Renault split could be beginning of the end for Red Bull

Red Bull Racing could be looking at the final years of its Formula One tenure, following reports that Renault has signalled its intent to cease its supply of engines to the Austrian team after the 2018 season.

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Renault’s relationship with the Red Bull company has been fraught for some time now. The two parties came close to ending their association in 2015, before an absence of alternative suppliers forced Red Bull to recommit to its Renault contract for the time being.

And although an engine rebadging by TAG-Heuer seemed to improve relations last year, this season has seen a return of Red Bull’s public criticism of Renault, as a combined lack of horsepower and reliability has seen the former champions slump to a distant third-fastest team.

Now, if the current reports are true, it appears that the Red Bull-Renault alliance has at last reached its conclusive breaking point.

That the news comes at the same time as Renault has finally confirmed its new supply agreement with McLaren is no surprise—with Red Bull believed to be using Toro Rosso’s Honda deal to evaluate a future switch to Japanese power, it seems Renault is electing to jump before it is pushed. Having both a factory team on the rise and a grateful customer in McLaren, there is no longer any incentive for Renault to extend its fractious Red Bull relationship beyond its final term next year.

Such a break-up would leave Red Bull with little choice but to become Honda’s de facto works team in 2019. And with the way the next few seasons of F1 are already shaping up, that deal could well prove the first step in Red Bull Racing’s exit from the sport.

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For starters, a premature Honda alliance would go down like a lead balloon in Red Bull’s driver stable.

Daniel Ricciardo has already stated that Red Bull will need to be capable of a genuine title challenge within the next few years if they are to convince him into extending his stay at the team beyond 2018. But unless Honda can make a phenomenal leap forward over the next twelve months, it’s almost certain that Ricciardo will take his hunt for a maiden title to either Mercedes or Ferrari.

Nor can Max Verstappen be expected to hold faith in the Japanese marque, even if he has to wait a year longer than Ricciardo before leaving. And then there’s Carlos Sainz—set to be loaned out to the factory Renault team next year, he will surely do all he can to avoid being called back to Red Bull-Honda for 2019.

It’s entirely possible, then, that by 2020, Red Bull’s senior lineup could comprise Pierre Gasly and the returning Daniil Kvyat, whilst Toro Rosso’s seats are filled by Honda juniors like Nobuharu Matsushita and Nirei Fukuzumi—a far cry from the current pedigree enjoyed by the Red Bull fold.

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The other danger, of course, is that it’s not just Red Bull’s drivers who choose to jump ship. Adrian Newey is perhaps the team’s biggest asset outside of the cockpit, but for a man used to designing race- and championship-winning cars, there will be little for him to relish in overcompensating Honda’s horsepower deficit, especially as he has already expressed a desire to step back from leading Red Bull’s technical team in the near future.

It’s also well worth questioning just how willing Christian Horner will be to guide Red Bull through yet another uncompetitive era, or how enthusiastic Helmut Marko would be about managing a driver lineup that lacks the kind of flair and potential seen in recent years.

But as painful as any of those losses would be, the most damning exit would easily come from the man at the very head of Red Bull’s operations—Dietrich Mateschitz.

Although Mateschitz’ many quit threats have been decidedly impotent in the past, it will be much harder to dismiss them should he make similar statements in the next three years. Red Bull’s commitment to F1 is up for renegotiation in 2020—coinciding with both the reported duration of Toro Rosso’s new Honda deal, and the end of F1’s current engine formula—which will give Mateschitz plenty of time to fully evaluate Red Bull’s prospects from 2021 onwards, and whether they merit the sums required to run two F1 teams.

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Quite what would happen to the spoils of Mateschitz’ racing empire is hard to predict this far ahead of time. If Honda remains committed to F1 into the proposed new twin-turbo era, it may assume the Milton Keynes outfit into a full factory team, as it did with BAR in 2006. There have also been numerous suggestions that Porsche is in the frame for a 2021 buyout, or that Red Bull might remain as a title sponsor for a works Aston Martin-Cosworth alliance.

As for Toro Rosso, the Italian-based team and its chief designer James Key would surely make an alluring target for Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne, assuming he can’t convince Sauber to become an Alfa Romeo-badged junior team.

