Singapore GP preview: Mercedes favourites at Marina Bay

Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore, for the start of the final flyaway leg of 2019 under the lights at Marina Bay.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc head to Singapore on the crest of two wins on the bounce at Spa and Monza. But compared to those two high-speed circuits, Ferrari’s low downforce package won’t be anywhere near as effective on the tight Marina Bay Street Circuit.

As has been the case for most of the 2019 season, Mercedes is expected to be the team to beat this weekend. It was in Singapore last year, where Lewis Hamilton took pole position and the race win, that Mercedes finally seemed to understand what was needed to conquer one of its few “bogey” circuits. And judging by the fact Mercedes has won every street race since, there’s every reason for them to be confident about their chances on Sunday.

Paul Ripke / Mercedes AMG

However, Mercedes does have one shadow looming over them this weekend—engine reliability. Since introducing their Spec 3 power unit at Spa three weeks ago, Mercedes have seen uncharacteristic failures in the customer cars of Sergio Perez’s Racing Point and Robert Kubica’s Williams. So far the works team has had no blowouts of its own, but after two demanding power tracks and with Singapore’s reputation for testing cars to their limit, there’s no room for complacency.

The other threat to Mercedes this weekend comes in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Verstappen has run well in in Singapore in recent years, qualifying second in 2017 and 2018 and finishing runner-up to Hamilton last year.

With the Red Bull-Honda package improving with every race, it would be no surprise to see Verstappen duelling with Hamilton for his third win of the season.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

As always, the difficulty and unpredictability of Singapore will provide the midfield teams with plenty of opportunities to sneak away with big points hauls.

Renault took a double points finish at Marina Bay last year, but their RS19 has been much more at home on high speed and lower downforce tracks this year. Given their results from slower tracks like Monaco and Hungary, Renault will likely find themselves scrapping with or even behind the likes of McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso this weekend.

Haas will also be bracing themselves for another tough Grand Prix on Sunday. Although their prolonged dispute with former title sponsors Rich Energy has finally come to an end, their struggles with tyre degradation certainly have not. And in the heat of Singapore, there aren’t many worse problems to have.

However, Haas and Renault can both take some optimism from the fact that this is the Singapore Grand Prix. With tempers running high and the walls never far away, Singapore is the place where anything can happen.

Haas F1 Media

Robert Kubica: The season started very hard

In 2019, Robert Kubica returned to racing in Formula 1. The 34-year-old Pole was the main star of this year’s edition of Verva Street Racing in Gdynia, Poland.

“I am glad that I am here and I am part of this event and I can once again present myself in an F1 car, although in compromised conditions,” Kubica said about the event.

“I think that for fans this is a great opportunity and I hope that I encourage new fans to watch motorsport and instil a passion for this sport into them.”

Before returning to F1, Kubica was to be the driver of the ByKolles team, which competes in WEC in the LMP1 class. The Pole gave up being part of the team, which cancelled his starts in this series. He commented his chances to start in the legendary 24-hour Le Mans race were as follows:

“My adventure [with ByKolles] ended quite early, actually before it began. At the moment I am focusing on my work and I don’t know what will happen in the future. I think the situation, where I was in three years ago and now where I am, is completely different.”

Robert Kubica during Verva Street Racing 2019
Photo Credit: Julia Paradowska/ThePitCrewOnline

The 2019 season hasn’t been the most successful for Williams so far. The team from Grove for a long time was the only team which hasn’t scored a point during the first half of the season. After the rainy German Grand Prix and a penalty on both Alfa Romeo drivers, one point appeared on Williams’ account.

“I think the season started very hard,” Kubica said. I think that there were a lot of problems not only when it comes to the performance of the car, but also other problems that unfortunately disturbed the racing process and I think that it had the biggest influence of later driving and the result .

“The most emotional race so far was definitely in Australia, because it was the first race after a really long break, and when it comes to driving, I think the coolest ride was on the streets of Monaco.”

This week F1 returns after the summer break and the 13th race of the 2019 season will take place at Spa-Francorchamps. There are a lot of rumours about the future of 34-year-old Williams driver. When Kubica was asked about being in F1 in 2020, he answered:

“We will see.”

