he is unlikely to be tempted by a risky one-year deal at Enstone. Sirotkin or Rowland might prove more persuadable, but down that road lies the risk that Renault will simply be replacing Palmer with a rookie no more likely to score than he was.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Alternatively, Renault might just find the best of both worlds by looking across the grid to Toro Rosso—and specifically, to Carlos Sainz.

With three years of midfield F1 experience and almost a hundred career championship points under his belt, Sainz would represent a much safer bet for Renault than their academy drivers, and alongside Hülkenberg would form a lineup more than capable of challenging the likes of Williams and Force India in the top half of the championship.

But more importantly, Sainz would also be much less wary of a one-year deal than Pérez: provided he moves on a loaned basis from Red Bull (which would be cheaper for Renault than hiring him outright), Sainz would still have the security at the end of 2018 of a return to Toro Rosso at least, or at most a shot at replacing Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull when the Australian’s contract conveniently expires.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

What’s more, Red Bull will likely find the idea of loaning out Sainz quite appealing, given events this year. The striking of cheaper engine deals aside, allowing Sainz to spend a term at Renault would go a long way to bringing back on side a driver who’s been highly critical of the Red Bull brand this season, as well as alleviating the tension that has built up at Toro Rosso between Sainz and Daniil Kvyat.

Furthermore, it would give Red Bull the opportunity to evaluate Sainz’ composure in a full factory outfit to ensure he is ready for a senior Red Bull drive in the future, and by extension would allow Toro Rosso to give Pierre Gasly his long-awaited F1 debut in Sainz’ place.

And even if Renault cannot convince Red Bull to part with Sainz even for a single season, they might still benefit from taking on Gasly himself in the same capacity.

The Frenchman has had a long connection with Renault, with the French marque reportedly introducing him to the Red Bull fold during his Formula Renault days, and earlier this year Gasly helped Renault’s Formula E team to a third teams’ title by deputising for Sébastien Buemi at the New York ePrix. With Gasly alongside Hülkenberg, Renault would have not only a second driver it knows is capable of scoring points finishes, but also one it can keep for as long as Kubica needs to get up to full F1 fitness—whether that’s partway through next year or in 2019.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Hungarian Grand Prix Retrospective, 1997. So close for Damon Hill and Arrows-Yamaha.

Let me take you back in time. In 1997, the reigning F1 champion was Damon Hill. He’d won the title when driving for Williams-Renault, but had lost his seat to Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the end of 1996.

 

Nineteen ninety-seven was tough for Damon, but there came a moment in that year’s 11th round in Hungary. He qualified 3rd on the grid with only Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve ahead. After qualifying, he was in a bullish mood and was clearly up to the fight for the win.

 

After the start, Michael and Damon were running first and second. Do remember that the Arrows were running Bridgestone tyres and most of the others were on Goodyear’s. From lap five to lap ten, Damon started to close the gap to Schumacher’s Ferrari, and at the start of lap ten, Damon pounced and took the lead at turn one.

 

The reason for Michael’s lack of pace? Well, the Goodyear tyres were blistering in the relentless hot weather that day in Hungary.

Damon Hill during The 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix. Photo Courtesy of ‘Race27’

 

So, what happened next? Well, after 15 laps, Damon had a 7.9 second lead over Jacques. He was in the groove! On lap 19, he lapped his teammate, Pedro Diniz who was in 19th place. Twenty-two laps into the race, and the gap between Damon and Jacques was 5.1 seconds.

 

Lap 23, and Jacques and DC in his McLaren pitted for new tyres and fuel. Damon pitted at the end of the same lap. All the other teams made their stops and Frentzen was in the lead at the start of lap 27, but heading into lap 28, he would start to get a problem with his car, which was highlighted with flames coming out of the rear. At the end of this lap he made his stop for tyres and fuel, but the team would retire the car.

 

Damon was back in the lead at the start of lap 30, with 47 still to go. Pole sitter Michael was down in 4th. Jacques, David and Michael were running together, 33 laps into the race, contesting 2nd, 3rd and 4th.

 

However, Michael pitted at the end of that lap, leaving JV and DC to fight.

 

At the start of lap 36 Damon’s lead over the remaining Williams Renault was now over 12 seconds. The top five was now, Hill, Villeneuve, Coulthard, Herbert, Schumacher. Into lap 40 and the lead was now 18 seconds. Just a remarkable drive from the reigning champion.

