Monaco GP preview: all to prove for rebounding Ferrari

The Monaco Grand Prix—jewel in the crown of the F1 calendar, and the sixth round of the 2018 season.

It’s been a topsy-turvy season so far. Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel had the early advantage, winning the first two races on the trot and taking a firm hold on qualifying. But in the last two rounds in Baku and Barcelona, they have been pegged back by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, who now leads the drivers’ championship by 17 points over Vettel.

Ferrari Media

That deficit means Monaco is a must-win race for Vettel. With the next few rounds from Canada through to Germany likely to favour Mercedes, he’ll need to come away with maximum points from Monte Carlo if he is to keep the title from slipping away during the European season as it did last year.

But although Monaco is expected to be another Ferrari track as it was in 2017, Vettel cannot afford to be complacent this weekend. His lost victories in China and Azerbaijan are proof enough that even with the quicker car, nothing is assured.

Perhaps most importantly, Vettel will have to make sure he avoids any more “red mist” moments if events in the race do turn against him. A clumsy attempt to retake the lead, like the one Vettel launched at Valtteri Bottas in Baku, will be much more costly here in Monaco than settling for second.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

With Monaco typically not suiting Mercedes, Vettel’s strongest challenge for the win this weekend is expected to come from Red Bull. The RB14 was quick through the twisting final sector in Barcelona—generally a reliable indicator of Monaco pace—and Hamilton has tipped it rather than the Ferrari as his biggest concern on Sunday:

“If you look at Daniel Ricciardo [in Spain] he was much quicker in the last sector, and the last sector is all about downforce,” the championship leader said. “They’re going to be rapid in Monaco, and very hard to beat.”

If Red Bull is as fast around Monte Carlo as Hamilton fears, then Ricciardo is almost certainly going to be a contender for the win. The Australian’s four Red Bull starts in Monaco have so far yielded three podiums, as well as his infamous pole and near-win in 2016.

The same cannot be said of Max Verstappen, however. The Dutchman has a far-from-stellar record around Monte Carlo, finishing there for the first time only last year after crashing out in 2015 and ’16. Verstappen will need to conquer whatever Monaco issues have been holding him back in the past if he is to stay on Ricciardo’s level this weekend.

Steven Tee/McLaren

Fernando Alonso has been upbeat about returning to race at the principality after missing last year’s event for the Indy 500, and understandably so: Monte Carlo has always been a strong venue for McLaren, and became a trusty source of points during their troubled Honda years.

However, qualifying is key in Monaco and so far in 2018 that has been McLaren’s weakness. The team will need to replicate last year’s Saturday performance, which saw Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne qualify in the top ten, or they may find themselves too far back to challenge for more than a handful of points.

Renault will likely be McLaren’s biggest rival this weekend. The Enstone team overtook McLaren for fourth in the constructors’ standings in Spain and has every chance of increasing that gap come Sunday—especially as Carlos Sainz has finished in the points in every race he’s contested around the Monte Carlo circuit, even dating back to his Formula Renault 3.5 days.

Haas should also be quick enough to pose a threat to both Renault and McLaren, given the mechanical pointers the VF-18 takes from last year’s race-winning Ferrari. But even if the American team qualifies well on Saturday, their race is set to be much harder as Romain Grosjean comes to Monaco weighed down with a three-place grid penalty for his first lap collision in Barcelona.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Outside of the three “Group B” teams, there are a few wildcards who might scrape into the points on Sunday.

Toro Rosso has perhaps the most realistic chance. The Red Bull junior team’s high-downforce designs have served them well around Monaco in recent years, with points finishes in every year since 2015, and the lack of emphasis on engine power will help Honda close up to those in front.

If Toro Rosso is competitive in Monaco, that will please Brendon Hartley enormously, with the Kiwi in need of a good performance as rumours about his future continue to swirl.

Also in the mix with Toro Rosso is Sauber. The C37 has been a surprise points-scorer this season, and with an on-form Charles Leclerc looking to impress on home soil it would be unwise to bet against Sauber adding to their 11 points total in Monte Carlo.

And then there’s Force India and Williams. With Monaco’s downforce demands not suiting either team’s 2018 aero designs, both will be hoping some traditional Monte Carlo madness can bring them into the lower reaches of the top ten.

Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1

F1 testing: Raikkonen leads Alonso on final day

Kimi Räikkönen kept Ferrari on top for the final day of 2018 testing, leading by half a second from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

The Finn set his best time during the morning session, using hypersofts to post a 1:17.221s—just 0.039s slower than Sebastian Vettel’s record-breaking lap from Thursday.

Although Räikkönen’s focus turned to long runs in the afternoon as he notched up a total of 153 laps, his time was strong enough to remain fastest even as a flurry of hot laps came late in the session.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/McLaren Media

Fernando Alonso made the most ground on the leaderboard during that period, setting a pair of hypersoft-shod 1:17s that brought him within 0.563s of the Ferrari in the final 15 minutes.

The Spaniard did briefly top the leaderboard following that run with a 1:16.720s, but this time came by cutting the final chicane and as such was deleted.

As well as rising to second-quickest, Alonso’s afternoon was also spent recovering from yet another interrupted morning. After teammate Vandoorne logged 151 laps on Thursday, Alonso’s final session with the MCL33 was halted after just seven laps this morning, when a turbo problem prompted a five-hour engine change.

However, once that was completed Alonso had no further issues on track and ended the day with a respectable 93 laps.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Alonso’s P2 was the first in a trio of Renault-powered cars to slot in behind Räikkönen, as the French marque continued to show signs of improvements in its power unit performance.

Carlos Sainz’s works Renault was three tenths down on the McLaren in third. Like Alonso, he too was making up for lost track time in the final hours, following a gearbox problem that halted his RS18 after just four installation laps in the morning.

Fourth was Daniel Ricciardo, who set a supersoft lap of 1:18.327s—only three tenths off the hypersoft lap that put the Australian on top of Tuesday’s session.

LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Romain Grosjean was fifth, putting in another strong showing of speed for Haas with a 1:18.412s. The Frenchman also posted the most laps of the day at 191.

Valtteri Bottas—who set his best time on the medium tyre—was the highest-placed Mercedes in sixth. Once again, the Silver Arrows split its day between Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, with the duo putting in a combined 201 laps on Friday to bring Mercedes’ testing total up to 1,040.

That’s 56 fewer than the team achieved during 2017 testing, but still leaves Mercedes comfortably top of this year’s mileage charts, setting 111 laps more than next-best Ferrari.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Slotting into third on the teams’ lap count was Toro Rosso-Honda, their total of 822 laps including the 156 logged by Brendon Hartley on Friday. The New Zealander was seventh-fastest in the end, one tenth down on Bottas and less than 0.020s quicker than Esteban Ocon’s Force India in eighth.

Charles Leclerc was ninth, and the first driver outside of the 1:18s. The reigning F2 champion’s final day was hampered when he span into the gravel trap in the morning—the delay limited Leclerc to 75 laps, the third-lowest total of the day.

Lewis Hamilton made a rare appearance towards the bottom of the leaderboard, as his 1:19.464s (good enough for fourth in the morning) tumbled down the order while his teammate drove the afternoon session.

The defending champion eventually settled in eleventh place, splitting the two Williams’ of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll. During his morning in the FW41, Sirotkin recorded a century of laps to help Williams to fourth in overall testing mileage.

However, his teammate added only 27 laps of his own in the afternoon running, and with a best time of 1:19.954s Stroll made it the sixth time in eight days of testing that a Williams has been slowest.

Andrew Hone/Williams

F1 testing: Ricciardo breaks lap record; Renault nears 200 laps

Daniel Ricciardo lowered the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s unofficial lap record during Wednesday’s testing session, setting a time of 1:18.047s on the new hypersoft tyre.

The Australian’s lap was more than three tenths faster than the previous record set by Felipe Massa during testing in 2008, and nearly six tenths below last year’s fastest testing time, set by Kimi Räikkönen.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were close behind the Red Bull. Their best flying laps, both set on the ultrasoft tyre, were four and five tenths adrift of Ricciardo respectively, but still comfortably within the 1:18s.

These times came as teams focused on performance runs during the morning session, the result being that many of Wednesday’s laps were among the quickest of 2018 testing so far.

