Can Carlos Sainz handle Ferrari? F1's dramatic transfer week assessed
Sky F1's Karun Chandhok has his say on all the moves as the driver market goes into overdrive; What now for Vettel? Can Sainz step up? Why did Ricciardo leave Renault? And who will they move for?
Last Updated: 16/05/20 3:57pm
This week's F1 off-track merry-go-round has certainly livened up the lockdown period and got the world tuned in again!
The news that kickstarted all this action was Sebastian Vettel leaving Ferrari, which was not a total surprise. Given the tough 18 months they had together from the middle of 2018 to the end of last season, I was pretty sure Ferrari and Vettel would split soon.
But given the coronavirus-affected truncated season, I thought they would stick together for one more year in 2021, before splitting. Clearly the relationship had broken down more than I had realised or perhaps now with the rules changing and the cars staying the same for 2021, Sebastian has had enough of a feeling from testing that he does not think he can fight for the title in 2021, so why bother sticking around.
In 2019 speaking to people who saw and worked closely with Seb, they talked about how he just did not seem as motivated as before. This is a guy who has been at the top of our sport now for over a decade, grown up from being a teenager into a father of three but always on the road in a high pressure and highly-scrutinised environment and maybe he is just tired.
I wondered whether the period of enforced lockdown would give him a chance to recharge his batteries and come back firing on all cylinders like we saw from 2010 to 2013 - and we may see that later this year - but it has also given him the time to reflect and work out he wants to move on from Maranello.
The Ferrari that Seb signed for in 2014 was a very different one.
At the time, he talked about following in the footsteps of his great friend and mentor Michael Schumacher and rebuilding the Scuderia after a tough couple of years. He was joining an organisation that was then led by Luca di Montezemolo, like Michael did.
But unlike Michael, who had Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Nigel Stepney around him to back each other and protect each other from the politics while building the team up, Sebastian could not build this super team around him and in fact 'LdM' himself was not at the helm of Ferrari anymore when Seb officially joined in the January of 2015.
Why Ferrari's swoop for Sainz makes sense
The choice of Sebastian's replacement was really a straight battle between Ricciardo and Sainz. Ferrari need a driver who can deal with the pressure of representing the biggest team in the sport, who can be at the sharp end in Qualifying and score points, podiums and victories consistently, have a good technical ability and work ethic to lead development and a personality to satisfy the sponsors and promote the Ferrari brand.
To be honest, you could make a case to tick all those boxes for both of these drivers and there is not much to choose between them! Ferrari ultimately went for Sainz off the back of a very strong 2019 season for the Spaniard. They have got Leclerc till 2024, who is unquestionably a future star but last season showed he was still prone to the odd error. That will get better with age and Carlos will work well with him.
I noticed some people online making the comment that perhaps Ferrari signed Sainz to be a good number 2 to Leclerc, whereas Daniel at the age of 30 is probably thinking his opportunity to have a championship challenge is starting to pass and will be desperate to challenge Charles.
I think that does Carlos a disservice. He's an excellent racer who is very good on the opening lap and at tyre management, as races like Brazil last year showed. He qualifying record against Norris, a rookie, was not stellar but there were quite a few sessions where luck was not on his side and if you think back to the Toro Rosso days, he was an equal to Verstappen there. Like his dad, Carlos has a very cerebral approach to his racing which is appreciated by the engineers who work with him. Being a fluent Italian speaker will also help within the team and with the commercial and marketing angles.
What Carlos has to be careful about is not to get caught up in the politics at Ferrari like his countryman Fernando Alonso did. The political battle at the other Italian squad Toro Rosso when Max and he were team-mates did boil over, and after a very enjoyable and apolitical time at McLaren, he's somehow got to stay clear of the inevitable internal struggles at Maranello. Fortunately he has good people around him and hopefully they can help to protect him.
Ricciardo the 'obvious' McLaren replacement
For McLaren to sign Daniel as a replacement for Carlos is an obvious thing to do. The Aussie is a proven race winner and drove very well at Renault last year despite the results not giving him any trophies. The races in Canada, Silverstone, Japan and Austin, in particular, were all truly top-class performances.
Clearly Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl were able to convince Daniel they were the team outside the top three most likely to challenge Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. With Mercedes engines coming in 2021 and the new wind tunnel in 2022, ensuring they have an experienced and fast driver will be essential, and they have done very well to get Daniel into the team.
Daniel's move to McLaren has unsurprisingly and understandably not gone down well at Renault. The French giant reportedly paid him over £40m for a two-year deal but believed he understood that this was a long-term programme and that Daniel bought into their plan of rebuilding the team up to being a front-runner. Now, one year in, he hs basically given them a vote of no-confidence to join the team that is their direct rival in the midfield. Not exactly value for money when you consider they have to go through whatever races we have this year awkwardly hiding things from him.
If he had gone to Ferrari or Mercedes, I can imagine Renault being a bit more understanding, but the move to McLaren, after taking a large chunk of their budget that could have been used to hire more aero people to make the car faster does not really look good for Renault.
But what now for Renault?
So who will replace Ricciardo now? I somehow cannot see Vettel ending up at Renault. Fernando Alonso's name as unsurprisingly been thrown into the ring. The man who won both his world championships with Renault has always left the door open to an F1 comeback but would he want to do it in the midfield after a painful time at McLaren recently? And would Renault be better off not hiring an expensive 40-year-old superstar and instead spending that money on making the team more competitive? Or could they bring back Nico Hulkenberg a few months after dropping him because they did not think he could do the job?
With all the excitement, it is easy to forget that we are talking about 2021 here and therefore Renault do not need to make a decision tomorrow. For example, if Bottas suddenly became available because Mercedes put George Russell in for 2021, that could be interesting. Or could Mercedes also move George into the Renault seat alongside their other junior driver Esteban Ocon?
Lots of questions yet to be answered but while Carlos, Daniel, Ferrari and McLaren are relaxed and smiling, Sebastian Vettel has probably got to think about life outside F1 while Renault have a tough decision to make.