F1 driver market: Who will twist after Mercedes sticks?

Last weekend’s German Grand Prix opened with the unsurprising news that Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas would be remaining with Mercedes for the next year and beyond.

Coming just before the summer break, Mercedes’ announcement is set to kick-start what has so far been a slow-building driver market for 2019. Daniel Ricciardo is expected to remain with Red Bull, while the current paddock word is that Ferrari will hand Kimi Räikkönen another year’s extension.

But with the top teams entering a holding pattern, what does that mean for any potential moves elsewhere on the grid?

Sahara Force India F1 Team

Force India, Renault now key to the midfield

With the grid’s top six seats filling up, all eyes are turning now to Force India, Renault and Esteban Ocon.

Despite Force India holding an option on Ocon’s services, Mercedes has been trying to place their young Frenchman at Renault next year to safeguard his career against the financial and legal troubles plaguing Force India. It’s unclear whether this switch will still go ahead now that Force India is no longer facing a winding up order, but the consensus is that it’s still on the cards at least.

If Ocon does make the move it will be at the expense of Carlos Sainz, even though the Spaniard will be free to commit to Renault long-term once Ricciardo blocks off the final Red Bull seat.

Force India could have another vacancy to fill, with Sergio Pérez on the shopping list for Haas. If there is a seat free at the Silverstone-based team, Lance Stroll will be at the front of the queue to take it with help from his father’s backing. Stroll is also said to be keen on bringing Robert Kubica with him from Williams, to act as his benchmark and mentor, should both Force India seats open up.

Andrew Hone / Williams F1

Williams and McLaren fall into place

With Stroll almost certain to switch to Force India, that leaves an opening at Williams. And despite that seat being arguably the least attractive on the 2019 grid, Williams does still have a few options to fill it.

The first is Kubica (if there’s no room for him at Force India), who would provide Williams with a relatively consistent lineup as they try to escape their downward spiral. Mercedes junior George Russell is also in the frame, and would bring with him a discount on the team’s power units to offset the loss of Williams’ Stroll and Martini funding. (Russell also has the added perk of being Williams’ first full-time British driver since Jenson Button in 2000.)

McLaren will also be keeping an interested eye on the Force India/ Renault situation as they look to finalise their 2019 lineup over the summer break. Fernando Alonso looks likely to stay with the team for another year at least now that their IndyCar talk has cooled, although Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren future is far less certain.

Early season reports had Lando Norris as sure to replace Vandoorne for next year, but a midseason F2 slump has put Norris’ F1 promotion into doubt for now. Sainz’s contractual limbo has moved him into play for the second McLaren seat, arguably the most competitive option open to him if he is forced out of Renault. Kubica has also been touted as an outside contender.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Few options for Red Bull and Ferrari juniors

The deadlock at the top of the grid means that there isn’t much upward movement available for the likes of Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc. The latter has been linked to Grosjean’s Haas seat lately, but there seems little sense in Ferrari switching Leclerc from one midfield team to another for the sake of it—given his trajectory, it would be better to see how Leclerc develops in a sophomore year at Sauber.

Leclerc staying put rules out a Ferrari-backed Sauber placement for Antonio Giovinazzi—with one of the Scuderia’s juniors already in the team, Sauber is more likely to either keep Marcus Ericsson for a fifth season or pick up Vandoorne from McLaren.

As for Red Bull’s academy team, the likelihood of seeing a brand new face replacing Brendon Hartley is slim. Red Bull may want F3 protege Dan Ticktum in the car, but his lack of superlicence points is an obstacle the FIA won’t be willing to overlook—so too is the case for Honda juniors Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino.

Featured image by Steve Etherington, courtesy of Mercedes AMG

F2 Bahrain: Norris takes an early championship lead while Markelov steals the show

The 2018 Formula 2 championship kicked off in Bahrain this weekend, with a typically dramatic pair of races, giving us an insight into the brand new car and engine introduced this season, and our first chance to see how the 2018 grid stacks up against one another.

In a turn of events that was unsurprising to some, but impressive nonetheless, F3 champion Lando Norris bagged pole position in only his second round of F2. He narrowly beat fellow Brit and reigning GP3 champion George Russell, who edged out DAMS driver Alexander Albon who lined up third on the grid. Albon was only confirmed for the single round in Bahrain in a seemingly last minute deal, but his impressive performance out-qualifying his more experienced teammate by over half a second surely warrants another chance. Albon’s teammate Canadian Nicholas Latifi was not the only experienced driver who had failed to put together a complete lap in Friday qualifying, title favourite and last year’s runner-up Artem Markelov could only do as well as seventeenth.

