The winners and losers from F1's driver market madness
Scott is a freelance Formula 1 journalist who follows the grand prix racing circus around the world. An ex-Autosport F1 and Formula E correspondent, he now writes for The Race, Motorsport News and Teknikens Värld magazine, among others.
For months, Ferrari has said Sebastian Vettel was its number one choice to partner Charles Leclerc in Formula 1 in 2021. Carlos Sainz Jr and McLaren were keen to keep working together beyond 2020. Daniel Ricciardo hadn’t throw in the towel at Renault.
In a glorious 48-hour whirlwind, that’s all changed.
Last week it was announced that Vettel will leave Ferrari at the end of whatever season we end up with in 2020. Two days later, Sainz was announced as his replacement – but not before McLaren revealed it had signed Ricciardo from Renault.
McLaren’s move triggered a salty statement from Renault in which it questioned Ricciardo’s loyalty. Now there’s increasing speculation that two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso might end up back at Renault as a result!
When a big domino falls, the aftermath is spectacular. But who are the winners and losers from F1’s unexpectedly spicy driver market?
Ferrari's driver line-up will change for 2021, when Vettel is replaced by Sainz
Winners: McLaren, Sainz…and Alonso?
The first two names here are obvious. Sainz is a very promising driver and has been given the career opportunity of a lifetime by being plucked from the midfield and thrown into a team with race-winning capabilities and title-winning aspirations.
But he’s not a grand prix winner yet, so while McLaren is sad to be losing Sainz it’s pretty chuffed to be getting a seven-time F1 race winner to replace him.
This is especially true because the Woking team tried to get Ricciardo a couple of years and got snubbed because it was in a bad place. It says a lot about the progress McLaren’s made that just two years later it’s been able to convince that same driver to U-turn and leave the works Renault team.
Ricciardo will be great for McLaren. He’s fast, tenacious, got a great understanding of what a team needs to be successful and he’s so hungry for success. If McLaren continues on its positive trajectory it knows it will have a capable team leader to make the most of it.
That’s what Renault has lost (but we’ll deal with their dilemma separately). Now it needs to work out a replacement and who better than Fernando Alonso?
“If I was running Renault, that's who I'd put in the car,” says McLaren boss Zak Brown.
“A big name. Fast as anyone. Won two championships with them so he's got history so from a Renault perspective, I think he's a bit of a no brainer to put in.”
This is Alonso’s chance to get back into F1 and it’s arguably there on a silver platter. He said he’d only return with a team capable of fighting at the front. We can interpret that to mean “near the front” if there’s a big step forward possible with the new technical rules.
Renault’s the best chance Alonso has of achieving that. It’s a remarkably complicated sequence of events but one that could end in Alonso’s F1 comeback.
Might all this end with Alonso having a route back to F1?
Losers: Vettel, Ricciardo and Renault
Something’s up with Vettel’s exit. Sainz and Ferrari were having discussions months ago, with a deal all but done. And it is understood that Vettel was never actually presented a contract for beyond 2020.
So, reports that he’d rejected a derisory financial offer were inaccurate.
Jenson Button says it would be “madness” if Vettel was pushed from Ferrari. But he also seems to have worked out that something is amiss: “There must be more to it.”
Button suggests that Ferrari didn’t want another “alpha” like Vettel in the team alongside Leclerc anymore. This is almost certainly where Ferrari and Vettel clashed.
Vettel is still good enough to be an asset for Ferrari. Perhaps he’s been seen as more trouble than he’s worth. In any case, he’d have surely not been interested in a de facto number two role.
The sad part is that Vettel seems to have been robbed of the opportunity to react.
This has rumbled on for months behind the scenes in a way that didn’t quite match what was being presented in public.
McLaren is the best option outside the big three teams but that door was closed to Vettel before his exit from Ferrari was sewn up.
Red Bull won’t take him back and Mercedes isn’t seriously interested, despite Toto Wolff’s politeness in public.
Unless Vettel takes a punt on Renault, it looks like he’s heading for retirement. Given he wanted to stay and win a title with Ferrari, he has to be considered the biggest loser from all this.
Ricciardo's committed to leaving Renault before racing in 2020
But Renault’s not far behind. It was banking on the start of the 2020 season to convince Ricciardo that its backwards step last year was just a blip, and it could be trusted to make progress and eventually fight for wins and titles.
Instead, Ricciardo’s committed to leaving without even driving the 2020 car in a race.
Now Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul needs to explain to the board, at a time of massive uncertainty for businesses, why its ultra-expensive star driver is so pessimistic about Renault’s chances after just one season that he’s decided to leave for another midfield team.
And Renault appears to have fallen out with Ricciardo with the 2020 season still to run, as Abiteboul took a swipe at his departing driver's loyalty in a statement confirming his exit.
Ricciardo’s also among the losers. It seem bonkers to say, but he’s too good to get the chance he deserves.
In 2018 when he wanted to leave Red Bull, Ferrari didn’t want to upset Vettel and put Ricciardo alongside him. So Leclerc got promoted. Now Leclerc’s so good he’s on a mega contract and is the team’s established number one after just one season: which means Ricciardo is a no-go.
So Ricciardo has settled for a marriage of convenience with McLaren.
It’s probably a better move than staying with Renault, but ultimately not the chance he craved or expected.