But even if none of these exit strategies come to fruition by 2020, there is still nothing stopping Mateschitz—valued to be worth an estimated $15.4 billion—from simply closing the doors on Red Bull’s two teams and selling off the assets elsewhere.

And whilst before that may have sounded like an insincere threat from the Austrian, a painful enforced alliance with Honda and the end of the current Concorde Agreement will be more than enough to turn Red Bull’s exit into a serious consideration.

Alonso to Williams: wishful thinking or winning combination?

When Formula One returned to action at the end of the summer break, it looked as though Ferrari’s decision to retain Kimi Räikkönen had brought silly season to an early close.

But during preparation for the Belgian Grand Prix, the driver market was given a second wind when rumours emerged that Williams had offered Fernando Alonso a seat for 2018.

Steven Tee/McLaren

At first glance, it seems like a sensational story—the final, erratic death throes of what’s been a rather damp silly season. The two parties just don’t seem in the slightest bit compatible. Alonso is hunting for his third world title; Williams is currently fighting to hold off Haas and Toro Rosso to fifth in the Constructors’.

Then there is the monetary aspect: while Williams is believed to have only the sixth largest budget of the ten teams, Alonso’s services come with a price tag in the tens of millions.

But on the other hand, there remain several details in the background of this story that suggest an Alonso-Williams tie-up would be a serious consideration for all involved.

Steven Tee/McLaren

For one thing, this is not your average silly season rumour, sparked out of nowhere and fanned into a frenzy overnight—it was first reported in the highly-respected German publication Auto Motor und Sport.

It also goes without saying that (financial questions notwithstanding) Williams would love to have Alonso driving next year’s FW41. In terms of base performance he would represent a marked upgrade on Felipe Massa, and as teammate to the maturing Lance Stroll, Alonso’s experience and ability would prove the ultimate benchmark—as Stoffel Vandoorne can no doubt attest.

Nor is that the only benefit to the team of signing a driver of Alonso’s calibre. When quizzed on the rumours by SkySports in Belgium, Williams’ technical director Paddy Lowe said: “You need great drivers and great cars to win races. With a greater driver in the team, everybody is motivated to work that bit harder for performance because they know it’s going to be exploited and deliver great results.”

Alonso is not a questionable rookie like Pastor Maldonado or Bruno Senna, nor is he a former winner seeing out his twilight years like Massa or Rubens Barrichello—he is a proven champion with both the ability and the drive to win again, whose presence at Williams would lend total credence to their ultimate goal of becoming title contenders once again.

Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

But would Alonso even entertain an offer from Williams? If a credible shot at the 2018 title is not something Williams can provide him, what makes them any more attractive an option than joining Renault instead, or even remaining at McLaren?

At the very least, Alonso might be tempted into switching to Williams by nothing more than a desire to enjoy racing again. After three years of disappointment at McLaren-Honda, the prospect of driving a package with no horsepower deficit or reliability concerns to hold him back may prove all the enticement Alonso needs to make the move.

There’s also next year’s driver market to consider. With no championship seats available to him now, Alonso’s next best hope is that the final year on Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes contract results in a vacancy at the Silver Arrows for 2019.

And if Alonso is planning on just “seeing out” the 2018 season until a better drive becomes available, he will find more freedom to do so at Williams than with McLaren or Renault—either by insisting on certain performance clauses in case the need for an early exit arises, or by negotiating to take a fraction of his usual superstar salary in return for an open one-year deal.

Steven Tee/McLaren

There is also the chance, however slim it might seem at present, that Williams will in fact be the team to join in 2018.

As well as commenting coyly on the merits of signing a “great driver”, Paddy Lowe also told Motorsport following the Belgian Grand Prix weekend that he was overseeing “substantial changes” to Williams’ design philosophy in the process of constructing next year’s FW41.

His words came at the same time as Felipe Massa criticised the team for falling behind in the 2017 development race—the assumption is that Williams is already calling a halt on this year’s programme to allow Lowe a headstart on designing a much more competitive 2018 challenger.

If that is the case, it would mark the next major step in Williams’ painstaking long-term plan to return to its former status as one of F1’s top teams. The first phase came in 2014, with the acquisition of Felipe Massa and a Mercedes engine supply, and a substantial increase in budget supported by new title sponsors Martini.

