Isn’t the Formula 1 shutdown so boring and quiet? As weeks go, this has been a big one, with a short, sharp, stunning burst of silly season.
But as the dust starts to settle, there are definite winners and losers, from a number of perspectives.
Firstly, let’s deal with the man who kicked it all off: Sebastian Vettel.
As it stands, he’s very much in the loser category. Vettel wanted to stay at Ferrari, because his dream has been to emulate Michael Schumacher and win in red. Both sides said their preference was to continue together earlier this year, so for Vettel to step away shows he was not happy with the terms he was being offered.
Ferrari has moved quickly to announce his replacement, meaning Lewis Hamilton isn’t switching Brackley for Maranello, so you can’t see Vettel ending up at Mercedes. If he retires and that’s the decision he wanted to make then it would be unfair to say Vettel has lost out after a hugely impressive career, but until his next move is clear then he’s in the cold.
Now I want to take a look at the other two drivers who have had their futures confirmed today.
I must admit, if I was in charge of Ferrari, I’d have been hiring Daniel Ricciardo. That’s not intended as a slight on Carlos Sainz in any way, but this is a team that has been winning races on a regular basis over the past three seasons (even if it took a while to start last year) and has released a driver who is third on the all-time winners list and has four titles to his name.
To replace that with a driver who has just one podium in his career so far, and has yet to complete two consecutive seasons at a senior team is a big step. Sainz was massively impressive last season, but alongside a driver with just two seasons under his belt — and also yet to do back-to-back years with the same team — there’s now a real lack of regular winning experience.
That doesn’t make it the wrong move, but it does make it a bigger gamble.
Ricciardo would have brought solid experience, race-winning pedigree but also a very different atmosphere than Vettel as part of a fresh start for Ferrari. He also would have taken the pressure off Charles Leclerc. Either Sainz is going to need to prove himself capable of leading Ferrari, or more likely be expected to slot into a number two role, but both put eyes firmly on Leclerc. He has been outstanding so far, but still needs time to develop into the role of leading such a massive team.
Don’t get angry with me, though, because the fan in me is really excited by the way things have played out. While my head would have taken me in a different direction in charge of Ferrari, seeing Sainz getting his shot to really prove Red Bull wrong, and likewise Ricciardo pairing with Lando Norris at an improving and exciting McLaren, are great outcomes for the sport.
And now the focus shifts on to how this could play out for Renault. Right now, the Enstone-based team is definitely the biggest loser in the situation.
Managing director Cyril Abiteboul felt the need to criticize a lack of commitment from Ricciardo in a short press release confirming the team had failed to reach an agreement to keep him. But in understanding why Ricciardo opted to move to McLaren, Renault needs to look inwardly, because it’s not like he got the dream call from Maranello.
Given the momentum of the last 18 months, you’d have to say Ricciardo has upgraded, but only slightly. Mercedes or Ferrari were the seats he really wanted, but being overlooked for the latter meant McLaren was the next best thing. Add in a Mercedes power unit next year and it’s going in the right direction, but it is still a midfield team.
So a switch says as much about his faith in Renault turning matters around than anything else, because he can only judge McLaren from the outside.
And that makes Abiteboul’s reaction more understandable, even if it appeared to lack the class Ricciardo showed in not mentioning McLaren at all in any public posts, instead thanking Renault for their time together so far. By contrast, on Abiteboul’s side, he didn’t even mention Ricciardo’s name in his comments.
Once that anger subsides, Abiteboul has to set about securing a replacement that stops the alarm bells ringing at Renault. Nico Hulkenberg is available and a known quantity but uninspiring given his departure from the team last year to allow for a Ricciardo-Esteban Ocon partnership.
Valtteri Bottas would be a race winner who has the temperament to work well with Ocon — something that shouldn’t be totally overlooked given what happened at Force India — but is only likely to be open to a move if dropped by Mercedes, rather than enticed away. (If George Russell got the nod to replace Bottas though, that would at least increase Renault’s chances of keeping Ocon longer term).
Neither of the above would generate the same fanfare of Sainz joining Ferrari or Ricciardo signing for McLaren. But two drivers currently on the market certainly would: Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
Vettel appears to be a long shot given the manner of his Ferrari departure, because it feels like time off is more likely than a move to a midfield team for the four-time world champion. But it would be a show of faith in the Renault project if he were interested, and Renault did power Vettel to his championships.
If that’s a non-starter, then Alonso fits the bill. As a double world champion, his return would trump Ricciardo’s departure, and be a reminder of Renault’s past successes as the team that took Alonso to those titles. It is also looking increasingly like the most attractive seat that will be available to the 38-year-old in the next two years, and the window for a return is closing.
There could still be a win on the table for Renault, and a past world champion on the grid is always going to be another win for F1.