The F1 Driver Merry-Go-Round & What It Means For 2021
The last time I'd heard of a merry-go-round this eventful was at the Magic Kingdom in Florida a few years back, but this one certainly gets close. With the 2020 F1 season seemingly null and void, everyone's looking forward to 2021 for a fresh start and it appears to be shaping up to be an interesting one.
The news over the last couple of days in the driver market is certainly what's catching the eyes of many fans at the moment. The first of the news to break was the departure of Sebastian Vettel from Ferrari following contract negotiations breaking down between the team and respective driver. Ferrari haven't won a constructors' or drivers' title since 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen narrowly beat Lewis Hamilton by a single point, although the Woking based McLaren-Mercedes team were disqualified from a 2nd place finish in the constructors' thanks to the infamous Spygate scandal. The emergence of the four time world champion bolstering Ferrari's ranks in 2015 did appear to put them in good stead for a couple of years against the faster Mercedes, but their end of season form, combined with some bad luck, would allow the Mercedes to prevail in all instances. With one of the most decorated and skilful drivers of the modern era now leaving their ranks, Ferrari have been left with a hole in their driver lineup from next season onwards.
Enter Carlos Sainz, stage right. The current McLaren and former Renault driver has been confirmed to join Ferrari for 2021. It marks the first time in a few years that Ferrari have opted to have a Spanish driver in their ranks, with the last one being Fernando Alonso, who was replaced in-turn by Vettel. Sainz brings with him a decent amount of experience with a great first season at McLaren under his belt and the ideal status to be No.2 driver to Charles Leclerc, who at times in 2019, overshadowed his experienced partner. With Sainz as No.2, it opens the door to Ferrari shadowing Mercedes' strategy of having a more-than-competent backup to their star driver. Bottas, let's not forget, arrived at Mercedes from Williams, a bit further down the grid. With a good driving style on him, Sainz looks to slot perfectly into the rear-gunner role that Ferrari will most likely want him to play whilst the youthful Charles Leclerc goes wheel to wheel with the Mercedes up front.
The final piece of the jigsaw in this puzzle relates to McLaren signing current Renault and former Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo who looks to be a great fit alongside Lando Norris. The Australian came close to joining the Woking-based team a couple of years ago but chose Renault due to their better position back then. It looks like McLaren with Sainz and Norris have gone from strength to strength and with them returning to Mercedes power units from 2021, the second coming of Hamilton may arrive with another young Brit in Lando Norris. Ricciardo's signing for McLaren is a coup for the team, especially with the changes implemented by the new team principal Andreas Seidl who looks to bring a get-on-with-it attitude to a team who have been languishing in the shadow of their former selves for far too long. That spell with Honda a few years back will never be remembered fondly and the only real good thing to come out of that was Fernando Alonso's comments about engine standards. The signing of Ricciardo and the change to Mercedes engines from 2021 should hopefully propel McLaren back to the big time.
With Ricciardo leaving Renault, there does seem to be a hole emerging in the French team's ranks, and it's rumoured that either Renault veteran Fernando Alonso or the soon-to-be unemployed Sebastian Vettel could complete the merry-go-round. Martin Brundle has made the point in the last couple of days that Alonso is itching for a return to the sport and since Renault is where he made his name and won those two Drivers' titles, it kind of makes sense for him to move back to where his success came. A move to a midfield team at this stage in his career might not be the best for Vettel, especially given how intense some of his mood swings become when he's been in the driving seat for Ferrari in recent years. The other option is for Renault to make use of their Young Driver Academy that they've invested in heavily and with the new driver partnering Esteban Ocon, a young driver lineup might not be such a bad thing. That being said, using football as an example, in a team of players you want a mix of youth and experience for a bit of balance, so someone like Vettel or Alonso in the short-term will help Ocon on. In the long-run however, someone young and fresh might inject a bit of spirit into the works team in a similar way to Alex Albon has at Red Bull.
This domino effect in the driver's market has certainly got people talking about F1 whilst we're all still in lockdown, and with sport slowly returning to our screens, hopefully it won't be too long before we see F1 back too. These new driver lineups and regulation changes from 2022 now might make these next couple of seasons some of the most interesting yet.