Two GPs, one pole, one win – who in F1 has done it?

I’m all here for Formula One facts and stats. The more obscure they are, the better. So when Max Verstappen carved his name onto the walls of the sport’s history with his first career pole position – the 100th driver ever to achieve the feat – last Saturday at the Hungaroring, the cogs began to twirl in my brain and Literally Some Wikipedia pages were opened. 

One thing led to another, and before long on a dreary Thursday evening I pondered this (get ready, this is an obscure one with a capital O): who in F1 history has ever taken one World Championship pole position, and one win under similar rules, but without both being at the same Grand Prix weekend? As it turns out, only five drivers have done it. Here’s who they are.

1.  Robert Kubica – 2008 Bahrain GP pole, 2008 Canadian GP victory

I’ll start the list with the only driver currently on the F1 grid, and the only one still currently able to escape it. Serial comeback king, serial public denouncements at the hands of a controversial Canadian, it’s a shock to the system to think back on the titan Robert Kubica once was and realise those ‘serials’ don’t extend to his win tally – just a fateful encounter with that same Canadian’s homeland event in June 2008 prevents him from being in the winless zone.

And it’s a crying tragedy. It’s so easy to forget for most when George Russell is batting him around the park most weekends (oddly though, not in the actual Drivers’ standings – 1 point to 0 there), but Robert’s 2008 season with BMW Sauber was chilling to the bone; one of the best individual seasons there’s been in the 21st century. Keeping the title alive until the penultimate race in an F1.08 chassis that had its development cut short for that dismal ‘09 season, it could’ve been so much more than a single pole in Bahrain and that victory.

A career kicked into life by dislodging, of course, Jacques Villeneuve in the summer of 2006 looked set to hit new heights after a season spent racing at an even higher level than ‘08 with Renault, and a pre-contract with Ferrari agreed for 2012. But, in distressing circumstances, it was all cut short. A participation in the Ronda di Andora rally ended in a severe crash, with the barrier entering the cockpit of his Skoda Fabia. After many years spent regaining his fitness in the rallying scene, 2017 saw Robert finally grace the world of F1 again with a mid-season test under his old team, Renault. Then after a 2018 season spent testing with Williams, he capped off a remarkable comeback with a 2019 race seat.

Mark McArdle / Wikimedia Commons

 

2. Vittorio Brambilla – 1975 Swedish GP pole, 1975 Austrian GP win

The Monza Gorilla. That was the nickname Vittorio Brambilla went by, but rather saddeningly neither his pole nor his win was taken at the temple of speed, and his home city. South Africa would be the first event Vittorio would lay claim to being the fastest in – for the Saturday, at least. He’d hold onto the lead of the race until Lap 16, before first Carlos Reutemann sailed by and Vittorio was forced into a Lap 36 retirement when his transmission gave way.

Austria would be his chance, though after qualifying 8th it looked unlikely. Luckily for him, the race was storming – like literally, the weather was torrid. Vittorio blasted his way into 3rd through the spray, and by the time the GPDA called an end to the drenched event on Lap 29, he’d landed himself top spot. The oldest driver on the grid at age 37, his and March’s first win was a reality, and in typical Brambilla fashion he damaged the car after crossing the line. After his retirement from both Alfa Romeo and racing in 1980, he occasionally drove the Safety Car at Italian GP events, before dying of a heart attack at age 63 in 2001.

 

3. Heikki Kovalainen – 2008 British GP pole, 2008 Hungarian GP win

The poster boy for rapid rises and drastic falls, Heikki Kovalainen was on for a breakthrough season for the top in 2008 after a fine debut season with Renault the year before. That… didn’t happen, although McLaren deemed his input towards a second place in the Constructors’ Championship enough to stay, and he finds himself on this list of mine. Oh what joy that’ll bring to him.