 

Lap 44, and Damon’s lead was now 21 seconds over JV, who was continuing to fight to keep David behind him. Such was Damon’s dominance, he even lapped Jean Alesi during this lap.

 

Over the next few laps, the lead would grow larger between Damon and JV. Damon and Jacques would make their second pitstops on lap 51. The lead that Damon had was now 26 seconds. To explain how big this lead was, Damon was already turning into the first corner, whilst Jacques and DC were in the penultimate corner.

 

Fifty-three laps down, and Jacques was 27 seconds down on the leader. We started to believe that we would witness a famous victory. What could stop Damon and Arrows-Yamaha?

 

Just as JV and DC lapped Pedro Diniz, Damon’s teammate retired from the race. Lap 57 and Damon was now 29 seconds ahead of second placed Jacques, with DC keeping him close company. How far back was Michael? 54 seconds! Just incredible.

 

We were in the final stages of the race and there were around 17 laps to go. Brothers Michael and Ralf were fighting over fifth position and Johnny Herbert was ahead of them both in 4th place. Damon’s lead was now over 30 seconds.

 

On the 65th lap, David retired from the race. Johnny in his Sauber was promoted to 3rd place. With twelve laps to go, the top five was, Hill, Villeneuve, Herbert, M. Schumacher, R. Schumacher.

 

Damon’s lead had increased again and was now 32 seconds. In fact, it continued to grow with each lap. On lap 72 the lead was now 35 seconds. There were just five laps left. Fourth to seventh was covered by just a few seconds with Michael leading Ralf (Jordan), then Eddie in the other Ferrari and finally Nakano in the Prost Mugen-Honda. Just three laps remaining! I remember thinking, this is it. Damon’s going to do it!

 

He started lap 75….. He started having problems accelerating and you could see the car was visibly slower. The car had suffered hydraulic failure and it was stuck in fifth gear.

Jarno Trulli unlapped himself at the end of lap 76. Then Gerhard Berger as well, who was in 8th position.

 

The Arrows was still moving though and it was the last lap. After turn three Jacques took the lead in spectacular style, putting two wheels on the grass! The dream of victory was over for Damon and Arrows. Now it was all about making sure he finished on the podium. JV crossed the line and celebrated his victory, Damon finished in second place and Johnny Herbert third for Sauber. Jacques winning margin in the end was 9 seconds.

 

It was a remarkable race, which will always remain in my memory and shows just how good Damon was at developing a car. This would also be the last time a driver from Arrows would stand on a podium.

Hungarian Grand Prix 1997 Podium celebrations, Photo credit Deviant Art F1 History.

 

Finishing positions

 

1st.    J. Villeneuve

2nd.   D. Hill

3rd.   J. Herbert

4th.   M. Schumacher

5th.    R. Schumacher

6th.    S. Nakano

7th.    J. Trulli

8th.    G. Berger

9th.    E. Irvine

10th.  U. Katayama

11th.  J. Alesi

12th.  T. Marques

13th. M. Salo

 

Those that retired.

Coulthard       Lap 65    Electrical

Verstappen   Lap 61     Gearbox

Diniz                  Lap 53    Electrical

Fisichella        Lap 42    Spun out

Frentzen         Lap 29    Fuel system

Barrichello     Lap 29    Engine failure

Hakkinen        Lap 12     Hydraulics

Morbidelli       Lap 7       Engine failure

Magnussen    Lap 5      Steering

 

 

Gasly’s chance to send out Reminder

Formula E heads towards New York, for the inaugural event but it is missing something. Formula E is missing championship leader Swiss born Sebastian Buemi who drives for DAMS Renault. Buemi is also a vital part of the World Endurance team for Toyota, taking part in the 6 hours of Nurburgring. Step forward Frenchman Pierre Gasly.

Pierre Gasly is a logical choice, a heavily experienced Red Bull Junior and current GP2 Champion. He is following the path current of Mclaren Honda driver Stoffel Vandoorne who entered into Formula 1 by driving in the Japenese based Super Formula Series. The situation being that in the rules of GP2/F2 the champion cannot race in the series the following year. This opportunity is one not to be missed, he is already creating buzz in the paddock, it seems to be a certainty he will receive the all important fan boost in the races. This could be a great chance to lay down his credentials to Toro Rosso for the F1 2018 season.

