I’ve always thought the term ‘silly season’ was a bit, well… silly. For starters, the ‘season’ part simply referred to the point between the first question about a driver’s future being asked and the final seat for the following season becoming confirmed. Plus, most of it isn’t silly at all, it’s just covering logical solutions and potential moves.
This time around I can’t really stand by that, because the driver market truly is going off the rails right now.
Two main factors are driving this. The first is Daniel Ricciardo, who shocked everyone except himself by deciding to turn down a new contract at Red Bull in favor of a fresh challenge at Renault from 2019.
The second is Force India, and Lawrence Stroll.
Ricciardo’s surprise move obviously opened up a Red Bull seat for next season, but as owner of two teams and its own young driver program, it was only ever going to promote from within. So Pierre Gasly’s appointment as Ricciardo’s successor was a straightforward switch. Granted, that leaves another seat at Toro Rosso available, but that rarely has an impact on any other driver already on the grid.
The bigger spanner that Ricciardo put in the works related to Esteban Ocon. Renault had already agreed a deal to take the Frenchman in 2019, but had delayed rubber-stamping that contract until it had a final answer from Ricciardo. When that final answer turned out to be a yes, the Ocon deal was off, and his future uncertain.
That uncertainty is exacerbated by Force India’s recent financial problems; the team going into administration before its assets were purchased by a Stroll-led consortium, with what is effectively a new team being formed in its place.
“There are a lot of twists and turns on Formula 1, aren’t there?” Claire Williams admitted in Belgium. “We’ve seen that over the past few weeks alone. I think it might be slightly odd if Lawrence owns one team and his son is [racing for] another, but hey, this is Formula 1!”
The Williams team boss is right. Lawrence is going to want Lance in one of his team’s cars in the near future, perhaps as soon as this weekend’s race in Monza. Sergio Perez brings substantial backing from Mexico to go with his years of consistently strong performances, so Ocon is the driver who would make way.
But to get rid of a Mercedes protege – and one who has been performing excellently at that – is a difficult move. Toto Wolff was a supporter of the recent Force India takeover because it opens up the opportunity for Mercedes to have an even closer relationship with one of its customer teams in the way Ferrari does with Haas. As a result, Wolff is not keen on seeing one of his future prospects left without a drive.
Force India has therefore been working on finding Ocon a seat elsewhere to ensure he remains on the grid. Easier said than done.
With Williams contractually obliged to put Robert Kubica in a race seat should one of its current drivers leave, McLaren emerged as Force India’s main target, with Stoffel Vandoorne struggling and facing an uncertain future. Ocon’s performances and potential might be attractive, but he is a Mercedes driver and McLaren would have drop one of its own young talents – even if he has failed to match expectations so far – in favor of developing one for another team.
Looking further ahead, a McLaren switch might not be long-term for Ocon, considering that the team has been developing Lando Norris ahead of a potential 2019 promotion from Formula 2. Plus, Ocon is the tallest driver on the grid at 6’1”. The Frenchman admits he had trouble fitting in the Mercedes car when he used to test it, so adapting a current car to try and fit him in it in place of the 5’9” Vandoorne is no easy task.
But this is a proper silly season, and Ocon has already visited McLaren for a seat fitting in order to understand just how big a task that would be.
In such a small paddock, all of the drivers speak with all of the teams, at least in passing. So when a situation like Ocon’s arises, others start taking a look at the potential ramifications and identify contingency plans in case of further movement.
The need for Kubica to replace Stroll means that at least one driver will have to lose their seat for the rest of this season when Stroll Sr pulls the trigger, and if it’s not Ocon, then Vandoorne is the most likely candidate. But the Belgian’s outstanding CV in the junior formulae still holds weight with his former ART team boss Frederic Vasseur, who is now in charge at Sauber.
Vasseur is understood to have floated the idea of replacing Marcus Ericsson on a number of occasions this season, but has had the suggestion rebuffed by Sauber’s owners. Taking Vandoorne alongside Charles Leclerc would make some sense if he rates the 2015 GP2 champion so highly, but Ericsson has tended to show an upturn in form in the second half of a season.
For what it’s worth, when asked about the potential of taking Vandoorne if he became available this year, Vasseur told me there is “no chance” of Sauber changing its line-up before the end of the season.
But then, a straight answer that holds for the rest of the year wouldn’t be in keeping with how everything else in this silly season has been playing out. There are so many potentially intertwined driver moves that no team can say for certainty what is going to happen, let alone when.
If I was a betting man, I’d expect to see the same entry list from Belgium appearing in Italy this weekend, and probably also in Singapore after that, given the baptism of fire that the Marina Bay street circuit would represent as a first race in a new car. But by Russia, there’s every chance of at least three teams dealing with different drivers, perhaps even four.
It’s fun to be silly every now and then.