The first piece of the jigsaw around the shift of engines and drivers involving McLaren, Honda, Toro Rosso and Renault has fallen into place with the news that Carlos Sainz is believed to have been released by Red Bull to sign for Renault, one of the conditions of the move.
So what does this mean for Sainz and how will he fare against Nico Hulkenberg next season – or sooner if Renault and Toro Rosso can agree terms for their new drivers to get some outings before the end of the season?
Sainz, who turned 23 last week, has spent three years at Toro Rosso making 53 GP starts and in that time has secured 25 points finishes, so roughly 50% of the races and 100 points in total. With the poor reliability of the car in 2016 that is not a bad return. His best race result to date is the four sixth place finishes, which have all come at low speed circuits, Singapore, Hungaroring and Monaco, which may say as much about the engine he’s been using as his driving technique.
He is 9th in the championship, which is the highest for a Toro Rosso driver since Sebastian’ Vettel’s breakthrough 2008 season, when he finished eighth.
His best grid slot is 5th in the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix. He is 7-6 with Kvyat this year in the qualifying comparison and compared favourably with Verstappen in qualifying when they were team mates in 2015.
In this he will be up against a great benchmark in 30 year old Hulkenberg, who has shown this season again that he is a strong qualifier. Hulkenberg’s race performances haven’t always lived up to his qualifying pace and this weekend in Singapore he could well end up with the unwelcome record of being the most experienced F1 driver never to score an F1 podium – 129 Grands Prix.
The move to a manufacturer backed team is positive for Sainz who is desperate to move on in his career and to show what he can do. Renault is on a rising tide with greater investment from the car company. Although the engine has lagged behind the Mercedes and Ferrari units since 2014, the gap continues to narrow and there is every reason to believe that next season Renault will fight in that space behind the top three teams.
“I think we’ve had quite a successful year,” Sainz said in Monza, “We’ve been pushing hard all year to get into the points and the result of that is whenever we finish, we finish in the points, so hopefully we can keep that statistic going.” He didn’t manage to do that in Monza, which became the first race he had finished outside the points in 2017.
When I asked Hulkenberg in Monza what profile of driver he felt would be ideal for Renault alongside him, he said. “I think they just want a good competitive driver package. I’d be happy to race with anyone, alongside anyone. For me, I’m obviously focused on myself and make sure everything is moving in the right direction there with me.”
He did also joke when asked if Sainz was the right man for the job, “23 is too young, sorry!”
The pairing will allow Renault to score plenty of points next season. But Renault is currently in a tight midfield battle in the Constructors’ Championship and the intriguing question is whether they might want to put Sainz in early to try to boost their finishing position.
Currently Renault is 8th on 34 points, with Haas on 35, Toro Rosso on 40 and Williams on 55. While Haas could be beatable, it would not be in Toro Rosso’s interests to facilitate a swap that means they finish 7th instead of 6th in the championship, which would also cost several million in lost prize money.
The rise of Pierre Gasly
Sainz’s move after three years with Toro Rosso, means that there could finally be an F1 seat for 21 year old Frenchman Pierre Gasly. He would join Esteban Ocon and Romain Grosjean (French but with a Swiss race licence) as one of three French drivers in the 20 man grid. That’s quite a turn around from a few years ago when there was no French driver on the grid.
F1 is still popular in France, with the French GP set to return next season at Paul Ricard, although the TV coverage is exclusively behind a paywall in France on Canal Plus. That deal has just been renewed from 2018-21 and has seen the audience for live F1 races slashed from around 4 million on free to air network TF1 down to around 750,000.
However Canal Plus’ owner Vivendi also owns the C8 free to air station and retransmitted the Monaco GP this year as an experiment, to an audience of just over 1 million.
A year ago Gasly was distraught to learn that Toro Rosso was retaining Daniil Kvyat for the 2017 season, saying he didn’t understand the decision. He was sent to compete in the Super Formula Championship in Japan, where he has won the last two rounds and is in contention for the championship with two further rounds to go, including a double header at Suzuka to finish with.
That last event is on October 21, meaning that he could complete the SF season and make his F1 debut in Mexico, with Brazil and Abu Dhabi to follow.
Or he could race F1 in Malaysia on October 1 and Suzuka the following week, where he has already raced Super Formula this season, then skip Austin to do the Suzuka SF double header. Red Bull tends to like its junior drivers to complete the series that they have invested in, especially in this case with the championship title achievable for Gasly in his current form.
Gasly has extensive F1 experience, having done much of Red Bull’s 2017 tyre development testing for Pirelli last year and has driven a Red Bull F1 car as recently as the Hungary F1 test on August 2 (above), just before the summer shutdown.
The F1 Sporting Rules allow a team to use a maximum of four drivers in a season. If Gasly were to start early but then miss Austin. Red Bull would be able to draft in another driver, provided he qualified for an F1 superlicence at that point.
This is also a consideration for Honda protege Nobuharu Matsushita to get a run out as part of the deal. He would not qualify for a superlicence at present, being short of the 40 quaifying points in three years necessary, but there is a further F2 round at Jerez before the Austin race and then the season finale at the Abu Dhabi GP.
If Honda want to push for Matsushita to race for Toro Rosso in 2018, Red Bull would have to figure out what to do about Gasly and Kvyat.
What do you make of the latest moves in the F1 driver market and of Sainz at Renault? Leave your comments in the section below