There is a feeling of uncertainty at Toro Rosso currently with its drivers. Danil Kvyat looking once more under pressure and his recent collision at the Austrian GP has done him no favours, especially taking out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Carlos Sainz is also rumoured to be unhappy in the current situation, feeling he is was held back as when Verstappen moved up to Red Bull switching with Kvyat, he was also doing a fantastic job. Sainz has a contract until 2018, whilst Kvyat has one until the end of this season. With his poor form, would they offer the Russian a new contract, and could the Spaniard decide to walk? This would open a space for a Red Bull Junior. Antonio Felix Da Costa of Formula E & Nico Kari of GP3 are some names to come to mind but Gasly is the one to come to mind first. A good performance would only remind Dietrich Mateschitz who is control of Red Bull F1 that he is more than ready to enter Formula 1 and might result him reconsidering any new deals with current contracted drivers.

The field of Formula E consists of a mixture of veteran and youthful talent from the likes of Nick Heidfield to Felix Da Costa. Former F1 drivers take part in the series such as Heidfield and fellow county compatriot Jean-Eric Vergne. Laying down a marker and being competitive would only increase chances of a move.

Gasly is a smooth driver and did great keeping the life of the Pirelli tyres in the GP2 series. This would only benefit him with the scenario that the Formula E series have regarding energy. To keep and reserve energy the drivers have to avoid slides and wheel spins in corners so gives flexibility when it comes to strategy.

With Formula 1 returning to France in 2018 at Paul Ricard,  it would be great to see the French having an increased interest in the sport, with a third French driver joining the F1 contingent of  Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon. Gaslys name is one continuing to be rumoured to having a seat on the F1 grid in 2018. Performing well this weekend could seal his place.

Chris Lord
12/07/2017

Image courtesy of Renault Sport 

Analysis: is Bottas now a title contender?

When Valtteri Bottas crossed the finish line in Austria to take his second career Grand Prix win, the calls from F1’s pundits were all but unanimous—the unassuming Finn, not so long ago dismissed as Mercedes’ number two driver, was now firmly in contention for the 2017 Drivers’ Championship.

Steve Etherington / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Statistically speaking, it’s a solid claim to make. At 35 points adrift in third, it would take a couple of perfect storms in Britain and Hungary for Bottas to assume the lead of the championship before the summer break; but the odds of him overcoming the fifteen-point gap to Lewis Hamilton in second between now and August are certainly far from negligible.

It’s worth remembering too that if Bottas were to rack up another victory at Silverstone next week, as well as making him the first back-to-back winner of 2017, that would also bring the Finn level with Hamilton’s and Sebastian Vettel’s respective win tallies this year. Looking over his other results, Bottas has also taken only one less podium than Vettel and one more than Hamilton this season, whilst his lowest finish of sixth in China is still one better than Hamilton’s seventh place in Monaco.

Furthermore, all that is in spite of Bottas being the only driver of this title trio to suffer a DNF so far this year, when his engine blew at the Spanish Grand Prix—and if we were to assume that that had not happened, and Bottas joined Hamilton and Vettel on the podium in third that day, then the Finn would now be level on points with his teammate.

Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Of course, ifs and should-haves aren’t enough to win a championship, and if Bottas is to take the crown at the end of 2017 he will need to continue pushing beyond the base expectations of himself and his car. His triumphs in Sochi and Spielberg have displayed beyond doubt Bottas’ serene control at the front of the field, but he is only just beginning to show the kind of aggression necessary to assert himself as more than just the third-fastest man on track—something he will certainly need more of if he is to keep touch with Vettel and Hamilton across the season.

That is something that will only become more pronounced now that Bottas has been thrust into the title race spotlight. Up until Austria, the Finn has been able to profit from all the media attention being focused on Hamilton and Vettel, allowing Bottas to quietly rack up points in the background without being subjected to the pressures of a declared championship tilt. But now that his rivals are aware of the threat he poses, Bottas can no longer rely on the element of surprise and must come out of the shadows fighting.

Fortunately for Bottas, though, that should just be a case of doing what he’s always done, and doing it more. His two pole positions and near-level qualifying head-to-head with Hamilton are proof that he has more than enough speed to run his teammate hard on Saturday; and even if qualifying doesn’t go his way, the lightning starts he’s made all year (not to mention his stellar recovery from last to second in Baku) will ensure Bottas remains a looming presence in any polesitter’s mirrors.

