Where does Sainz deal leave Kubica and Palmer?
Options seem to be running short for a 2018 drive.
On Friday in Singapore, McLaren’s announcement to drop Honda triggered the simultaneous announcement of a Toro Rosso-Honda link up for 2018, as well as the move (on loan) of Carlos Sainz to Renault on a one-year deal. With Nico Hulkenberg already contracted for next year, this announcement effectively confirmed Renault’s race drivers for next year. This leaves Jolyon Palmer out of the team, and Robert Kubica, whose main hope of returning to F1 seemed to be via Renault, also looking elsewhere.
Form an orderly queue at Williams
With most of the seats at the top teams and midfield filled, the two Williams seats, both of which are unconfirmed for next season, are looking like the best available options on the grid.
One of the bigger rumours going around at the Italian Grand Prix, and in the weeks before, was that Fernando Alonso had signed, or was on the brink of signing, a Williams deal for 2018. Obviously, since then we haven’t heard anything more on this, and with McLaren getting rid of Honda in favour of Renault engines for 2018, I believe Alonso will stay with the Woking team, especially if they can convince him they have the ability to deliver him a car similar to the Renault-engined Red Bulls.
This gives the likes of Palmer and Kubica an opportunity to get their foot in the door, but what about Williams’ current driver lineup?
Massa the key for any opportunity
I would expect Williams to retain Lance Stroll, if not for his father’s investment, then for the genuine improvement he has shown after a truly awful start to the 2017 season; he now sits just three points behind Felipe Massa in the standings and has put in some impressive recent performances, particularly in Baku and Monza. Plus I hardly think the team will drop him after one year, given how vehemently they defended the young Canadian when he was struggling early on this season.
Felipe Massa, despite his brief retirement last season, is still keen to continue in F1 next year but says that the team need to show that they want him to stay, otherwise he will consider other options, most likely Formula E. Presumably, he wants to feel that the team have a genuine desire to keep him for 2018, not that he is just the last resort (as he may feel was the case this year).
Unfortunately, though, we currently have no idea what the feeling is about either driver within the team, and probably won’t for a while as they consider their options.
No doubt Williams management will be inundated with calls from representatives of Kubica, Palmer, and others, but who would be the more likely to move in should Massa or Stroll move on?
The Rosberg factor
One of the more interesting tweets over the Singapore Grand Prix weekend came from reigning world champion Nico Rosberg, in which he said he would be working with Kubica to assist in his return to F1. Hats off to Nico for this magnanimous gesture, as it is one that will put Kubica in good stead should an opportunity arrive at Williams.
Rosberg made his debut for Williams way back in 2006 and drove for the team for four years before moving to Mercedes. His father Keke also drove for the team in the 80s, winning the 1982 drivers’ title while at Grove. This close family relationship with the team may well work in Kubica’s favour if Nico can get the ear of management and talk up Kubica’s comeback potential.
What about Palmer?
Sadly, I think Jolyon is done in Formula 1. Beaten by Kevin Magnussen in 2016, and utterly dominated by Nico Hulkenberg this season, I fear his first points of 2017 in Singapore may have been too little too late, especially given the Sainz decision taken on Friday, one he found out about in the press rather than from the team!
His best shot of remaining in F1 next year is to show that Singapore wasn’t a one-off and that he can score points more regularly like his teammate. From past experience though I just don’t think he has it in him, and his existing stock in F1 just isn’t good enough to entice Williams into giving him a shot, especially against drivers offering the experience of Massa or the potential of Kubica.
Other potential openings
The Williams seats are by far the best still available/unconfirmed, but there are other options, even if these look unlikely. Alonso’s seat at McLaren is a possibility, but as I said earlier I think the mercurial Spaniard will stay where he is and sample the McLaren-Renault potential, especially as this is by far his best option of being in a competitive F1 car for 2018.
This leaves two seats at Toro Rosso, which neither Kubica nor Palmer seem likely to get due to the structure of the Red Bull teams and their driver development program. Expect Pierre Gasly to take one of these seats, with Daniil Kvyat getting the other one if Helmut Marko can’t find anyone better.
This only really leaves the two Sauber seats available (Romain Grosjean is not confirmed at Haas but is expected to stay with the team for a third season), but those enquiring about a drive may come away disappointed. Sauber’s engine deal with Ferrari for 2018 means it is likely we will see one, or both, of Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi at the team next year, effectively creating a Ferrari B-team, filled with their development drivers.
If this does happen, this will also displace Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, who both have sizeable financial backings to throw around in what could become a four-way contest for one seat at Williams.
How do you think the last remaining seats for 2018 will be filled? Let us know in the comments below!