The result was the rapid FW36, which between Massa and Valtteri Bottas took more than four times the podiums than its predecessor did points finishes (not to mention pole position at the Austrian Grand Prix) and lifted Williams up from ninth to third in the Constructors’ standings.

Andrew Hone/Pirelli Media

Since then, Williams has enjoyed consistent running within the championship top five—its best string of Constructors’ results since its partnership with BMW in the early 2000s—and has created the perfect foundation from which to take its next great leap forward.

In Paddy Lowe, Williams has the talent capable of designing a race-winning FW41; in Martini, Lawrence Stroll and their past seasons’ results, they now have the money needed to make that design a reality.

None of that will be lost on Alonso, who has been on the grid long enough to know the signs of a team making genuine progress.

All that remains in doubt is whether Williams’ promises can sway him more than McLaren-Honda’s.

Steiner: Haas hopeful for “new opportunity” at high-speed Spa

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has said his American team is looking forward to this weekend’s power-dependant Belgian Grand Prix, having struggled in the low-speed races prior to the summer break.

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Haas began July with its best result of the season so far, when Romain Grosjean finished sixth in Austria. But since then the team’s form has hit a considerable slump: at Silverstone, Grosjean dropped back from a top ten start to squabble with Saubers and McLarens outside the points, whilst in Hungary Kevin Magnussen was the sole Haas finisher in thirteenth, only three places higher than his disappointing qualifying position.

But Steiner believes that the engine-favouring characteristics of the upcoming races at Spa and Monza ought to bring about a return to form for the American team.

“We struggled a little bit in Hungary with it being a low-speed track,” Steiner said. “We are bringing some items for low downforce or low drag for Spa and Monza, and we are as confident as we can be that it works.

“If you’re good in Spa, you normally should be good in Monza too…so, let’s hope we are good in Spa.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Steiner added that Haas has “tried to hit the reset button” in its preparation for the second half of the season:

“Hungary certainly tested the team, but it showed how hard we work to overcome adversity while remaining positive. Belgium is a new race and a new opportunity. Everything is possible here. We will try hard and we will come back again.”

However, the Austrian did also confirm that Haas will revert back to using Brembo brakes this weekend, despite successful running of Carbon Industrie alternatives in Britain and Hungary, as they continue hunting for a solution to their recurrent braking issues: “At Spa we will be running Brembos to start off with and then we will see, but at the moment the plan is to run Brembos.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

In addition to that, Steiner said that there will be no major performances updates fitted to the VF-17 this weekend (besides the usual adaptations for Spa’s low-downforce demands), though the team is “working through the data we gained from our last wind tunnel test” ahead of a possible upgrade package for Japan or the United States.

Whether or not Haas opts to bring a last raft of updates in October will likely depend on the progress of its 2018 car development, which Steiner says has been complicated by the late mandating of the Halo system:

“We’ll [have to] work on how we get the weight down on other parts of the car because we are at the minimum weight, otherwise our car just gets too heavy [with the Halo]. We also need to find the best solution aerodynamically to integrate the Halo into the overall body.

“It’s head scratching. For sure, there is work to be done.”

Sauber bringing key aero update to Spa

Sauber will be completing its second major upgrades package of the season this weekend in Belgium, in a bid to offset its year-old Ferrari engine deficit.

Sauber F1 Team

The update—a new floor—will form the second part of a significant aerodynamic upgrade that began at the last round in Hungary, where new bodywork and an improved cooling system were fitted to the C36.

The is the first major update to the car since Sauber revised its floor, sidepods, brake ducts and bodywork during the race weekends in Spain—where Pascal Wehrlein scored the team’s first points of the season—and Monaco.

It is hoped that the completed second package will help Sauber to counteract the shortfall in power of their 2016 Ferrari power units, particularly with the Belgian Grand Prix and the following race at Monza providing some of the most engine-dependant racing on the F1 calendar.

Sauber F1 Team

Speaking about the upgrade to Autosport at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson said, “Hopefully this next update will work a bit better than the upgrade we got [in May] as it didn’t really give us the jump we had hoped.

“When we got the car working, like in Silverstone in the race, we could keep similar pace to the Haas cars, and Vandoorne wasn’t much faster. We are not too bad, when we get our car together.”