Steve Etherington/Mercedes AMG F1

Fourth fastest was Sebastian Vettel. The German was given an unexpected extra session on Wednesday morning as teammate Kimi Räikkönen was unwell, but opted to concentrate on long runs rather than challenge Red Bull and Mercedes on the hypersoft—however, he did manage to lap within a second of third-placed Bottas despite running on the soft compound tyre at the time.

Three tenths behind Vettel came Brendon Hartley and Fernando Alonso, both setting closely-matched 1:19.8s on the ultrasofts. Alonso had looked set to enjoy McLaren’s first trouble-free day of testing so far when he ran among the pacesetters during the morning and notched up 47 laps early on.

However, an oil leak before midday resulted in an engine change that cost Alonso over six hours of track time—the Spaniard was only able to fit in another 15 minutes of running at the end of the day, bringing his Wednesday lap count up to 57.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Carlos Sainz was seventh fastest, being the first driver above 1:20s and the only one of the day to set his time on the medium tyre.

Although Sainz’s best lap was ultimately two seconds off Ricciardo’s benchmark, he did contribute to Renault leading the way in terms of mileage on Wednesday. The Spaniard logged 88 rounds of the Barcelona track during his morning in the RS18, before teammate Nico Hülkenberg added a further 102 after lunch.

Their combined 190 laps puts Renault second so far in the number of testing laps completed per team, with 602 to Mercedes’s 658.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Romain Grosjean was eighth-fastest on a 1:20.237s. Haas ended the session with the second-lowest lap total when an oil leak on Grosjean’s car limited him to 78 laps across the day.

Räikkönen, who recovered to run in the afternoon, and Hülkenberg, were the lowest-placed manufacturer drivers in ninth and eleventh respectively, split by the Williams of Lance Stroll.

Force India, Sauber and Williams occupied the bottom spaces on the leaderboard with Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sergey Sirotkin.

But although the three midfield teams were an average of three seconds off Red Bull’s pace, they were all much higher on the day’s lap charts. Leclerc’s 160 and Ocon’s 130 were beaten only by Ricciardo in terms of laps done by an individual driver, while Stroll and Sirotkin recorded 143 for Williams between them.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

F1 testing: McLaren troubles continue into second week

McLaren suffered another day of limited mileage on Tuesday as F1 testing resumed in Barcelona, finishing the day bottom of the lap charts and with the second-slowest time.

After minor mechanical faults cost the team valuable track time last week, McLaren was left again on the back foot when Stoffel Vandoorne’s MCL33 broke down twice in the morning with a pair of battery failures shutting down his Renault engine.

And although McLaren seemed to resolve those issues in time for the afternoon, Vandoorne was not out for long before this session was also cut short—this time, owing to a hydraulics problem.

In total, Vandoorne completed just 38 laps across the whole of Tuesday, and finished last-but-one on the timesheets with a best of 1:21.946s.

Ferrari Media

While McLaren struggled, their rivals took advantage of the prime conditions in Barcelona to embark on the long run programmes traditionally seen in the second week.

Sebastian Vettel recorded the most individual mileage of the day with 171 laps, as well as ending the day fastest by two tenths from Valtteri Bottas.

However, Mercedes ran the furthest of any team on Tuesday, surpassing Ferrari by six laps by combining Bottas’s 86 laps in the morning with Lewis Hamilton’s afternoon total of 91.

Max Verstappen—who split Bottas and Hamilton to be third fastest—lost running in the final hour of the afternoon when his Red Bull stopped on track, but nevertheless logged 130 laps to be Vettel’s closest challenger.

Sauber, Renault and Williams also broached the 100-lap mark (the latter two teams splitting running between both of their drivers), while Haas and Force India came close with 96 and 93 laps respectively.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

In an unexpected turn, Toro Rosso and Honda endured the first difficult day of their new partnership on Tuesday. After accomplishing a respectable 53 laps in the morning session with Pierre Gasly at the wheel, an unknown issue kept the STR13 confined to the garage for most of the afternoon, with Gasly adding only a single lap to his total after lunch.

But despite those troubles, Gasly still managed to end the day fifth fastest and best of the rest with a 1:20.973s, putting the Frenchman less than six tenths off Vettel’s benchmark.