Heikki’s solitary pole was taken on his teammate Lewis Hamilton’s home turf, and who could blame him for anticipating his first time on the top step? Again… didn’t happen. Lewis was in inspired form on Sunday, and took his first home win over a minute ahead of the next car. Heikki? He had a spin and finished 5th. It’d only be two races later until he was on that top step though, with the Hungaroring gifting him fortune at the expense of his teammate’s title rival Felipe Massa, who cruelly retired three laps from the end with an engine failure.

Heikki’s F1 career was in freefall from there on. One more podium at Monza – a race he was widely expected to win – preceded a tough sophomore season at Woking before he was cast to the scrapheap, where Team Lotus (later named Caterham) rescued him. In his three seasons there, not even a point was scored, although his efforts suggested he was still a handy driver on his day. After a two-race cameo in place of Kimi Raikkonen back at Enstone for the other Lotus in 2013, again scoreless, Heikki found success in Japan’s GT500 series – still competing, he won the 2016 title there for Lexus Team SARD. 

David Hunt / Wikimedia Commons

 

4. Jose Carlos Pace – 1975 South African GP pole, 1975 Brazilian GP win

The only driver on this list to have a Grand Prix circuit named after him, and oddly the second to achieve this two GP, one win, one pole feat solely during 1975 – much like Robert and Heikki in 2008 – Jose Carlos Pace instilled pride into the nation of Brazil with his racing exploits, alongside their biggest hope Emerson Fittipaldi. His peak was that fateful day in Interlagos, and he’s the first on this list to achieve his win before his pole.

The Interlagos circuit had only been on the calendar for two years heading into 1975, but both wins were taken by a Brazilian – Fittipaldi taking the chequered flag each time. Not this year, though. That honour was all Carlos’, with his compatriot instead finishing behind him to make it a Brazilian 1-2 on a wonderful day for the nation’s pride. The pole would instead come in the next race in South Africa, where braking problems consigned him to 4th in the race. Nonetheless, a star was born over those two events, and were it not for a fatal airplane accident in 1977 there’s every chance we could’ve been remembering him now as a World Champion.

 

5. Lorenzo Bandini – 1966 French GP pole, 1964 Austrian GP win

The list ends here, with the only driver to take his one pole and win over two different seasons. Lorenzo Bandini spent the first three years of his F1 career drifting between race seats and events on the sidelines, beginning with Ferrari in 1961 right until his Cooper and BRM adventures led to a full time drive with the Scuderia in 1964. That year was the first in which he’d achieve any great success, with 4th place in the Drivers’ standings secured and his first win taken in Austria, sandwiched between two 3rd place finishes in Germany and his home country.

He’d have to wait another two years before he ever led a grid away, but that time eventually came around. Leading the standings coming into the third race of 1966, Lorenzo planted his Ferrari on grid slot numero uno at the French GP, and this would be the peak of his F1 career. Forced to retire from the race, only two points would follow in his career before a horrific crash on the 82nd lap of the following year’s Monaco GP led to his death three days after due to the burns he’d suffered. Much like Carlos, Lorenzo had great potential and was robbed of the time to fulfil it with. 

Lothar Spurzem / Wikimedia Commons

 

[Featured image – Williams Racing]

2020 F1 driver market preview

Now that the 2019 F1 Championship is nearing its summer break, the traditional driver market rumours have started coming in thick and fast. To help sort the bluff from the believable, we’ve identified five key hotspots in this year’s silly season.

Esteban Ocon

Mercedes AMG

Esteban Ocon is expected to be the driver market’s dominant figure this year. Although his chances of a 2020 Mercedes drive have been slashed by Valtteri Bottas’ run of improved form, there is no shortage of teams to which the Frenchman has been linked.

If Mercedes were to release Ocon as they did Pascal Wehrlein last year, then he could prove the keystone for the midfield shuffle. Renault and Haas especially are known to be interested in a free Ocon, and both teams have drivers out of contract.

Sebastian Vettel

Ferrari Media

Although Sebastian Vettel has a contract with Ferrari for 2020, his distance from the title, infamous disagreements with the stewards and the rise of Charles Leclerc have all left him openly questioning whether F1 is still the place he wants to be.

At the moment Vettel is still expected to at least see out his contract rather than walk away early. But if he does call time on his F1 career this season, the most likely candidate to take his seat is thought to be Bottas or Daniel Ricciardo.

