6 drivers Sauber could have picked instead of Kimi
Finally. After almost five underwhelming, winless years since his return to Ferrari, Kimi Räikkönen is soon to be out of a top-line Formula 1 drive. For 2019, the Finn – who will turn 39 next month – will be replaced by the exciting prospect that is 20-year-old Charles Leclerc Hallelujah.
Now, from that intro you can probably glean that we think his demotion is good news. Another case of ‘media negativity’ towards one of the most popular drivers in Formula 1? Perhaps. But it’s nothing personal. Honest.
Räikkönen’s total antipathy for the media is well documented, and was displayed once again in Singapore last week. He clearly hates a large portion of the F1 press.
Is that feeling reciprocated? It doesn’t help that he refuses to engage in any meaningful way with most of the media – but no. Proper journalists (and yes, they do still exist) pride themselves on impartiality. His fans will scoff, but criticism is genuinely based on the incontrovertible fact he has consistently underperformed and outpaced by first Fernando Alonso and then Sebastian Vettel during his return to Ferrari.
As his scornful Singapore press conference performance highlighted, his surprise signing for Sauber suggests Räikkönen still loves the activity (and money) of being an F1 driver. Perhaps he will revel in being ‘left alone’ (as he famously likes to be) in a team performing at the blunt end of the grid.
In signing Räikkönen, Sauber will gain a driver with immense experience, of course, 18 years – wow, 18 years – after he made his F1 debut for the team straight out of Formula Renault. He will undoubtedly contribute to the development of the car.
But for a team run by Frederic Vasseur, formerly boss of the ART Grand Prix GP2 team and a man who understands how to nurture young talent, his signing can hardly be viewed as an indicator of great ambition within Sauber.
Would fresher, hungrier talent to replace the departing Leclerc count for more? That depends entirely on how many points 20-time GP winner Räikkönen delivers next season. But at this stage, we reckon there’s a decent list of inspiring drivers Sauber could have signed with at least as much to offer – if not a great deal more.
1. Antonio Giovinazzi
The Italian has already raced for Sauber as substitute for the injured Pascal Wehrlein back in 2017, impressing on his debut in Australia by finishing 12th, then crashing out in China. He has subsequently gained in reputation as Ferrari’s valued simulator driver.
The 24-year-old might still join Sauber, alongside Räikkönen as a replacement for Marcus Ericsson. But if the Swede retains his seat for 2019, Giovinazzi will have lost a shot he already looked to have earned.
How good is he? It’s impossible to know for sure. But there would be no shortage of motivation for a man only narrowly beaten to the GP2 title in 2016 by new Red Bull Racing driver Pierre Gasly.
2. Esteban Ocon
Yes, he’s a Mercedes-contracted driver and a Sauber move could surely only happen if he broke away from the German mothership. But as it stands, the talented Frenchman is facing the frustrating prospect of sitting out the 2019 season following the Lawrence Stroll-financed buyout of Force India.
Should he spend a year on the bench in the hope a coveted Mercedes F1 seat might come his way, in place of Valtteri Bottas, for 2020? Perhaps that’s the long-game Ocon and his manager Toto Wolff – who also happens to run the Merc F1 team too, of course – could be forced to play. It might be better than the other possible alternative: a drive at Williams…
But for Vasseur, surely Ocon would have been at least worth an enquiry. If points are what Sauber are truly chasing above all else, the 21-year-old would be odds on to score at least as many as an aging F1 champion with nothing left to prove.
3. George Russell
Again, another Mercedes-contracted driver. But the Briton, who currently leads the Formula 2 standings, must be wondering just how much use that Mercedes contract is worth to him in F1 career terms. With Ocon ahead of him, will he ever be given a chance in the works team?
Russell’s stock will only rise further if he beats new McLaren signing and countryman Lando Norris to the F2 crown. A Sauber berth would be a perfect proving ground and he and Vasseur would surely gel. What a shame that once again politics and manufacturer affiliations limit the options for exciting young talent.
4. Stoffel Vandoorne
The Belgian has endured a stinker at McLaren, over the course of two years during which he has been comprehensively outperformed by the old master, Fernando Alonso. But there is a strong school of thought that Vandoorne deserves a second chance elsewhere.
The kid who flew through the junior formulae hasn’t suddenly become a bad racing driver, and Vandoorne clearly has everything to prove, so motivation would be unquestioned. Could he fly again in a nurturing team environment with a boss who knows how to get the best out of young drivers? You bet he could.
5. Jean-Eric Vergne
At 28, the Torro Rosso veteran stands out from our list as a different prospect. But like Vandoorne, many believe the Frenchman deserves a second F1 chance.
The new Formula E champion has been linked to a Toro Rosso return, although Daniil Kvyat – another Red Bull reject – now looks most likely for Pierre Gasly’s vacant seat. Could Vergne still replace the underwhelming Brendon Hartley? Perhaps.
But Sauber too would have fitted the bill. Vergne is a fiery character with clear natural pace. The experience of living outside the F1 bubble will only have been of benefit, adding perspective and maturity. He would have brought a great deal to Sauber, not least that valuable points scoring potential.
6. Mick Schumacher
Ooh, now here’s a long-shot prospect. Michael’s 19-year-old son is a race winner this year in European Formula 3 and, with clear talent and that name, is surely on his way to the pinnacle. An apprenticeship at Ferrari-affiliated Sauber would make absolute sense.
In truth, it’s probably too early. But surely Vasseur must have his eye on the man who is literally the new Schumacher…
Worth a punt for 2020? Now there’s an idea.
Words by Damien Smith, images courtesy of Motorsport Images.