Kevin Magnussen was sixth and the last of Tuesday’s drivers to be within a second of the pace. He finished ahead of Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz, who were separated by just 0.023s despite setting their laps on different tyre compounds.

Sergey Sirotkin enjoyed more profitable running than his first week of F1 testing, and was the highest-placed Williams in ninth. Two tenths separated the Russian from Sergio Pérez in tenth and Marcus Ericsson—who notched up 120 laps for Sauber—in eleventh.

Lance Stroll was Tuesday’s slowest runner behind McLaren’s Vandoorne, even though his 1:22.937s was set on the hypersoft tyre. However, with the Canadian making it to 86 laps despite sharing his day with Sirotkin, it’s likely Stroll’s programme was focused more on distance than outright pace.

Andy Hone/Williams F1

Vettel lowers benchmark on second day of testing

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished top of the timesheets on day two in Barcelona, setting the fastest lap of the test so far in a day of weather-limited running.

The German’s best effort, a 1:19.673s set on soft tyres, was half a second faster than Daniel Ricciardo’s Monday benchmark, and made Vettel one of only two drivers to lap within the 1:19s on day two.

The other was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Having posted a best of 1:20.325s in the morning, the Finn was the early pacesetter until Vettel’s soft run knocked him from the top spot—but despite improving in the afternoon to join Vettel below the 1:20s barrier, Bottas remained 0.303s adrift by the close of day.

Wolfgang Wilhelm/Mercedes AMG F1

Outside of the top two, no other driver today posted lap times below Monday’s fastest, as near-freezing temperatures once again held back representative running.

Stoffel Vandoorne was the third-fastest runner of the day, 0.652s off Vettel’s pace with a best lap of 1:20.325s. The Belgian’s time was the first of the test logged on Pirelli’s new pink-walled hypersoft tyre.

Max Verstappen failed to post a time in the morning after being sidelined by a fuel leak, but improved in the afternoon to finish fourth, just 0.001s behind Vandoorne on the medium tyre.

Next up, Carlos Sainz, Pierre Gasly and Williams third driver Robert Kubica all lapped within a few tenths of each other in the 1:21s. Kubica’s teammate Sergey Sirotkin and Force India’s Esteban Ocon were a little behind again, closely matched in the 1:21.8s.

Monegasque rookie Charles Leclerc had a difficult first day driving the Sauber C37 with a spin in the afternoon and finishing more than three seconds off the pace, but was spared ending the day at the bottom of the timesheet at the expense of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

Jerry Andre/LAT Images/Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

The cold weather also meant that no driver managed to surpass Ricciardo’s first day total of 105 laps, although Vettel and Bottas came closest with 98 and 94 laps respectively.

Gasly held the next-highest total, putting in 82 laps in his STR13 to prove that Toro Rosso-Honda’s mileage yesterday was no fluke, while Leclerc made up for his early error with 81 laps to his name in the end.

At the other end of the lap charts, McLaren suffered another low-mileage day with an exhaust issue keeping Vandoorne in the garage from midday onwards, unable to add to his tally of 37 laps.

However, that was at least one more than Haas achieved across the day. With his programme interrupted by two off-track moments—one of which nearly ended in the barriers—Magnussen was prevented from making up for lost time when reports of snow at the end of the day brought running more or less to an end, and the Dane finished the day bottom of both the timesheet and the lap count.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/Haas F1 Team

Welcome Back Old Friend – Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Launch The C37

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. If there is one team that has had to dig deep to keep their F1 dream alive, it is the Sauber team.  That belief and dream came to beautiful fruition with the launch of their C37 2018 F1 challenger… alongside an old friend; Alfa Romeo.

 

Sauber have had a tumultuous few years which have been well documented, however the new ownership combined with the re-entry of Alfa into F1 created an air of optimism which took center-stage today with the unveiling of the Halo-ed C37.

The Quadrifoglio features proudly on the side of the dark candy apple and white car, which is being rated as one of the most striking liveries of the 2018 cars revealed thus far. Following suit with the other teams, the halo has been co-ordinated to look less conspicuous on the car and hopefully not be as distracting as the prototype seen in 2017.

