Eleven races down, nine to go – it’s about time for a mid term report card, courtesy of the RealSport professors.*
Whilst it’s clear who’s gone to the top of the class, we list the five drivers who are being packed off with a detention slip and a note to their mum.
* None of us are actually professors. If there’s any profession that has worse hours and pay than online journalism, it’s teaching. We’re not THAT committed to our calling.
1 Jolyon Palmer
When this piece was first offered around the writers here at RealSport, there was a bit of joshing that the title should really be ‘four drivers who need a good performance and Palmer’.
Whilst his supporters will point to some horrible luck with his car – not many drivers have had to retire with reliability issues on the formation lap after all – the simple truth is his performance is woefully short of what teammate Nico Hulkenberg is producing race after race.
One of the main reasons behind Palmer getting the Renault drive originally was the consistency he offered for the new team – as a former Lotus driver, his knowledge of the car was believed to be of great benefit during the transition period. Given Hulkenberg has jumped in the car from Force India, and Palmer is now 32 races into his Renault career, just a solitary point is nowhere near good enough.
Added into the mix is the looming shadow of Robert Kubica and his long-fabled miracle return. Every story from Renault suggests Kubica can race in F1 despite the horrific injuries he sustained back in 2011. When your own team is championing the return of another driver after so long, it’s time to accept your seat is no longer secure.
What needs to be done?
The problem for Palmer then is where can he go next? In Formula 1, drivers tend to fit into three categories: top level drivers who’ll get a seat anywhere; up and coming drivers who find themselves farmed out to lower teams (more on them later); and pay drivers who can keep a team solvent for another 12 months.
Sadly for Jolyon, at 26 he’s too old for the middle category and lacks the financial power for the latter group. Similar to someone like Paul Di Resta, the lack of off-track power may close more doors than his driving record. Really, the only hope Palmer has for a drive next year is if he can string an impressive run together, enough to convince a middling team to take a shot on him if they have a chair become spare. Williams may be the best hope when Massa does his annual retirement, and McLaren could be a window should Alonso finally lose patience.
Even then, it’ll take a major turnaround in form to get either team to even look his way. The reality is this could be the last we see of Palmer in single-seater racing, though his pedigree will be enough to see other series become available.
2 Daniil Kvyat
Formula 1 rarely does compassion; Daniil Kvyat has shown why.
Two years ago, he was second only to Sebastien Vettel around the Hungaroring as he was lining up as Red Bull's next big thing. Now he’s struggling to even challenge for points back in the Toro Rosso.
Whilst he may bemoan being the man in the wrong place as Max Verstappen steamrollered his way to the front, the truth is he’s been the man in the wrong place, usually steamrollering his way into another car and another DNF.
The regression we’ve seen in Kvyat over the last two years has been shocking. So far this season he’s gained more points on his super licence than in the championship (seven to four), with five in the last three races alone. Another two points in the next five races and he’ll have a one-race ban, which would probably give reigning GP2 champion Pierre Gasly (who RealSport interviewed exclusively last month) the chance to show what he can do.
When your race seat is under so much pressure, getting out of it to let your rival have a go is possibly the worst thing you can do.
What needs to be done?
Firstly, if he’s going to survive in F1, he needs to keep his composure and drive clean. Shunts and bumps aren’t attractive, especially to teams with smaller budgets.
Next, he needs to start scoring points at a similar rate that Sainz is – the car is good enough for regular top-ten finishes, so he has no excuse not to achieve. Only if he manages this he can he start to believe another team might pay attention.
Looking at the grid, it’s possible that only Sauber that may take a punt on him. One thing's for sure:, Christian Horner is not going to give him the grace he received last time around.
3 Pascal Wehrlein
It’s not so much about Pascal's performance that has put him here – I’m sure Sauber are delighted with what he’s achieved – it’s more around the fact that as the sport's ‘next big thing’ (Jan – May 2016), rolling around at the back of the grid for two years can be a dangerous business. With all the big teams having a production line of young talent, Wehrlein needs to be standing out if he wants to fend off the challenges of people like George Russell for his place as Mercedes' #3 driver.
Doing a season with a back marker is always a good learning experience, but a second season at the paddock's slowest team is potentially slipping into obscurity. Compare his position to that of Mercedes stablemate and former Manor buddy Esteban Ocon, and you’ll see why it’s important for Wehrlein to make a few headlines (in a good, non-Kvyat way)
What needs to be done?
I’m not sure there’s much more Wehrlein can really do, he’s really performing at the limit of the car. Therefore he needs to keep it up, and take any chance to get his name on the commentators’ lips and into the minds of his Mercedes bosses – if that means engaging in odd strategies to see himself running high up the order at points in the race, then so be it. Maybe it’s better to be 6th for 10 laps and finish 17th, than run all weekend in 15th.
Looking forward to next season, he needs to hope that Mercedes can get him a better drive. Like Palmer, Williams and McLaren might be openings, especially if the latter need a new engine provider. Using drivers as a bargaining tool is common nowadays. It’s up to Pascal to make sure it’s his name being offered around, and someone like Russell can take his place at Sauber.
4 Stoffel Vandoorne
So what happens if McLaren do finally split with Honda and go knocking on Mercedes' door? Well, Alonso probably stays, so that means any deal involving drivers comes at the expense of Vandoorne. Whilst I’m sure McLaren don’t want to ditch a driver they’ve spent many years developing, an engine makes far more difference to a car than a man does.
What needs to be done?
Well, what he’s started to do - getting in the points last time round was timely, and a few more of those over the rest of the year are what’s required. Having a teammate like Alonso can be a blessing and a curse – on one hand he can look so far behind someone in the same car, but on the positive if he can keep pace with a double world champion, then it’s a great selling point for him.
The nearer he keeps to Alonso over the next nine races, the more indispensable he makes himself to McLaren, and if the worst should happen, then he needs the results to put himself at the top of every principal's shopping list. At 25, he can’t afford to go back to reserve driver status.
5 Marcus Ericsson
When it comes to Formula 1, Marcus Ericsson has been at the bottom of pretty much every list for the last two years, often slipping by unnoticed whilst other drivers get a bit of stick.
Sure, his Sauber car is the absolute pits, but since he last scored a point at Monza in 2015, Felipe Nasr has placed his Sauber in the points four times, and Wehrlein twice. One could ask if he’s keeping his place by driving for free, but in Formula One even that’s considered a waste of money. Whatever he’s paid (or is paying), he’s just not delivering for the price
What Needs to be Done?
Score a point. Something. Anything. Just remind people you’re a Formula 1 driver Marcus, OK?
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