Markelov’s weekend would only go from bad to worse when he lined up on the grid for the feature race on Saturday only to stall and be forced to start from the pit lane. He wasn’t the only one, with ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi also stalling, the first of several cases which prove that these new F2 cars are not the easiest machinery to get off the line.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

It was a dream start for Lando Norris with some lightning quick reactions to get himself off the line, something which he will take a lot of confidence in given the starts were one of his few weaknesses during his 2017 F3 campaign. By contrast, Russell was slow to get moving and even impeded Prema driver Nyck de Vries who was starting behind him. It was not the start he needed if he wanted to get one back against Norris. Albon also found trouble in getting his car moving, and the two of them lost several places in the opening seconds of the race.

For Norris, from there it was a maturely handled race. His only hitch was a slow pit stop, but he had built himself a comfortable lead, so was able to retain this despite the hiccup. When the inevitable tyre degradation kicked in, as it always does around this track in the searing desert heat, he had enough of a cushion to be able to ease off slightly and bring his Carlin home safely. The dominant fashion in which he controlled the race was very reminiscent of some of current champion Charles Leclerc’s victories from last year.

Behind him was a much more chaotic story. While it was Norris’ race to control, it was Markelov’s show to steal. Despite starting from the very back of the field he used his uncanny ability to manage his tyres to pull off a whole host of his usual opportunistic overtakes. The rest of the grid wouldn’t let him make it look easy however, and some of the newer arrivals proved that they could fight just as hard. There was a thrilling moment when the Russian driver, Maximilian Günther and Jack Aitken attempted to go three wide into turn 1. But it was Markelov who bested them all in the end, fighting through almost the whole field to finish a fantastic third place.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

After his poor start George Russell and ART attempted an undercut to gain some time back, and he did manage to finish in fifth in the end, but the tyre degradation was too great for him to gain any significant time back. This was the drawback of the Mercedes junior driver attempting to stop so early. The Pirelli tyres run in Formula 2 are notoriously high degradation, especially on a track like Bahrain, and therefore usually difficult for rookie drivers to adapt to. It will not have been the result Russell was hoping for, especially after making his championship ambitions abundantly clear.

Carlin, a team returning after a year out in 2017, had one of the best results of the race. Alongside Norris’ win, Sergio Sette Câmara brought home a second place finish for the British team, giving them an impressive one-two on their return to the sport. The Brazilian driver was initially overtaken by de Vries in the early stages of the race, but ultimately managed to gain second place back. Where he really proved his worth was in his end of race scrap with Markelov as he fought to defend his second place from the charging Russian. They fought until the very last lap, but clever and aggressive defending was enough to for Câmara to maintain his position.

Albon managed to recover after his poor start and intermittent DRS problems to a respectable fourth place, followed by Russell, and de Vries in sixth who could not find a way to manage his degrading tyres. Sean Gelael, a much criticised and controversial driver, proved his stock by making a very impressive recovery from only qualifying nineteenth to finish seventh. It was rookie Maximilian Günther who finished in eighth to claim reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race, while Jack Aitken and Ralph Boschung took the last points paying positions.

In Sunday’s sprint race, there was yet more drama at the very beginning of the race. Gelael, with the potential for a solid result from his starting position of P2 stalled on the formation lap and was forced to start from the pit lane. There was just more trouble to come. Upon the race start three cars stalled again, failing to get off the grid entirely and they were pushed to the pit lane where they could join the race, albeit a way behind the pack. Two of the stallers were ART pair George Russell and Jack Aitken, with Haas junior driver Santino Ferrucci also failing to get away. Impressively, the other cars managed to avoid the stationary vehicles and everyone got away unscathed.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

The best start in this race was bagged by Nyck de Vries who was starting from third. He overtook pole sitter Günther to claim the lead of the race, while the young German was also overtaken by Markelov who had a storming start from sixth on the grid, the Carlin pair following him to slot into fourth and fifth.

Everyone’s eyes were on tyre degradation throughout the 23 lap race. All drivers had started on the medium tyres, which in theory have long lasting wear. But ever year Formula 2 comes to Bahrain even the most experienced drivers find it difficult to make them last well. Many had speculated whether any of the drivers would attempt to do what Charles Leclerc did last year in the sprint race but taking an unprecedented pit stop and using his fresher tyres to fight back to claim victory. A pit stop is not mandatory in a sprint race, and at almost any circuit other than Bahrain it would not even be considered during a sprint race. But Leclerc had proven last year that it could have its advantages.

