Despite 2018’s front running seats being locked down by their incumbents, it appears that a midfield shuffle is about to be triggered by Carlos Sainz Jr. Bizarrely, it would seem that power unit politics is the factor that is set to fuel a move for Sainz from Toro Rosso to Renault for 2018.
It is a switch which makes perfect sense, as it benefits all five parties that are either directly or indirectly involved; Red Bull, Renault, Toro Rosso, the beleaguered McLaren and – most poignantly – Sainz himself.
The circumstances facilitating the switch are complex. It is indirectly triggered by McLaren seeking a split from engine partners Honda after another year of woe for the partnership.
With Mercedes and Ferrari unwilling to provide a supply to McLaren, they have been forced to cultivate a deal with Renault. However, given that Renault currently supplies three teams – the maximum that a power unit manufacturer is permitted to serve under the current regulations – McLaren needed Renault to drop one of its customers.
This is where Toro Rosso and Red Bull enter the equation. Despite what could be a short term loss in performance for their junior team, Red Bull would want a Honda partnership for Toro Rosso as it would allow them to monitor the progress of the power unit.
If Honda suddenly struck a performance break-through, Red Bull would have a potential escape from the Renault alliance that it has publicly condemned since 2015.
Negotiations were necessary to get Toro Rosso out of a 2018 contract with Renault and Sainz’s services has essentially been utilised as a bargaining chip. According to reports surfaced by Autosport last weekend, Sainz will move to Renault in 2018, while remaining part of the Red Bull junior programme in what would be described as a ‘loan deal.’
Short term, Renault can be considered the biggest winners, as they will likely command the strongest driver pairing within the midfield next season. Nico Hulkenberg has demonstrated his immense talent of late, with 2017 arguably being his best season to date. Sainz would, however, be a stern test for Hulkenberg and motivate him to even greater performances in 2018.
As Renault aspire to secure podiums in 2018, a partnership such as Hulkenberg and Sainz is an invaluable asset. Neither has made it onto a Formula 1 podium but both have the hunger and talent to do so, in the right machinery.
Sainz benefits greatly from the move, given the frustrations voiced throughout 2017. The Spaniard highlighted ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix in July that he was not prepared to spend a fourth year at Toro Rosso – a quote that no doubt led to an awkward debrief between Sainz and Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko.
With the caveat of remaining in the Red Bull junior programme, Sainz has found a solution to his 2018 dilemma that allows him to remain the heir to a Red Bull drive while avoiding a fourth term at Toro Rosso. Should Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo seek an exit door from Milton Keynes in 2019, Sainz will still become a Red Bull driver.
The move also unlocks a seat at Toro Rosso for Red Bull to promote Pierre Gasly. The 2016 GP2 champion has competed in Japanese Super Formula this season – the same category in which McLaren placed Stoffel Vandoorne after his GP2 title success in 2015.
Gasly has performed well in Japan, currently sitting second in the championship with three of the nine rounds remaining. Having won the last two races, Gasly could well steal the championship crown away from series leader Hiroaki Ishiura in the closing stages.
This is form that is no doubt deserving of an F1 seat. Gasly would be the logical choice for Red Bull in the event of a Sainz departure and it allows the programme to avoid another Antonio Felix da Costa scenario – a talented driver fails to progress simply because there are no seats available at either Red Bull or Toro Rosso.
Meanwhile, McLaren’s driver quandaries are fixed in conjunction with the introduction of Renault power units at Woking. Fernando Alonso is now likely to remain at McLaren given the divorce with Honda – a situation all but confirmed by Tuesday’s news that IndyCar squad Andretti Autosport has signed youngster Zach Veech to replace Takuma Sato for 2018.
While official confirmation has not yet been disclosed by any of the teams involved, it is simply a waiting game. Sainz’s move to Renault is a no-brainer and unlocks solutions to a raft of issues that were bubbling at four of F1’s ten teams.