Nico Hülkenberg

Renault Sport Media

Nico Hülkenberg might have scored more than half of Renault’s total points since he joined them in 2017, but that hasn’t stopped team reportedly eyeing up Ocon for his seat next year.

If Hülkenberg were to lose his Renault drive, his only alternative on the 2020 grid would be a sideways move to Haas, Racing Point or Alfa Romeo. However, after nine seasons mired in the midfield he may decide to take his considerable talent to a more competitive series—Formula E, perhaps, or returning to Le Mans with Aston Martin’s hypercar entry.

Romain Grosjean

Haas F1 Media

Romain Grosjean is another driver under pressure from Ocon, with one wild silly season story claiming Haas were even trying to swap the two Frenchmen around for this weekend’s German Grand Prix.

But while that particular rumour has come to nothing, it is true that Grosjean is facing a lot of competition for his seat—not just from Ocon, but also Hülkenberg, Sergio Pérez and now-Ferrari development driver Wehrlein. Whether Grosjean remains on the F1 grid at all next year remains to be seen, with his best option likely swapping seats with Pérez and joining Racing Point.

Nicholas Latifi

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

There isn’t much space for new young drivers on the 2020 grid, but Formula 2 frontrunner Nicholas Latifi already has his feet under the table with a Williams reserve role. If Williams and Robert Kubica decide to part company at the end of a frustrating year for both parties, Latifi is next in line to replace the Pole.

Latifi has also been linked with Racing Point, forming an all-Canadian lineup with Lance Stroll should Pérez move on to Haas. However, Ocon is a much more likely alternative at present, given his fruitful past relationship with the team and his friendship with Stroll.

Will it be the end for Williams Racing?

When it seemed like nothing else could go wrong for Williams after missing the first two days of pre-season testing, the team has just been beaten twice a week before the season kicks off in Australia. Despite the big effort they are putting in to find solutions, the end of what has been one of the most successful teams in Formula One history appears to be nearer than the turnaround they need to be fighting at the top again. After a terrible 2018 in which they was completely off the pace, the team claimed that they had identified the problem and it would be solved in the upcoming year. The truth is that we are already in 2019 and they have the slowest car on the grid and showing no signs of recovery in the near future.

The first troubles showed up quite early this year as the filming day planned at Silverstone got cancelled in order to ‘make the most of the time left before heading to Barcelona’, an inconvenience given that teams are only allowed 100km of running with special tyres, so the main purpose is to check every system to be ready to hit the track once the light goes green at Montmeló.

It was at this point that we realised they had suffered major setbacks. The car wasn’t ready, it wasn’t even in the circuit and their first laps wouldn’t take place until Wednesday afternoon. This was a complete disaster considering that private testing is forbidden nowadays. In addition to this, the legality of the mirrors and the front suspension has been questioned in the last few days. Some experts explain that the front suspension isn’t easy to redesign, so it may cause a new headache before Australia. Furthermore, Williams’ technical chief Paddy Lowe is taking a leave of absence which could lead into his departure after being pointed out as responsible for the team issues.

CIRCUIT DE BARCELONA-CATALUNYA, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 26: George Russell, Williams FW42 during the Barcelona February testing II at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 26, 2019 in Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Spain. (Photo by Zak Mauger / LAT Images)

For some, the two main reasons that have placed Williams on the edge are money and the team’s attitude, both discussed in the following lines. Despite the team denying that the delay was related to issues with external suppliers or a lack of financial resources, it is hard to believe what they stated because of their well-known struggles to keep going through the last few years. Even if they got ROKiT (a telecommunications company) as new title sponsor and Orlen (an oil refiner company and Kubica’s personal sponsor), these brands aren’t expected to match the vast amount of money brought by Lawrence Stroll (Lance’s father) and Martini which left the team at the end of last season.

