In the last few days, news has emerged that the Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul felt the need to tell Jolyon Palmer his drive with the team was safe ahead of the British Grand Prix weekend.
This was in response to the rumours that began circulating at the end of last week that Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz was about to replace Palmer for the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend. This story also followed the successful completion of two tests by former F1 driver Robert Kubica, who Renault are also rumoured to be evaluating with a view to bringing him back to Formula 1.
This has led many to question just what is going on with the Enstone team's driver lineup, and RealSport is here to pick through the French team's very own 'silly season' to try and get to the bottom of the matter.
The early threat from Sirotkin
Before we consider the rumours surrounding the aforementioned Sainz and Kubica, we also can’t forget the threat to Jolyon Palmer’s seat from within the Renault team. Russian reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin has driven for the team in 3 Friday practices so far in 2017 (although only one of these was actually in Palmer’s car - in Spain), and has made no secret of his ambitions to join the F1 grid.
Earlier in the season, when Palmer was really struggling, seemingly unable to go a weekend without wrecking the car one way or another, Sirotkin seemed to be the one most likely to replace him given his proximity to the team and free practice outings. Around the time of the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix, Sirotkin was quite coy about his chances, telling Russian media that while it would be “bad for him (Palmer) if I get involved in any political games”, he said he was doing his job and that “I think the team is able to see the whole situation for itself.”
This more than suggests Sirotkin believed at the time that he was the better choice for Renault. Since then though, and despite a practice run in Austria, talk around the young Russian has cooled, mainly due to the emergence of other contenders, as well as an upturn in form for Jolyon Palmer.
The first Kubica test
It was announced at the start of June that Robert Kubica, former BMW-Sauber and Renault driver (and F1 race winner), had been invited by Renault to drive an F1 car at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia. The Polish driver had not driven an F1 car since his horrendous rally crash in 2011, but after testing LMP and Formula E machinery earlier in the year, Renault offered him a test to “contribute in our way to his recovery,” according to Alan Permane, Renault’s sporting director.
While Kubica undoubtedly enjoyed this first test, clocking up an impressive 115 laps, he admitted to “mixed feelings” when asked about his return to the cockpit. “I’m proud with what I achieved today, but it also shows what I’ve lost.” No doubt he was referring to his injured right arm, a result of his crash that partially severed the appendage. He has since made an impressive recovery, but questions still remain about his range of use with this arm, and if he would be able to operate within the tight confines of an F1 cockpit.
These initial misgivings from Kubica himself, as well as the fact that Permane described the run as a “one-off” at the time, meant that speculation of the Pole snatching a race seat at this point was more wishful thinking than a genuine prospect. This was about to change though when Renault announced that they would offer Kubica a second test at Paul Ricard in July.
The second test and growing confidence
This second test has sent the F1 rumour mill into overdrive, and must have given Jolyon Palmer some sleepless nights when it was announced. Coming into the test in France, Renault admitted Kubica had impressed so much in Valencia that this “one-off" led to the offer of a second test to “assess his capabilities to return to the highest level of competition.”
The results of this test were even more positive than the first, with Kubica telling L’Equipe that a return would present “physically, no problem.” Despite this though, he admitted that it was still too early to say whether he would be able to make a full comeback in terms of participation in a full season, and that it was necessary to go “step by step”, at least for now.
The key thing to remember here, even with Kubica making more positive noises and Renault calling his performance at Paul Ricard “complete”, is that he is yet to drive flat out in modern F1 machinery. “He has so far only driven an old car, with a detuned engine, with demonstration tyres,” Cyril Abiteboul said in a statement. “He had not been submitted to the stresses of a race nor run with other cars.”
Despite this, Abiteboul indicated that the team would be willing to give Kubica more time in a car to evaluate him further. He even admitted that the team may use him for the test after Hungary, although conceded that this may be “too early” for the Polish driver to return.
All of this strongly suggests that, while Kubica may not be ready for an immediate return, this possibility is now at least on the table for 2018.
Sainz to replace Palmer in Hungary?