In the end it was Prema who attempted to repeat their exploits of the previous year when they pitted de Vries from the lead on lap nine. He had a sizeable lead of around three seconds, but it was very early in the race to expect him to make his new tyres last until the end. It could be argued that it was not a gamble for the win, but an attempt at damage control, as de Vries is not famed for strong tyre management.

His stop meant that Markelov inherited the lead of the race, Günther moved up into second and Câmara took third. Câmara was under pressure from his teammate Norris for some time, but an engine misfire midway through the race sent the Mclaren reserve driver tumbling back a handful of places, and most likely cost him a potential podium. The best the youngest driver on the grid could do was fourth place.

De Vries was rapid after his switch onto softer tyres, and for a while it looked as though he might be able to recover to the podium. But as the laps wore on, his tyres began to degrade again. He still managed to finish in fifth, which is arguably better than he would have done had he not pitted.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

Ahead of him Markelov once again deployed his tyre management skills to hold a lead over Günther who was being put under pressure from the Carlin pair. The Arden driver was struggling to work out how to best manage his tyres, expected perhaps after he made the switch from Formula 3 where drivers are able to push their tyres a lot harder with a lot less degradation. But he showed great composure in holding off both Câmara and Norris, and by the end of the race he was even able to close the gap to Markelov in front.

Behind the Carlin pair and de Vries in fifth, Luca Ghiotto made a quiet recovery from twelfth to finish sixth, while Ralph Boschung rounded off a solid double points scoring weekend by finishing seventh. Rookie and Honda junior driver Nirei Fukuzumi claimed the last point in eighth place.

Norris leaves Bahrain as championship leader, and it was undoubtedly a dream start for the young Brit, as he certainly seemed to have the edge over many of the other rookies. At the moment it seems as though Markelov, who provided most of the thrills of the weekend, is his closest competitor. This should be expected from a driver entering his fifth season at this level, but that is not to take away from the skill and speed he displayed this weekend. Günther is perhaps a surprise as the second rookie in the standings at the moment, taking the points over higher rated drivers like Russell, Aitken and Haas junior driver Arjun Maini. But his rivals would do well to remember that he was more than capable of taking the fight to Norris on his day during Formula 3 last year.

Bahrain is a difficult track to open the season on, especially for those unused to the Pirelli tyres. And it is clear that teams are still trying to work out how to optimise the performance in these new cars, particularly in terms of start procedure. But after a calendar reshuffle this year, the next challenge Formula 2 faces are the streets of the Baku City Circuit, no mean feat given the utter madness it usually delivers.

Is Lando Norris a future Formula One star?

Until recently, Lando Norris was a name relatively unknown outside of junior categories. This is all set to change.

The seventeen year old is no stranger to success. Bursting onto the scene in 2014, he finished a respectable third in the Ginetta Junior Championship, taking four wins from twenty races. Norris had his first taste of success the following year at the 2015 MSA Formula Championship, where he took the title by sheer consistency. Last year, he enjoyed a similar run of success, dominating the 2016 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship as a rookie. It was a strong showing for Norris and a clear indication of his potential as he took six poles and five wins from seven rounds. He commanded the 2016 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC Championship, taking an impressive ten poles and six wins. Norris also won the 2016 Toyota Racing series in a domineering fashion, his closest rival a massive 135 points away.

Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

His success last year caught the eye of one of Formula One’s most successful manufacturers. In February 2017, McLaren announced that Norris was joining it’s Young Driver Programme in wake of Stoffel Vandoorne’s graduation into the racing seat. It seemed like a good match. McLaren seemed the perfect choice to nurture Norris’s career through junior categories, having done so with Lewis Hamilton and Stoffel Vandoorne to great success.

Norris moved into the Formula 3 European Championship with Carlin in 2017. He faced tough competition from the might of Prema, the defending champions and Maximilian Günther, the runner up to Lance Stroll in 2016. Norris’s career in Formula Three got off to a strong start. He secured pole and the win in the opening race at Silverstone. However, in the second race, his Achilles heel became evident. He was slow off the start, hindered by the damp track and lost positions, finishing ninth. Norris’s bad luck with starts continued in the third race of the round and he was unable to challenge Günther and Callum Ilott ahead.

In Monza, however, he returned to his winning ways, scooping a win and two second place finishes in the three rounds. In Pau, Norris continued to look strong, taking two pole positions. However, he was unable to convert these into race wins. In the second race, he was jumped at the start by Günther and in the third race, he led comfortably, his poor start jinx was seemingly behind him until a front-suspension failure pitched him into the barriers.Again, in Hungary, Norris was plagued by bad starts. He lost positions in the races and only scored one podium finish. At the Norisring, Norris showcased his hunger to win by starting in a lowly fourth and hunting down his rivals to secure his third win in the championship.

