Thursday, Aug 9 12:30pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Big Read: Ricciardo's silly season spin and what it means for Hartley

It's been called the Formula 1 ‘silly season’ for as long as I have been following it and doubtless a lot longer.  


I always thought that it was an interesting name for it, and drew the conclusion that it was because a lot of what we see as fans makes no obvious sense. A driver goes here, a driver goes there and you are left thinking what the logic of it all was.


Daniel Ricciardo's shock move to Renault, aside from some pitch side rumblings involving our own racer, marked the real kick off of this year's silly season and it could well be one that is sillier than many in the recent past, followed as it was by Lawrence Stroll’s taking over of Force India.


All of a sudden, so and so was going here, he was going there, that bloke was out of a drive, he was off to IndyCar and… yadda yadda yadda. It’s all over the place. The reality is that it's not that simple. The history of the sport tells us that and nobody ever truly knows what is going on, not even the drivers.


But piecing the facts we do know together, a clearer picture does potentially emerge. And it’s even more interesting if you throw in a little extra ‘silly’ too. So here we go.


Renault, Ricciardo and Red Bull



Let’s begin with the man of the moment. Daniel Ricciardo, one of the best of the top drivers, is going to Renault to use an engine that he already knows is pretty, well, hopeless. Right?


It has had regular high profile failures, motivating an already disgruntled Red Bull to look elsewhere and make a move many had predicted and switch to Honda for the next two years.


For them that would mean free engines for two years, a manufacturer supporting them as ‘first in line’ and a hat full of knowledge of the systems and design parameters required to make it fit within their own F1 design philosophy.


No question, the Honda has been powering the Toro Rosso cars to better performances than many expected. Last time out, there were two Honda engines in the top 10 on the grid. In Toro Rosso cars, with rookie drivers. That would have been unthinkable a year ago. A new opportunity for both Red Bull drivers you’d think. So why did Ricciardo jump ship?


Well, for starters, the Renault isn’t actually that bad. It has won races for both Ricciardo and Max Verstappen this year, and it’s regularly been (in a customer car) the only real challenger to the manufacturer teams of Mercedes and Ferrari. So let’s put that myth to bed right now. It’s good, it just isn’t as reliable as the others and could probably be a whole lot better.


In the silly season there are three types of decision; decisions of the dollar, decisions of the head and decisions of the heart. Not many get to make the latter. Perhaps only five drivers on the grid. Lewis Hamilton for sure, Sebastien Vettel, Verstappen, Ricciardo and to a lesser degree Fernando Alonso.


What I mean by that is that they have much more scope for choice of what they do. They could, in theory, push other settled drivers out of seats to get what they want. Other good drivers, even world champions like Kimi Raikkonen, do not wield that power. Decisions of the head tend to be the ones the established, stable teams make but for the rest the decision of the dollar is king.


Ricciardo, for me at least, used his power in the driver market to wield a decision of the heart. His head probably told him to stay with Red Bull and he did indeed come very close to re-signing, but his heart, I believe, ultimately persuaded him otherwise.


By all accounts the decision came pretty much straight after a long flight where he would have been able to clear his head and weigh up his options. Renault won't be offering him any more money than Red Bull, and Renault probably already know what he thinks of their engine, both good and bad. But, and it's a big but, at Renault he is in a full manufacturer team – like Mercedes and like Ferrari – and at Renault he will be undisputed number one. And it’s those two things will have swayed the decision for Danny.


He will push for engine development, he will set the standards and he will expect to win and like many drivers in Formula 1 history, he has the opportunity to galvanise a manufacturer team around him and take it to the next level. No more playing second fiddle to Verstappen in the toxic environment for drivers that Red Bull is and always has been; Renault want him and want him to lead, to drive them to the front.


This is his Alain Prost moment, his Michael Schumacher moment and his Lewis Hamilton moment. Like them he can make a switch to a troubled manufacturer and be a critical part in turning them round and putting them on the top step of the podium on a regular basis and be championship contenders.


Will he do it? Well, it's definitely a risk, but Ricciardo is supremely talented, fast, the best passer in the business and probably the most popular Formula 1 driver in the world to boot. In short, it's game on.


Red Bull Racing’s dilemma


the boys


Red Bull were shocked by the decision apparently. I find that surprising. Great drivers, as I have said, have done this in the past and the key has always been the manufacturer link. Horner and the Red Bull crew underestimated Ricciardo's burning desire to win, to be one of the greats. And it has left them with a space to fill.


Logic would say Carlos Sainz Jr. would fill the seat, having been loaned out to Renault this year. A straight swap in driver terms. Easy, straightforward. But then there is young Pierre Gasly.


Let's face it, he has gone well this year and like fellow Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc, has turned quite a few of the heads that really matter. They are both young, aggressive and press-on style drivers, by which I mean they only know one way and that's ‘full on attack’. Both have long term futures in Formula 1 ahead of them and race wins will come. And that’s why I’m picking Gasly for the second Red Bull.


Red Bull could not find a home for Sainz last year in the top team, and he wanted to progress from Toro Rosso. I think he still doesn’t fit in their plans for the number one team. They may offer him the option to return to Toro Rosso, but I don’t think he'll take it.


There's talk of him joining Fernando Alonso in McLaren for an all-Spanish effort to revive the ailing McLaren brand, and I think that’s more likely. They are mates and there's probably a big pay day lurking there for Carlos and potentially some Spanish sponsorship money for the team. Decisions of the heart and the dollar combined then. That's how I see that one.


