What next in the F1 driver market after Lewis Hamilton's new deal?
Now that F1's world champion has signed his new deal, the dominoes in the driver market are set to fall...
Last Updated: 10/12/18 8:36am
Lewis Hamilton's contract extension is set to open up the 2019 driver transfer market after its enforced hibernation while the Mercedes driver dallied over a new deal.
"Once Lewis [Hamilton] has signed his contract you will get a domino effect all the way through the paddock," Horner confided to Sky F1 in Austria.
The Red Bull boss' vested interest runs deep and immediate: Daniel Ricciardo won't re-sign until both seats at Mercedes are secure. The Australian is understood to have been sounded out by the world champions as they considered their options in the event of Hamilton failing to recommit, but confirmed two weeks ago he is "very likely" to re-sign at Red Bull.
Max Verstappen signed his own Red Bull contract extension until 2020 in October - like all the deals in F1 at present, it expires before 2021 as nobody knows what F1 will look like beyond then and which teams will still be part of the scene.
While McLaren are believed to have offered Ricciardo a mega financial deal, that particular trail appears to have gone cold - unsurprising, perhaps, given the team's current upheaval.
"If it wasn't Red Bull, they are the two most attractive options," Ricciardo said pointedly of Ferrari and Mercedes. "So if they are not possible it's hard for me to be convinced there is a better option than Red Bull."
McLaren, though, are exploring plenty of options and have been strongly linked with Kimi Raikkonen, a talking point the Finn swerved last month in trademark deadpan style but notably declined to defuse.
Likewise, McLaren's refusal to mute either item of speculation - Ricciardo or Raikkonen - and the big-name common denominator may also be telling. Are the team braced for Fernando Alonso leaving to go Stateside to fully commit to his dream of completing the triple crown?
Alonso says his preference is to remain in F1 but only if he can secure a winning seat in 2019 - which, when translated, means move to Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull.
The reality, however, is that none of those teams are likely to consider Alonso, no matter the size of his talent or any reduction in his financial demands. That assessment may have changed at Mercedes had Hamilton failed to re-engage, but the world champion's contract extension is likely to be followed imminently by confirmation of a new deal for Valtteri Bottas and an unchanged line-up.
Which leaves Alonso in a quandary. Had McLaren aggressively pursued entry into IndyCar, a full-time Stateside drive for their star man was the obvious outcome. But IndyCar is now off the agenda at McLaren, a decision which makes retaining Alonso both more difficult and more business-critical. The team remain hopeful Fernando can be persuaded. With a generous chequebook, and so few options available elsewhere, he probably can.
At Ferrari, the picture is settled on one side of the garage and an open canvas on the other.
While Sebastian Vettel re-signed last September for three more years, Raikkonen's form has revived of late but probably not sufficiently so to persuade Ferrari to retain him ahead of Charles Leclerc, the 20-year-old Scuderia graduate excelling during his maiden F1 season at Sauber.
Ferrari are not prone to appointing young drivers but Leclerc looks an exceptional talent worth making an exception for.
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Back at McLaren, youth could also be given its head in 2019 in the shape of Lando Norris, the English youngster starring alongside George Russell in F2.
The sticking point for McLaren is that Norris, at 19, can't be considered a candidate replace the 36-year-old Alonso and so a promotion only looks viable if made at the expense of Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian has had a moderate year and his 10-0 defeat to Alonso in qualifying is difficult to overlook.
But McLaren may well be anxious about Norris' inexperience and their rejection of an early-season interest from Toro Rosso - where Brendon Hartley already appears to be on borrowed time - tacitly suggested they are not looking to fast-track Lando into F1 just yet.
Returning to Red Bull, the question of who would replace Ricciardo in the event of his departure recently delivered an unexpected and intriguing answer.
Carlos Sainz is on loan at Renault and has long been considered the heir apparent. But the word in the paddock is that it would be Pierre Gasly, impressing during his debut F1 season, rather than Sainz who would replace Ricciardo because of the ructions between Verstappen and Sainz when they were team-mates at Toro Rosso.
While Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg will probably stay at Renault, it would be surprising if F1's French team weren't at least looking for a French driver. The catch is that, of the current contingent, Esteban Ocon is on Mercedes' books, Gasly is tied to Red Bull, while Romain Grosjean probably burnt his bridges when he left the team for three years ago for Haas.
But Mercedes may be persuadable if they believe Ocon - 8-2 up on Sergio Perez in qualifying this year and in training as a long-term successor to either Bottas or Hamilton - needs to be further up the grid to continue his education and a deal can be reached that sees Russell, another Mercedes graduate, fill the vacancy at Force India, a customer of the Silver Arrows.
Who out of Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg would make way at Renault in that scenario? The answer may well be Sainz, especially if McLaren don't mind having two Spanish drivers on their books next year.
Nor would any such neat arrangement be messed up if Lance Stroll was manoeuvred out of Williams and into Force India.
Leaving aside the implications of the financial hit to Williams, Force India are a team in the need of the financial clout Lance billionaire father has in abundance and have a car worth paying for. It's a deal which could suit all parties - especially if it trickles down to a Haas-bound Sergio Perez and a switch which would give the American team the nearest thing to an American driver in F1 at present and Perez a seat at the team likely to finish 2018 as the 'best of the rest' behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.
Before all the dominoes fall into place, so much now depends on Force India and their future ownership status.
Last but no means least, Haas say they will make a decision on their 2019 line-up after the summer break, but Kevin Magnussen's outstanding 2018 makes him a safe bet - a rare thing, it would seem, right now.
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