Nevertheless, the team will be wary of expecting too much from the new parts this weekend—especially as at the chassis-specialist Hungaroring, the first instalment of Sauber’s new aero package saw Wehrlein and Ericsson qualify on the final two rows of the grid, and finish the race two laps down and last of those still running at the flag.

It is likely this will be Sauber’s final big push to improve the competitiveness of the C36, before it turns its attentions fully to constructing next year’s challenger.

Sainz hoping for “third time lucky” at favourite circuit Spa

Carlos Sainz has said he is hoping for some good fortune at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, having retired from the event in both his previous entries.

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In his maiden season in 2015, Sainz’ race was cut short by a power unit failure on lap 32. Last year was even more frustrating: having climbed from fifteenth to seventh off the line, the Toro Rosso driver ran over debris on the Kemmel Straight and was forced to retire by the resulting puncture damage.

But the Spaniard has said that despite his disappointing F1 record there, Spa remains one of his favourite circuits:

“I really like racing in Spa because it’s a track that has a bit of everything. It has very long straights where good overtaking can take place, but also very nice corners—Sector 2 in particular is very nice and flowing.

“It’s tough to find a compromise regarding the balance of the car and the set-up for the long straights and Sector 2, but I enjoy the challenge.

“Spa is one of my favourite tracks but, strangely enough, I’ve never finished an F1 race there. Third time lucky, they say…”

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Sainz’ teammate Daniil Kvyat has also said he is looking forward to the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, describing Spa as a “legendary track” that’s “impossible not to [love]”.

The Russian has gone well at Spa in the past. He finished in the points in his first Belgian Grand Prix in 2014, and during his troubled stint at Red Bull in 2015 he finished fourth from twelfth on the grid; prior to that, Kvyat also won the feature race at Spa during his title-winning 2013 GP3 campaign.

Returning then to a circuit he enjoys and at which he has run well in the past, Kvyat will surely be hoping that Belgium provides a much-needed turning point for his 2017 season. So far this year, Kvyat has not only finished behind Sainz in every race the two of them have completed, he has also finished in the points a mere twice—a pair of ninth places in Australia and Spain—and sits clear of only Stoffel Vandoorne, Jolyon Palmer and Marcus Ericsson in the full-time standings.

Add to that the Russian’s continued attraction to controversial collisions (in particular, his clash with Sainz at Silverstone) and his equally punchy comments off track, and it’s clear that finding some solid form this weekend is an absolute must for Kvyat.

“Encouraging” first half of the season sets up Renault push in Spa

The Renault Sport F1 team has been buoyed by the progress made so far this season and is aiming to make further gains this weekend in Spa, according to lead driver Nico Hülkenberg.

Renault Sport F1 Team

“[2017 has] been very encouraging, especially in the last few races,” the German driver said ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. “We’ve found a good balance with qualifying performance and race pace—Silverstone highlighted that—it’s at a better level now.

“We are heading in the right direction and are looking competitive, but we want to keep pushing ourselves.”

Hülkenberg also said that Renault’s momentum this season has mirrored his own: “I’m pleased with how the car is feeling and the progress we are making. This year’s cars and fun and faster, allowing me to push harder which suits my driving style a lot more than in recent years.

“It was a shame to finish how we did in Hungary (retiring on lap 67 with a brake issue), but in general there are positive feelings.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Part of Renault’s push this weekend will come in the form of software and hardware power unit upgrades scheduled for Belgium and the following race at Monza.

Although the updates are not part of a major development package, Renault engine chief Remi Taffin said the team is focusing on improving its reliability issues at two of the most power-hungry tracks on the calendar:

“Qualifying pace has looked good with Great Britain and Hungary exemplifying our ability to be the fourth-best team. It’s just a case of building on that and bettering the race pace.

“That comes from levelling up everything, we need to show off reliability and mileage and that is something we are giving close attention.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Any improvements to Renault’s engine reliability will come as a sure boost to Jolyon Palmer, who has so far taken the brunt of the French marque’s misfortune this season.

However, Palmer has conceded that reliability issues have not been his only obstacle in the first eleven races of 2017, with the Briton struggling to get to grips with the RS17 in the same way as his teammate.