Norris seemed unbeatable at Spa. He snatched two pole positions, taking a light to flag victory in the first race. His demons of a bad start seemed forgotten, even when he came under pressure from Ilott. The second race, however, saw the youngster swamped by his competitors, eventually picking up suspension and bodywork damage that ruled him out of the race. He seemed to put that disappointment behind him in the third race of the round. Starting in fourth, Norris surged through his rivals with ease, seemingly motivated by his failure in race two. He showcased some excellent overtaking manoeuvres, securing his fifth win of the season. Norris’s performance in Monza showed what he was capable of, that he could produce results and he wasn’t afraid of reaching the top.

Norris tested for McLaren in Hungary earlier this week, collecting the prize for winning the 2016 McLaren Autosport BRDC award. In previous years, familiar names such as Jenson Button and Paul di Resta have won the award, taking place in testing in older machinery. Interestingly, Norris was able to drive the most current car, showing how much faith McLaren already had in the teenager. He did not disappoint either. Norris completed a sensational run in which he closely challenged the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen for the top spot. Clocking 91 laps, Norris treated Formula One to a mastershow as he produced a fantastic lap of 1.17.385, just 0.271 seconds off the pace of Vettel’s Ferrari. Norris also proved invaluable to the McLaren team as he gathered valuable aero data, long-run pace and set up adjustments. Éric Boullier in particular, was singing his praises at the end of the test. Norris showed that he could get to grips with the mechanics of a Formula One car and that he was a force to be reckoned with.

So could we see Norris in Formula One anytime soon? Norris certainly has the potential to be a contender for the McLaren seat in a few years time. Fernando Alonso’s contract is due to expire at the end of this season and seeing Norris’s raw pace and ease with the controls of the McLaren could certainly make him a strong contender to stand alongside Vandoorne. His strength in Formula Three, a series that has produced many F1 drivers in recent years, coupled with his exceptional testing certainly have made McLaren take notice. They seem to be the perfect fit for Norris, being a team with an extensive driver’s academy who have moulded Lewis Hamilton and Kevin Magnussen into F1 drivers, both of whom still compete in the Championship today.

Norris currently lies in second position in the Formula Three Championship. The strong showings in Formula Three show that Norris has something special. He is performing well in the face of tough competition. Norris is still inconsistent at times, particularly in his race starts but he seems to be overcoming his demons. And as Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi show, drivers don’t often come into Formula One polished. If Lando Norris does manage to make it into Formula One, he is likely he will be the same to begin with. Fortunately, for Norris, McLaren are a team that are patient and allows their junior drivers to develop at their own pace. This is clear from Vandoorne’s recent performances, blossoming after a shaky start at the wheel of the McLaren.

Credit: Mark Sutton/LAT Images

It seems unlikely however, that with Alonso’s departure, that Norris would be filling the vacant seat next year. Although, Norris could potentially acquire enough points for a 2017 FIA Super Licence next season and he would be eligible later this year when he turns 18, McLaren may not want to take on another rookie driver so soon after working to develop Vandoorne’s ability. McLaren may desire a bigger name and a more experienced driver to work alongside the team for the 2018 season, one that could potentially bring in more sponsorship deals. They may bring Jenson Button back for a season and send Norris to Formula Two or another series, in a situation similar to Vandoorne’s, to hone the teenager’s race craft and prepare him for Formula One. His status also depends on how successful the Formula Three season is for him. He needs to showcase his talents and prove to McLaren that he is a winner in all aspects and worthy of taking Alonso’s position away. His status as a British driver, and one that could follow in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton could certainly improve his prospects of driving for McLaren in later years. Norris is capable of producing results when qualifying doesn’t go well for him and he is experienced at carving his way through the field to reach the top step. It’s a hunger that undoubtedly, would be welcomed in Formula One.

It still remains to be seen what will happen next year at McLaren. It is dependent on Norris’s results and whether McLaren are ready to take a chance on a driver from Formula Three, as Toro Rosso and Williams did before them. Norris has proved so far that he is a diamond in the rough. He can produce sensational results both in his own series and in F1 testing, and he has the drive and hunger to succeed. The way he conducted himself within the test shows clear maturity and work ethic, factors that are critical to success in Formula One. There are elements of his driving that could be improved, but these can be honed as he continues to develop in his career. If McLaren are willing to shape him into the driver they need, he could well be a commanding force in years to come.

All images courtesy of McLaren.