Having said that, the horizon doesn’t look really promising due to the fact that when you have the slowest car, you want is to develop it as quickly as possible and you need a lot of money to do so. We may have a look back at the beginning of the hybrid era, when the Mercedes engine brought some success to Grove. At that moment, they even managed to afford a big upgrade of their wind tunnel aiming to fight on top again, but their work didn’t pay off and not much more has been said about what was described as a massive step forward in terms of development capability. Since then, they are in freefall praying for the budget cap to come in on time to save the team. Examples like this one make us realise how difficult it is to reach the top and how easy it is to go back to the midfield when you don’t spend the budget correctly or simply don’t have it.

Secondly, the team is missing a captain who steers the project in order to get out of the hole in which they are in. With Sir Frank Williams out of the picture, it is his daughter Claire who actually leads the squad. She seems tired or at least that is the impression given every time she faces the media. Claire has mentioned many times that she doesn’t want to be the person who ends’ Williams long history, but when there is no passion there is nothing to do.

Moreover, Robert Kubica’s attitude towards the team isn’t helping, for sure. The Polish driver, who is coming back to the sport after a long period recovering from the injuries suffered in a rally crash in 2011, has criticised his team harshly over the last days as a consequence of the poor pre-season done. ‘The car was too tired to continue’ and ‘I only know 20% of the things I should know before Australia’ were some of the comments made by Kubica. Most likely, he expected too much from a team which is suffering the worst streak in their history. On the contrary, George Russell is doing exactly what Williams needs: he is always encouraging his guys on social media and making positive statements when he talks to the media. It might sound useless, but the atmosphere you create around you is very important get good results.

Taking all this into account, I have to confess that I fear Williams could not make it to the end of the season as I feel they are digging their own grave. The large number of issues they are facing, added to the lack of leadership and the fact that they remain adamant in their idea of building the whole car on their own and refusing to buy some parts to manufacturers, could mean the end for a team that has been competing in the championship since 1977.

Featured image courtesy of  Glenn Dunbar / LAT Images

Williams unveil new ROKiT-sponsored livery for 2019

Williams have revealed their all-new livery for their upcoming season and announced telecommunications company ROKiT as their new title sponsor, replacing previous sponsor Martini after their five-year partnership came to an end.

The livery, displayed on a 2018-spec car, features a white, blue and black colour scheme and sports the RoKit logo on the engine cover.

The announcement was made at an event at the team’s factory in Grove, Oxfordshire, ahead of the expected launch of the 2019 car before the start of pre-season testing on Monday.

Speaking at the event, deputy team principal Claire Williams said, “We are delighted to welcome ROKiT to our team as our title partner for the 2019 season and beyond. We share many similar values and aspirations with ROKiT; primarily putting engineering and innovation at the core of everything we do in our pursuit to be the best – the perfect platform from which to start a partnership.

ROKiT is on an exciting journey in their world of telecommunications, as we are at Williams as we build the team for a successful future. Taking that path together will make us both stronger in our endeavours and so I can’t wait to get started.”

Alongside the new livery, for 2019 Williams will also have an all-new driver line-up comprised of Robert Kubica and George Russell. The Australian Grand Prix will be something of a momentous occasion for both drivers – for Russell it will be his first ever start in F1, while for Kubica it will be his first race back in F1 since he suffered severe injuries in a rally crash back in 2011.

 

[Featured image – ROKiT Williams Racing]

Robert Kubica joins Williams for 2019 F1 season

Williams have announced that Robert Kubica will race for the team in the 2019 Formula One season.

The signing comes eight years after Kubica last appeared on the grid, with the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix being the Pole’s last outing in a stint in F1 that yielded one win, before a rally crash in February 2011 left him with severe injuries to his arm.

As his recovery progressed he made a return to rallying and competed in the World Rally-2 Championship, ultimately claiming the title with five wins to his name and dovetailing his campaign with sessions in Mercedes’ F1 simulator.

Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1
ref: Digital Image _31I9371

After stints in the ERC and various GT series, he then signed with the ByKolles LMP1 team to race in the World Endurance Championship in 2017, having tested alongside the team’s regular drivers at the end of 2016. However, after pre-season testing, Kubica announced that he would not be participating in the upcoming season.