“It’s been challenging,” he said, referring to the first half of his season. “The 2017 regulations mean a car that’s very different from before, so you have to relearn how to extract the maximum performance from it. Getting the right set-up is difficult and this is only compounded when you miss out on track time.”

But Palmer has also said that a refreshing summer break—in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—and the prospect of returning to the “awesome” Spa circuit has given him fresh inspiration for the first of the remaining nine races:

“To drive it is simply immense. Nothing prepares you for heading flat out down the hill and then coming up the other side and down that straight. Pouhon will be an exciting corner this year, it brings a real challenge as it’s a very quick double apex left.

“I’ve had some good memories [at Spa] but I’m driven to make some more.”

Analysis: Wehrlein’s future in jeopardy as Sauber exit nears

Bounced between backmarker teams, overlooked in the midfield, Pascal Wehrlein has not had the easiest progression in his F1 career. But, if recent reports about the Sauber team are to be believed, the German could already be about to drop off the grid entirely in this year’s round of contract negotiations.

Sauber F1 Team

When Sauber confirmed a multi-year extension of its Ferrari engine partnership at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the media wasted no time in speculating what that new agreement could mean for the team’s 2018 driver lineup. And not without good cause, either: Sauber’s new team principal Fred Vasseur confirmed that drivers “will be part of the discussions [with Ferrari]”, whilst Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne called Sauber “a place to lay the foundations of the Scuderia Ferrari of tomorrow”.

As suggestions go, they don’t get more ominous than that for Pascal Wehrlein. The German may have scored all of Sauber’s 2017 points so far and be leading a 7-2 qualifying battle against his teammate, but there’s no denying that this renewed Ferrari alliance puts Wehrlein right to the back of the queue for a Sauber seat next year. It’s not just that Ferrari has two protégés ready for F1 debuts in Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc—with Sauber set to receive contemporary Ferrari engines again, the last thing the Scuderia wants is for one of those engines to be powering a Mercedes employee.

That will leave Mercedes with a tough job over the summer, as it tries to find Wehrlein his third new cockpit in as many F1 seasons. But on a grid where opportunities are fast diminishing, could another setback now spell the end of Wehrlein’s still-fledging F1 career?

Sauber F1 Team

The problem Wehrlein faces with this year’s market is that all his potential avenues seem to be closing off before he’s even had a chance to explore them. Force India would have usually seemed like a natural berth for a castaway Mercedes junior, but (unless Kimi Räikkönen rejects his inbound Ferrari extension), the Silverstone team has no need to seek a replacement for Sergio Pérez or Esteban Ocon. And, let it not be forgotten, Force India has already turned down Wehrlein’s services once before, on the grounds of his reputed attitude problem.

There may at least be a vacancy advertised at Mercedes’ other customer team Williams, should Felipe Massa’s deal not be renewed for another year. But here again, Mercedes will be pitching Wehrlein to a team that has already said no before; in part due to Wehrlein’s inexperience, but also because Williams’ title sponsor Martini requires at least one driver over the age of 25 for promotional events (Wehrlein is only 22).

That leaves Wehrlein with precious few options for 2018. One—and perhaps his only within the F1 paddock—would be to return to where he started, on the bench as Mercedes’ third driver. Other reports have suggested the German might spend the year back in DTM, leading the Mercedes team’s final outing in the series, or perhaps laying the groundwork for Mercedes-Benz’ next venture by joining the Venturi Formula E team.

But whatever solution Wehrlein’s management finds, his prospects beyond next year look grim, as being frozen out from the 2018 market could make it that much harder to come back in 2019.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas

When Wehrlein made his F1 debut last year, he almost certainly would have had one eye on the driver market for 2019, when both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg came to the end of their Mercedes contracts. After finding his feet at Manor and then spending one or two seasons impressing in the midfield with Williams or Force India, Wehrlein would have come through the ranks as the perfect candidate to lead the Silver Arrows’ next lineup.

But that plan took several blows at the end of 2016, when first the Manor team folded and then Rosberg announced his shock retirement, and Wehrlein, instead of ascending to the fore, was moved sideways into Sauber. Now, with just one year until Hamilton potentially vacates the lead Mercedes cockpit, Wehrlein is facing a step back off the grid altogether.