No changes for Ferrari



The sad passing of Sergio Marchionne has perhaps closed more doors than it has opened for Ferrari ‘wannabes’. Marchionne was not a massive fan of Kimi, openly critical on occasion and very supportive of the team's junior drivers, of which Leclerc is top gun. For me, Kimi was almost certainly on the way out from Formula 1 to be replaced by Leclerc and I think that would have been hugely exciting.


It will probably still happen, but a little further down the line. The new men at the helm at Fiat and Ferrari are close to the ‘Iceman’ and I think he will survive another season. Vettel of course, stays, regardless of what happens on track this season. That would mean Sauber will retain the same driver line-up for next season.


The other Ferrari team, Haas, has made solid progress this year and it has been Kevin Magnussen who has emerged as the stronger, or should we just say less erratic, of the two drivers. For me then, Romain Grosjean is in the weaker position. He could be replaced by a few drivers. Possibly even Leclerc, but I think Ferrari will wait one more year and then put him in the big league.


The Haas seat could go to Sainz or Stoffel Vandoorne in a decision of the head by the team – and by their engine supplier – as either would bring experience and knowledge of other chassis and engine technology to the fold. 


Fledging Force India and the woeful Williams

Force India


That brings us to the Mercedes teams. Perhaps the most predictable of these right now, ironically enough, is Force India. Down and out barely a week ago, a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll is now in control of the team and that means young Lance, a graduate of our own Castrol Toyota Racing Series here in little old New Zealand, is a guaranteed move from Williams to Force India.


In what was a highly orchestrated take over, Sergio Perez was a key factor and he'll be there next year too, bringing undoubted mid-field talent and more dollars than most.


Force India's gain will most definitely be Williams' loss. This once great team have now not only lost their major benefactors in the Strolls, but will also lose Martini sponsorship at the end of this season too. No question, the spotlight of survival will be falling on them very soon.


In Sergei Sirotkin they have a driver with some talent and a pile of Russian money, but that won’t be enough, so they'll have to look at different options. Esteban Ocon will be at the top of that list of options. A Mercedes driver without an obvious seat next year, he'll fit in nicely in the once great team.


If Mercedes are interested in supporting Williams with lower cost engines, then Ocon will be part of that deal. Will it be enough to keep them afloat? Your guess is as good as mine.


Status quo at Mercedes?




And Mercedes themselves? This one does intrigue me. Let’s get the easy one out of the way and that’s not Lewis Hamilton, it’s Valtteri Bottas. He stays. Huh? Yes, my question mark sits next to Lewis Hamilton’s name not Bottas. He does have a very lucrative contract for the next two years and yes he’ll almost certainly carry on being Lewis and doing Lewis stuff.


Two things keep popping up in my head though and both leave me with question marks not full stops. The first is his very public declaration that for him there will be a life after Formula 1 in music, the first time he has been so forthright on the subject of Lewis post-Formula 1 and the second, his emotions after qualifying at the British Grand Prix. A mighty pole lap it was for sure, but he’s done that before hasn’t he. So why the emotions? Perhaps, just perhaps, in his own mind that was the last British Grand Prix qualifying moment he would have. Very silly, I know. But don’t forget Nico Rosberg… and he had a contract too.


… and for Brendon Hartley?



And that leaves us with Scuderia Toro Rosso and Brendon Hartley. Let's assume Pierre Gasly does get the nod for the promotion at Red Bull Racing. The reality is that Brendon has never been too far away from him on pace and on occasion has more than matched him. In recent races what he brings to the party in terms of skills has become much more apparent. Tyre management, testing and set up skills, improving speed and a bloody good attitude.


Qualifying has been a weak spot, but he'll know it and he has been getting on top of that too. In Gasly he's been up against a prodigious young talent, and the team will know this. It also seems to me the FIA are a little more reluctant these days to hand out Super Licenses and want the younger drivers to spend a little more time in their own F2 category, learning the trade so to speak.


With testing time so limited, it makes it very hard for any driver to step in and go quickly, however good they are. Brendon’s been through that learning curve now and is starting to emerge out of the other side with a couple of very good performances in the last two races. He's done heaps of testing miles, he knows the Honda engine, and the team too. He's still big mates with Porsche. Let's call it then. He's in for next year—with a caveat that the next few races need to go as well for him as the last two have.


The rumour that never dies



Oh, did I mention Porsche? Them again. I still believe they are the 'big player' behind Brendon. While all this Formula 1 stuff has been going on, they've been hammering their unrestricted LMP1–Hybrid beast around the Grand Prix circuits bettering Formula 1 lap records and pole times.


I keep asking myself why. I keep asking myself why they would have dumbed down the aero on their racer, because undoubtedly they have. Those prototypes generate massive downforce and the aero they have on their amazing ‘time attack’ car cannot be anywhere near as effective.


Perhaps they dumbed it down a little to replicate Formula 1 levels of downforce, so they had a comparable platform to test a whole manner of systems and devices at Formula 1 speeds and on Formula 1 tracks with annihilation of the Nürburgring lap record something they just couldn’t resist in the process.


I'm told by quite a few parties I’m on the wrong wavelength there, but maybe, just maybe, that fabulous beast is a mobile Formula 1 test lab. What I am assured of is that Porsche are interested in joining beyond 2020 when the new engine regulations come into place.


But I am also told they are growing increasingly frustrated with Mercedes and Ferrari’s continual dragging of the feet when it comes to formalising the exact specification of that new engine formula.


I'd wager a tidy sum there would be quite a few teams and drivers hoping that process would speed up allowing Porsche to make a firm decision and start drawing up some battle plans…


Make of it all what you will, the pot is still being stirred and the final recipe for next year is not there yet. There will be more surprises along the way but one thing's for sure, it'll all seem pretty silly.