ICEMAN COOL IN RED-HOT DRIVER MARKET
Two big questions hang over the remainder of the driver market as Formula 1 prepares for the closing longhaul leg of the 2018 championship: will Ferrari keep Kimi Räikkönen and, since Mclaren announced just after the Italian Grand Prix that they have opted to partner Carlos Sainz with their protégé Lando Norris, how do Mercedes solve the problem that is Esteban Ocon?
Three months ago, Ferrari had decided to replace Räikkönen with Charles Leclerc, after the Monegasque’s stunning debut with Sauber this year. Then came the death of president Sergio Marchionne, and with it uncertainty over much more at Ferrari than just the driver line-up.
Marchionne’s responsibilities at Fiat and Ferrari were split between three different people and the new chief executive officer of Ferrari, Louis Carey Camilleri, attended the Italian Grand Prix and stated that the team had “not taken a decision yet” on Räikkönen’s future.
“When we take that decision, and there is no time frame, you will be the second to know,” he said.
Marchionne’s death has changed the balance of power at Ferrari dramatically. When he was alive, no-one had any doubt that he was in charge, and his restructure of the team, aimed at promoting creativity, has led directly to its rise in competitiveness.
And it was he who had decided to jettison Räikkönen and promote Leclerc. So, do the new bosses stick with a plan hatched by their dynamic, successful predecessor? Or do internal politics change things?
Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene was frequently belittled by Marchionne in meetings with other teams but now has a bigger role in the big decisions. And Sebastian Vettel has made little secret of his desire to stick with Räikkönen. Against that, the Finn has not exactly excelled consistently through his time at Ferrari and Italian media sense a strong desire from outside – fans, public, television – for the introduction of an exciting young talent. The feeling is that Leclerc remains the favourite, but it could easily go either way.
The future of another talented manufacturer protégé, Esteban Ocon, appears to be in limbo after Mclaren decided to part company with Stoffel Vandoorne at the end of the season and replace him with a product of their own young driver programme, Lando Norris. Given his Mercedes affiliations, Ocon might seem like a less smooth fit than a driver who has been under Mclaren’s wing for some time, but his F1 credentials are more established than Norris, who will be 19 when he makes his debut. Norris has enjoyed a stellar trajectory through the junior formulae but he has been inconsistent in Formula 2, where (at the time of writing) he has not won a race since April.
Vandoorne, very much a product of the previous regime at Mclaren, is understood to have been out of favour with recently installed team boss Zak Brown for some time.
The takeover of Force India by a consortium led by Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll has created a complicated dynamic over some of the remaining seats. Stroll wants son Lance to switch soon – and certainly for 2019. But that means one of the current Force India drivers will be dropped.
Stroll is reluctant to move this year for two reasons: he does not fancy the idea of stepping into a car late in the season and trying to look good; and he does not want to leave his friend Ocon without a drive. But that might be what happens in 2019.
The situation is even making Mercedes question their junior programme. Team boss Toto Wolff said in Italy: “It has come to a point now where we need to decide what we want to do. If the drivers are stigmatised as Mercedes drivers, it seems to be not the best selling proposition.
“I still feel that the best talent needs to be supported and developed and I hope we find a solution for these guys. If we can’t, I would question the junior programme.” Wolff, for all his contacts, won’t find it easy to solve this one.
“NORRIS HAS ENJOYED A STELLAR TRAJECTORY THROUGH THE JUNIOR FORMULAE BUT HAS BEEN INCONSISTENT IN FORMULA 2
Despite securing pole and finishing second in Italy, Räikkönen could still find himself replaced by Leclerc (above) for 2019
Lando Norris will replace Stoffel Vandoorne at Mclaren next season