A year on the sidelines could be all it takes for Wehrlein to drop off the radar entirely, right when he needs to be on Mercedes’ mind the most. Should Hamilton indeed leave an opening at the Silver Arrows for 2019, Wehrlein’s time out of the F1 spotlight will surely shuffle him down the list of priorities behind Daniel Ricciardo (the Australian’s contract expires next year with Hamilton’s) and Esteban Ocon, who already looks to have leapfrogged Wehrlein in the Mercedes line of succession.

And, regardless of Wehrlein’s talent behind the wheel, being passed over by the same teams for three seasons in a row will leave a sizeable dent in the young German’s reputation—indeed, in a sport as ruthless as Formula One, it could prove to be a death blow.

Sauber F1 Team

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

Formula E: 2016–17 Season Review

With another Formula E season wrapped up, it’s time to look back over the last twelve races and assess the teams and drivers of the 2016–17 season.

N.B.: All team and driver scores are out of ten. We have included only those drivers who contested at least half of the 2016–17 season with their teams; one-off replacements Conway, Lynn and Gasly, as well as Techeetah’s Ma and Gutiérrez, are therefore not included.

Renault e.Dams (8): Sébastien Buemi (8), Nico Prost (8)

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

But for a few isolated slip-ups, Renault e.Dams might have enjoyed the perfect campaign in season three. With Sébastien Buemi’s six commanding wins, Nico Prost’s near-perfect run in the points and Pierre Gasly’s superb debut in New York, it was little surprise to see the French team take its third straight teams’ title at the end of the year.

However, with such highlights it’s impossible to ignore those occasions that held Renault back from another double crown this season. The team let itself down more than once with technical disqualifications in Berlin and Montréal, whilst Buemi’s ‘win-or-bust’ results proved his biggest obstacle to a second title; and with such a strong car beneath him, it will be sobering for Prost to finish the season without a single podium to his name. Even for such an all-conquering team, there is still much for Renault to improve upon in season four.

ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport (7): Lucas di Grassi (8), Daniel Abt (7)

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

For the ABT Schaeffler Audi team, this has largely been a season of two halves. On the one hand, Lucas di Grassi claimed his first Drivers’ Championship by way of two sensational wins, five further podiums and three pole positions, and an on-form Daniel Abt recorded no lower finish than seventh, helping the team close to within twenty points of title-winners Renault.

But on the other hand, the ABT FE02 clearly lacked the pace di Grassi needed to fight Buemi (not to mention Rosenqvist and Bird, too) all season long; in the hands of Daniel Abt, it also proved frustratingly unreliable. Hopes will be high that Audi’s full factory involvement next season will bring both the speed and consistency ABT needs to mount a true dual title campaign.

Mahindra Racing (9.5): Nick Heidfeld (7), Felix Rosenqvist (9)

Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Formula E

It should go without saying that Felix Rosenqvist was the standout star of season three, but we’ll say it again anyway. Four podiums, three pole positions, two fastest laps and one ePrix win would constitute a great season for any driver, but for a series rookie Rosenqvist’s results have been nothing short of remarkable. The Swede still has a few inconsistencies to iron out, but there’s no doubt that he’s a Formula E champion waiting to happen.

As for Nick Heidfeld, kudos must be given for his ability to keep up with his rapid young teammate despite being a veritable pensioner in driver’s years. With five podiums and plenty of points helping Mahindra to third in the teams’ championship, any calls for Quick Nick to retire have been conclusively put down this season.

DS Virgin Racing (7): Sam Bird (8), José María López (7)

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

After a promising pre-season it proved a slow start to season three for DS Virgin, as Sam Bird’s two early podiums were offset by multiple mechanical glitches and José María López took time to find his feet in single-seaters again after a long touring car career.

But in the latter half of the season the team really came together in the way testing promised. New York, with Bird’s double win and Alex Lynn’s pole on debut, was undoubtably their peak, and López’ development from unsettled rookie to double podium finisher proved his critics wrong. If the team can get on top of its technical issues, Bird and López will surely prove ones to watch in next season’s title battle.