Steve Etherington / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

What’s more, Bottas has proven time and again that he has the focus and mental strength needed to take on a full title challenge—even against opponents as intimidating as a three- and a four-time world champion. His level head has been one of the Finn’s defining attributes ever since winning the 2011 GP3 title at the first attempt; it was particularly evident in 2014 when, partnering a reborn Felipe Massa in a podium-worthy Williams, Bottas dove his way to an outstanding fourth in the final standings. So far, the only visible dent to his determination came under the frenzy of Ferrari speculation in 2015, but from the way Bottas has settled into his new Mercedes seat despite the rumours surrounding it would suggest that he has learnt from that episode.

His grounded nature should stand the Finn in good stead as he wades into the Hamilton–Vettel battle. He will have seen first-hand how unsettled his opponents can be by the championship’s many twists and turns, and know that when that happens (as it undoubtably did in Austria) he has only to drive a solid weekend to take full advantage. If they didn’t already, Hamilton and Vettel will now have their hands full making sure their own turbulent duel doesn’t leave Bottas with an open goal.

Steve Etherington / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Make no mistake, Bottas faces a considerably tall order if he is to wrest this 2017 Championship away from Vettel and Hamilton. No amount of comparisons to Kimi Räikkönen in 2007 will guarantee Bottas comes out on top after Abu Dhabi—as ever, all that counts is what happens on track this year.

But if the Finn can drive home his current momentum with another victory or two before the flyaways in Asia and the Americas, there’s no reason why he can’t push his rivals all the way to the final round. Whether he quite has what it takes to beat two of modern F1’s biggest stars across the ultimate finish line is another matter—but when it comes to his talent, composure and performances so far this season, there’s no denying that Valtteri Bottas is well and truly in this title fight.

Austrian Grand Prix Review, Valtteri Bottas wins like a Bull

Bull Sculpture at Formula One World Championship, Rd9, Austrian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spielberg, Austria, Thursday 6 July 2017.

Valtteri Bottas secured his second victory in his Formula 1 career and he achieved it with the same way as he won his first Grand Prix, by starting from the pole and defending his position from Sebastian Vettel, who finished second.

A perfect start allowed to the Finn to remain first and despite Ferrari’s and Vettel’s acquisitions for a jump start, the stewards didn’t take any further action. After lights out, Kimi Raikkonen had a poor start which cost him two positions, the Finn dropped down to fifth and both Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean moved up one place. Ricciardo had a great pace during the race and scored another podium which gave points for his team.

Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso retired after the start of the race after a collision with the Toro Rosso. Kvyat lost his breaks and collided on Alonso which cost the race to the Spaniard and Daniil had to pit for a new nose.

Lewis Hamilton started eighth, after the five-place grid penalty who received because his mechanics had to change his gearbox on Saturday. The Britt, had a good start and moved up to the fifth position behind Kimi Raikkonen. Lewis was struggling to pass Kimi and remained behind him until the 45th lap, Kimi pitted and re-joined behind Hamilton.

The three-time world champion lost time behind Raikkonen, Ferrari decided to waste Raikkonen’s chances for a place on the podium as they were seeing that it was very difficult to close to Red Bull for the third place. Raikkonen’s excellent drive didn’t allow to Hamilton to take advantage of his super-softs tyres and forced the Brit to pit on lap 33.

When Hamilton re-joined with the ultra-softs he was struggling with his tyres and could not follow the leaders. Mainly he was unable to close the gap with Ricciardo.

Everything changed during the final laps, Lewis Hamilton closed with Daniel Ricciardo and was looking for a space to make his move. At the same time, Sebastian Vettel with the super-softs was less than a second behind Bottas.

Red Bull Ring, Spielberg, Austria.
Friday 07 July 2017.
World Copyright: Andy Hone/LAT Images
ref: Digital Image _ONY0445

Hamilton made his move, took the outside, but Ricciardo defended his place and remained third, it was Ricciardo’s fifth consecutive podium. Sebastian Vettel was on Botta’s tail, but didn’t have the chance to attack.

After 71 laps Valtteri Bottas took the second chequered flag of his F1 career, and scored 25 points. Whilst, Vettel scored six more points than Hamilton and increased his leading on the drivers’ championship to 20 points from Lewis Hamilton.

Very good race for Romain Grosjean, the French passed Raikkonen in the beginning but lost the fifth place a few laps later, at the end he finished sixth and scored crucial points for Haas.

Williams, despite their poor qualification, managed to finish in the top 10, Felipe Massa finished ninth, while his team-mate finished tenth and scored one point.

The next race will take place at Silverstone in one week.

Twitter: @FP_Passion

(Image Courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media)