The C37 will have 2018 Ferrari power, a move that is welcomed by both drivers. Marcus Ericsson begins another season with the Swiss based outfit and will drive alongside the talented and highly rated Charles Leclerc.

While more specific technical details are yet to be revealed, team Principal, Fred Vasseur has gone on record to say that the team is taking a new technical direction in 2018, featured a new aerodynamic concept that has been months in the making. Fans will recall that the team all but stopped work on the C36 in order to focus on the C37 and will officially roll out at the Circuit de Catalunya tests later this month.

The winglets on the car are delicate, which seems to be the trend with the cars revealed to date and significant changes to the side-pod areas. Sauber have struggled on aerodynamic intensive tracks and hope the changes will bring about an improvement.

The team are looking forward to improving on their performance and “catching up” with the field utilising the combination of experience and youth with their drivers and the sweeping changes at Hinwil, that has now lead to a close working relationship with the Ferrari team.

Sauber have been the great F1 dream, a single dream made good. 2018 may just bring about the next chapter in their extraordinary story.

All images are copyright Sauber F1 Media Pool 

F1 Season Preview: 5 things to watch

With the start of the F1 season nearly upon us, here are 5 things to watch out for in 2018.

McLaren-Renault

Glenn Dunbar/McLaren

After a dismal three-year marriage, McLaren-Honda finally divorced at the end of 2017 with McLaren going to Renault and Honda going to Toro Rosso.

Throughout the troubled times, McLaren claimed, time and time again, that they have one of the best chassis on the grid. So, with the Renault engine of the rise, McLaren’s word will be put to the test—can they challenge for podiums, wins or even the championship or will Alonso be left disappointed once more?

Alfa Romeo Sauber

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Following the fallout over the short-lived Sauber-Honda deal, the Swiss team strengthened their partnership with Ferrari by becoming their effective ‘B-team’.

This means that, along with up-to-date engines, Sauber will be responsible for looking after some of Ferrari’s junior drivers. For 2018, they’ll have reigning F2 champion Charles Leclerc as a full-time driver and 2016 GP2-runner up Antonio Giovinazzi as their third driver. Mercedes have already said that the alliance could be “dangerous for them” with the Germans hinting that they may follow suit in the coming years.

The ‘Halo’

Steve Etherington/Mercedes AMG F1

Controversial as it is, we will see the halo raced for the first time in 2018. The FIA had to do something for this season as they had said a ‘frontal head protection device’ would be in place by 2018.

Some would say that it’s been rushed through the development process. Nevertheless, the FIA have allowed the teams some leeway with winglets and such like on the halo and the structure of it will be blended into the colour scheme of the car, so that it doesn’t stand out quite as much.

Softer tyres

Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Pirelli have admitted that they were too cautious with their tyre compounds in 2017, leading to widespread one-stop races and minimal degradation.

While they’re not going back to the days of super high-degradation tyres, the 2018 tyres will be softer. Along with the introduction of the Hyper-Soft, each compound will be a step softer; the Super-Soft will be like the old Ultra-Soft, the Soft will be like the old Super-Soft and so on. This should increase the variation in strategies, hopefully leading to more exciting and unpredictable racing.

The midfield

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

2017 involved an intense mid-field fight between Renault, Toro Rosso and Haas with the teams finishing within 10 points of each other.

A shake up is on the cards for 2018, however. The newly-powered McLaren and the works Renault team are both expected to rise above the rest of the midfield for fourth and fifth places in the championship which will make the midfield battle for sixth down to tenth. Force India should be as strong as ever and could give McLaren and Renault a run for their money while less is expected of Williams, given the standard of their drivers. The new Toro Rosso-Honda partnership has the potential to be very good, as does Alfa-Romeo Sauber, while Haas remains to be an unknown.

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.

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

Previewing the 2017–18 driver market

When summer comes and F1 takes to its European heartlands, that can only mean one thing—the time for silly season is here. At time of writing, only six drivers on the current grid have contracts in place for the 2018 season, and while many can be expected to renew their existing deals, there is still plenty of scope for changes over the course of the next few months.

Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Starting at the very front of the grid, it looks unlikely that Mercedes will feature much in the contractual rumour mill this season. Lewis Hamilton is one of those half-dozen drivers with a 2018 deal already in place, and although many speculated early in the year that Valtteri Bottas’ one-year deal was just a placeholder until a superstar name became available, the Finn seems to have established himself as an asset to the team and is likely to be retained.

The same cannot be said of Ferrari, however. With the Scuderia now locked in a close title fight with Mercedes, it’s hard to imagine much desire among the bosses to retain Kimi Räikkönen for yet another season when there is much younger blood to be found elsewhere. The obvious candidate for his seat is Sergio Pérez, who carries that blend of proven talent and North American sponsorship so desired at Ferrari, although Carlos Sainz is also well-known to join him on their shopping list.

An alternative name to throw into the Ferrari pot is that of Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has been visibly disheartened by Red Bull’s lack of a title bid this season, and although he already has a supposedly ironclad contract in place for next year, his departure may actually suit Red Bull in the long run—especially when one considers the alternative is losing Max Verstappen to Ferrari instead.

Judging by frustration alone, the Dutchman looks far more likely than Ricciardo to want out of Red Bull this year. But allowing him to become the team’s new and undisputed leader would appease Verstappen no end, and promoting one of the Toro Rosso juniors to be his teammate would prevent them from leaving the programme to strengthen the hand of a rival like Renault or Williams. With all five of its drivers (including understudy Pierre Gasly) under interest from all ends of the F1 grid, Red Bull could well be forced this year into losing a finger to save the hand.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

If Red Bull decides to stick with (or rather, refuses to let go of) its current senior lineup, then the likely price will be to lose one of its junior drivers instead. It’s obvious that Sainz, with at least some interest from all four works teams, will face the most attractive offers, but considering Daniil Kvyat’s difficult relationship with both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso management, it’s he who in all probability will find it easier to leave.

Should Kvyat be released from the Red Bull stable he will no doubt carry some considerable weight among the midfield teams. Questions of consistency aside, with a proven points and podium record the Russian will make an appealing option to replace Pérez at Force India, or the ageing Felipe Massa at Williams.

Another potential home for Kvyat would be alongside Nico Hülkenberg at Renault. The French marque is known to like its Russian drivers (not to mention their sponsors), and if Sergey Sirotkin doesn’t prove up to an F1 seat in 2018, the team could do worse than signing Kvyat in place of Jolyon Palmer—particularly as the former’s history of Renault engines at Red Bull and Toro Rosso will help him slot quickly into their development programme.

As for Palmer himself, even with his underwhelming performances so far it would be surprising not to see him somewhere on the grid in 2018. The Briton’s GP2 title and substantial personal backing was known to have put him on Force India’s radar when it sought a replacement for Hülkenberg last season, and could do so again this year; if not, he may well find a welcome home at Sauber-Honda.

Renault Sport F1 Team

If Palmer were to pitch himself to Sauber, it’s almost a given that his drive would come at Pascal Wehrlein’s expense. The German is understood to have developed a difficult relationship with both Marcus Ericsson and the team’s new owners for starters; and with Sauber taking on a new engine deal with Honda for next year, Mercedes may feel it’s best to place Wehrlein elsewhere.

Had Lance Stroll not found his F1 feet in Baku, it would not have been much of a shock to see Williams switch him with Wehrlein to allow the Canadian time to mature outside of the spotlight. And whilst Williams could still opt to take on Wehrlein to partner Stroll instead, the team would probably prefer to find a more experienced driver should it decide against resigning Felipe Massa for a fifth season—a driver like Romain Grosjean, for example, whose vexation with Haas’ continued brake issues has been made all too public this year, and who might be on the hunt for fresh inspiration now that his Ferrari hopes seem to have vanished.

Alternatively, at 31 and with no clear shot at a front-running seat, Grosjean might be tempted to chance one last throw of the dice at McLaren. It’s hard to see who else the former champions would be able to attract if Fernando Alonso walks away and leaves them with an empty seat, unless they take a substantial risk and promote F2 protege Nyck de Vries. Nevertheless, the matter of any driver replacing Alonso remains dependant on the Spaniard actually leaving McLaren—something that still seems a long way from happening with no obvious top-tier cockpit for him to assume.

Charles Coates / McLaren