Techeetah (7): Jean-Éric Vergne (7), Stéphane Sarrazin (6)

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

Techeetah had a lot of promise coming into the season with Renault power behind them, but it took a while for the Chinese team to come good on that potential. Mechanical failures in Hong Kong and Paris and Jean-Éric Vergne’s terminal collision with Nelson Piquet in Monaco robbed the team of chances to challenge at the front, whilst regular changes to its driver lineup made it difficult for Techeetah to settle down and build on its foundations.

But once the team recruited Stéphane Sarrazin to partner Vergne for the final six rounds, things improved. Vergne finished each of the remaining races in the points and led Sarrazin to two double podiums in New York and Montréal, not to mention to his and Techeetah’s first ePrix win in the season finale—without doubt a superb end to what might have been a torrid campaign.

NextEV NIO (7): Nelson Piquet (7), Oliver Turvey (6)

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Compared with last year’s bottom-of-the-table finish, season three was a vast improvement for NextEV. A front row lockout in Hong Kong, double points finish in Buenos Aires and fourth for Nelson Piquet in Monaco helped lift the Chinese team up to a comfortable sixth by season’s end; however, NextEV’s persistent problems with energy consumption in race trim—something with which Oliver Turvey seemed to have especial difficulty handling—robbed both drivers of valuable points on many occasions.

MS Amlin Andretti (5): António Félix da Costa (4), Robin Frijns (6)

Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

Andretti would have been hoping for better than seventh place this season, having picked up two of the hottest properties on last year’s driver market and a technical alliance with BMW, but an uncompetitive ATEC-02 powertrain left Frijns’ and da Costa’s abilities untapped. Da Costa in particular struggled, logging just the one points finish with a clever pit strategy in Hong Kong; and while Frijns made it into the top ten five times, his seat is reportedly in jeopardy for season four.

Faraday Future Dragon Racing (4): Jérôme d’Ambrosio (5), Loïc Duval (4)

Malcolm Griffiths/LAT/Formula E

Despite picking up Faraday Future backing and appearing rapid in pre-season testing, eighth place and a meagre 33 points proved all Dragon Racing could achieve in season three. The US outfit’s main problem lay with the pace of its new Penske powertrain, though matters were not helped by its drivers clashing on track and retiring from a total of six events. Loïc Duval seemed to come off the worst, even with a greater final points total than d’Ambrosio, and may be left looking for a drive elsewhere this summer.

Venturi (7): Maro Engel (8), Tom Dillmann (7)

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

On paper Venturi’s third season in Formula E looked like something of a backward slide, slumping from sixth to ninth in the standings with even low-key points finishes a rarity. But considering the Monegasque team’s reliability concerns in early testing, their progress this season tells a better story than their results. Maro Engel especially impressed, qualifying second in Mexico and finishing fifth in Monaco, whilst Tom Dillmann’s four points finishes from just seven starts says much about the Frenchman’s future potential.

Panasonic Jaguar Racing (7): Adam Carroll (5), Mitch Evans (7)

Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

Jaguar was eager to play down expectations ahead of its maiden Formula E outing. Initially that modesty seemed well-founded, as the British marque started the season a long way off the points, but a strong push during the European leg brought Jaguar into regular midfield contention. Mitch Evans took the team’s best result with fourth in Mexico City and generally had the measure of his older teammate in both qualifying and race pace; with the driver market still wide open for season four, Adam Carroll may find his seat hard to hold on to from the bottom of the standings.

Montréal ePrix: muted teams’ triumph for Renault as di Grassi snatches title

Renault e.Dams claimed their third straight Formula E teams’ title at Montréal’s season finale, but their celebrations were overshadowed by Lucas di Grassi’s triumph over Sébastien Buemi in the Drivers’ Championship.

Malcolm Griffiths/LAT/Formula E

Going into the Canadian title decider, it was looking almost impossible for anyone but Buemi to take the top honours this season. The Swiss driver had been a man transformed by his first title win last season—opening up his defence with a hat-trick of wins, Buemi went on to claim victory in almost every race he contested, and such was his form that he still held the championship lead before Montréal despite missing the two previous races in New York City.