The latest gossip around Jolyon Palmer’s seat came last week when Germany’s Auto Bild (usually a reliable source for Red Bull related goings on ) reported that, following Carlos Sainz’s perhaps ill-advised comments in Austria that he didn’t see himself at Toro Rosso next year, Red Bull were willing to offload him to another team. It was consequently reported that Dr. Helmut Marko and Cyril Abiteboul were in secret negotiations to bring Sainz to Renault to replace Palmer for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
While this, as mentioned above, was vehemently denied by Abiteboul at Silverstone, the way he phrased this denial was interesting. “I have completely dismissed speculation of him (Palmer) being replaced in Budapest," he told Motorsport. “It’s not good, particularly on a Sunday morning.”
Does this mean then that Palmer is under threat after Hungary? Was this just a placation to his driver on the eve of his home race where he had a good chance of points? Who knows, but the devil is in the details, and Abiteboul, deliberately or not, hasn’t really cleared anything up beyond the summer break that follows Hungary.
Renault will probably get their man, but when?
Sainz has long been pursued by Renault, with the team trying over the winter to release him from his Red Bull duties for 2017. The French team were also said to be lining him up for a 2018 drive, even before these latest stories.
There is a bit more to this than meets the eye though. Sainz’s camp was said to be behind rumours of a switch for Max Verstappen to Ferrari for 2018, paving the way for Sainz’s promotion to Red Bull. These actions, along with Sainz’s Austria comments about 2018, would have upset the powers that be at Red Bull, and while these ultimately contributed to the rumours of an imminent switch, actual statements from the players involved paint a different story.
In Silverstone, Sainz was infinitely more conciliatory, emphasising that he was still a Toro Rosso driver, and one that was contracted for 2019. Christian Horner however, admitted that while Sainz was an asset, “an asset has value. So if there was a desire from another team to have him…something that has value has to have a price attached.”
This effectively leaves the door open for Renault to step in, but they will have to pay if they want their man, whether that be this season or for 2018. This probably puts them in a better position than they were when they were trying to get the Spaniard for 2017, as Red Bull would have been less likely to negotiate. Again though, this doesn’t really give us any indication of when this move might happen.
So what’s actually going on at Renault?
With Nico Hulkenberg presumably going nowhere anytime soon, or at least for 2018, this leaves just 1 seat for one of the four drivers discussed above to fill.
Palmer's latent potential?
Jolyon Palmer’s bacon appears to be safe for Hungary, but beyond this things look very uncertain. The team have had quite a few frustrations with the Brit so far this year, and his head has been on the metaphorical chopping block for a while now. That being said he has survived so far, and with his form seeing an upturn in the last few race weekends, the team may be willing to give him another shot to prove himself in the second half of the 2017 season.
Sergey Sirotkin I think is the unlikeliest choice to be given the race seat alongside Hulkenberg. The Russian, while bringing important financial backing to the team, hasn’t exactly set the junior formulae on fire on his way up, with his 2 seasons in GP2 yielding 2 3rd place championship finishes. Considering the second of these seasons was with the same ART team that took the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to GP2 titles, you have to think he should have been doing better to be a stand out candidate for an F1 drive.
Kubica’s triumphant return?
It would be an absolute fairytale if Robert Kubica could return to F1, and surely if he brings the same speed and talent back to the sport that he did before his accident, any team would be happy to take him. The problem here is the word ‘if’.
Kubica’s injury still makes him a massive unknown, even with the good vibes surrounding his second test with Renault. I doubt we will see him return before 2018, but even if he is to make it this far, he is going to have to show, in current F1 machinery, that he still has what it takes.
After the excitement of the last few weeks in the media, Carlos Sainz may well be keeping his head down. He played a risky game with Red Bull management, and this had led to them being open to shipping him off elsewhere. While this may be what he eventually wanted, I doubt Red Bull will be renewing his contract, so he now risks losing his drive if Renault (or anyone else) don’t come in for him.
The deal to take him to Renault for Hungary seems very fanciful now, but out of the 4 contenders, I would currently rate Sainz’s chances for a 2018 Renault drive as the best.