Instead, he took part in tests with the works Renault F1 team and with Williams over the course of 2017, his first taste of F1 since his accident. He had long been in the frame for a full-time race seat at Williams for 2018, having participated in the 2017 post-season test for the team alongside Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll, and Sergey Sirotkin. He finished third in the group in terms of lap-times when fuel and tyres were accounted for and, with Massa retiring and Stroll already signed, Williams ultimately went for Sirotkin, who also brought with him a larger budget. The deal with Kubica, that many believed to be near completion, fell through, although he was still signed as test and reserve driver.

Over the course of 2018, Kubica participated in five test sessions as part of his role and a further two Friday practice sessions, alongside regular work in the team’s simulator.

Speaking of his signing for 2019, Kubica said, “Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me during what was a difficult period of my life over these last few years. It has been a challenging journey to make it back to the Formula One grid, but what seemed almost impossible is now beginning to feel possible, as I am excited to be able to say that I will be on the Formula One grid in 2019.

“Being back on the F1 grid next season will be one of the greatest achievements of my life, and I’m sure with hard work and commitment we will be able to help motivate the team to achieve good things together. Thank you again to everyone who has supported me and believed in me. I will finally be back on the grid behind the wheel of an F1 car, and I cannot wait to get back racing.”

Kubica will race alongside British rookie George Russell, with current Williams driver Lance Stroll expected to make the move to Force India and Sergey Sirotkin’s future uncertain.

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

“We will be on tracks where we could be performing better” – Robert Kubica

Click here to read polish version

Robert Kubica – many fans were waiting for his comeback to F1. The winner of 2008 Canadian Grand Prix is the reserve & development driver for Williams. After qualifications of Azerbejian GP, the polish driver answered some questions asked by Julia Paradowska.

Julia Paradowska: The Chinese GP was much better for Williams than Bahrain and Australia. Do you think it’s possible to get their first points of the season for the team in the upcoming races?
Robert Kubica: Well, Formula 1 is a fantastic sport because it is changing very quickly. Of course we are beginning the season not where we expected. In the initial races we did face more issues than we had hoped so generally we are working on trying to improve areas where we face issues. We will be on tracks where we could be performing better. As I think all of the cars in the paddock have better tracks and worse tracks so there is time for our car. But this doesn’t exclude that generally we have to keep working and keep focusing on as we think we have an issue.

JP: How does a non-race week look for you as the reserve & development driver?
RK: For sure it is completely different to a race driver’s weekend. Nonetheless it’s still very exciting for me to be back in the paddock. Ok, it is a different role than I have been used to but still this gives me an opportunity to stay close in the team, stay close to the sport to which I have a lot of passion. It gives me the opportunity to see a Grand Prix weekend from a different perspective and a different point of view so it is a good opportunity for me. It isn’t easy to see and hear what I was racing but still as I said I am enjoying it and I am trying to help the team as much as I can.

World Copyright: Mark Sutton/Williams F1

JP: What’s your part in solving team problems?
RK: My part as a driver is to try to give the best feel as it is possible when I get to drive a car. As a part of my role I am doing a lot of simulation work so we are trying to improve our simulator, to improve our correlation between the simulator and reality. As part of our development, I am doing a part of our development programme which is involving me doing some internal technical meetings so as you can see I am a bit more than just a reserve driver and this is very nice from the team. I am really keen to play a part and also trying to help the team but also to learn from other people.

JP: Before the 2018 season there was much speculation about your comeback to F1. Did these rumours sometimes get you tired?
RK: Well, it is a part of the game and I think the media got very excited about the possibility for me to comeback as a race driver. I think everybody was trying to get their opinion around. I think this was the normal approach from the media. It looks like during November-December my name appeared and was quite popular and I think media had some speculations to talk so they used it.

World Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1

JP: F1 is a sport that is constantly evolving, changing. What do you miss the most when compared to the beginning of your career?
RK: Driving, very simple and being younger. But on the other side I have much more experience so actually experience is helping a lot.
Generally, I think the sound was making F1 races very exciting which we are missing. It is easier for media commitments – in the past it wasn’t as easy, you were travelling to do interviews as well. The Season was running and we can do it (the interview) so there is always pros and negatives.

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