But on arrival in Canada, Buemi seemed like a different driver altogether to the one in control of his last ePrix in Berlin. An uncharacteristic off in practice saw him damage his chassis against the wall, denting his confidence ahead of qualifying and handing him a hefty grid penalty for race one; then, starting the race from twelfth, Buemi’s cautious approach left him right in the heart of the opening lap scrum, where he picked up steering damage from contact with Robin Frijns’ Andretti, which severely hampered his progress early on.

By contrast, di Grassi was having every bit the race he needed. His third pole of the season narrowed the championship deficit to just seven points, and after seeing off Jean-Éric Vergne at the start the Brazilian raced away into an early lead. He was then largely not seen again, and despite a late safety car bringing Vergne right onto his tail in the final laps, di Grassi took his second win of the season ahead of Vergne and Stéphane Sarrazin, and with it the lead of the championship by six points—this lead later became eighteen points, when Buemi was disqualified from his eventual fourth-place finish after his rebuilt car was found to be three kilograms underweight.

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

This stacked the odds considerably in di Grassi’s favour ahead of the second and final race of the weekend. All the Abt driver needed to do to clinch the title was finish ahead of Buemi, and even if his rival went on to win the race, any result within the top four would have given di Grassi enough points to become champion.

Nevertheless, Sunday did not start smoothly for di Grassi. A scruffy Super Pole lap left him only fifth on the grid behind Felix Rosenqvist, Sam Bird, Jean-Éric Vergne and Nick Heidfeld; di Grassi then dropped back at the start and was almost tagged by his teammate going through the first corner.

But compared to his title rival, di Grassi’s troubles were nothing. For the second time in Montréal Buemi started way down the grid, in thirteenth place after making a mistake on his flying qualifying lap. That once again placed him in the firing line at the first corner, and as the pack bunched up he was hit from behind in the braking zone, this time by António Félix da Costa in the sister Andretti. The contact was enough to dislodge one of Buemi’s rear wheel guards, and as it flapped loose from the back of his Renault the stewards called him in to the pits with a black and orange flag—by the time he rejoined the track, Buemi was in last place and his title hopes lay in tatters.

Sam Bagnall/LAT/Formula E

Meanwhile, as Buemi’s impromptu stop all but sealed the title for di Grassi, the front of the field was playing host to a tight race for the win between polesitter Rosenqvist and a charging Vergne.

The Frenchman had been able to eat into Rosenqvist’s five-second lead after saving the energy for a later stop, and partway through the second stint had no trouble breezing past the Mahindra for the lead. Vergne then set about using the remainder of his saved energy to ease clear of Rosenqvist—by the time the chequered flag fell at the end of lap 37, Vergne had built up a buffer of almost a second to seal his and the Techeetah team’s first Formula E victory.

Rosenqvist followed Vergne home in second, despite coming under further pressure from José María López in the closing laps, and with his fifth podium of the season triumphed in his battle with Sam Bird for third in the final standings; Bird himself crossed the line fourth ahead of Rosenqvist’s teammate Nick Heidfeld, who had fallen back from an earlier podium position.

Incoming champion di Grassi had been set to finish sixth, but with his title already secured he swapped places with teammate Daniel Abt on the final lap and finished seventh instead. Stéphane Sarrazin came eighth, Jérôme d’Ambrosio closed a difficult season for Dragon with two points in ninth, and Tom Dillmann took the fourth points finish of his rookie season with tenth. The final fastest lap of the season was set by Nico Prost, who finished outside the top ten for the first time this season and fell to sixth in the overall standings.

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

Renault e.Dams’ three non-scoring results in Montréal allowed Abt Schaeffler Audi to close up in the teams’ standings, though in the end the French marque still had twenty points in hand to take its third consecutive crown.

Mahindra finished its best Formula E season to date by beating DS Virgin to third, and in spite of numerous driver changes across the season Techeetah ended its impressive debut campaign as the fifth-fastest team ahead of NextEV NIO.

There were no changes in position with the final four teams—Andretti, Dragon, Venturi and Jaguar—even though each team scored at least one top ten finish this weekend. The latter two are unlikely to be disheartened by coming ninth and tenth, considering both have shown great improvement from starting the season well out of contention for the points; as for Andretti and Dragon, teams used to scoring podiums in past seasons, finishing down in the latter half of the table will leave much for the two American outfits to consider over the off-season.

Malcolm Griffiths/LAT/Formula E