DRIVER MARKET: Who will fill the final seats at Williams, Toro Rosso and Force India?
George Russell’s move to Williams pieces together another part of the 2019 line-up puzzle, but there’s still a handful of seats available next season. So who’s in the running? And what gossip has got the paddock talking? We’ve done some digging…
So the Grove squad announced last week that Russell, who has driven in two FP1 sessions for Force India and four tests for Mercedes, will join next year, seemingly taking Lance Stroll's place - but the second seat is yet to be confirmed.
Stroll is widely expected to move to Force India next season, with his father a key player in the team’s recent takeover. But while the Canadian is destined for pastures new, his current team mate – Sergey Sirotkin – could retain his seat for 2019.
However, the Russian may have to see off the challenge of Robert Kubica once more, for the BBC report that the Pole – who Sirotkin beat to a 2018 drive with Williams is on a shortlist of candidates for the second seat once more.
Prior to Russell’s confirmation, fellow Mercedes-affiliated driver Esteban Ocon was linked with the vacant seat, with Williams boss Claire Williams telling Sky Sports that he remains on their list.
The team, she said, would be ‘crazy’ to not consider him, although Toto Wolff, the Mercedes boss who manages Ocon’s career, recently said ‘we are not desperate for a seat next year’, mentioning a sabbatical could well be an option for the current Force India driver.
As an outside bet, another Russian - Artem Markelov, currently fifth in the F2 standings - has been mentioned by Motorsport as a potential candidate to race alongside Russell. But with no F1 experience, it remains to be seen if Williams would want to promote two F2 stars in one season.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this one plays out…
The Italian squad are another who have confirmed half of their line-up, following the somewhat surprise news that Daniil Kvyat will return to drive for them for a third time.
Kvyat returns to F1, having lost his Red Bull backing last year, to take Pierre Gasly’s spot, with the Frenchman doing enough in his rookie season to earn a promotion to the senior team in place of the outgoing Daniel Ricciardo.
That leaves a tussle for the second seat, currently occupied by Brendon Hartley. The Kiwi has endured a tough year, with rumours linking him with an exit starting way back in June – and they haven’t disappeared, despite much stronger form of late.
Should Hartley fail to hold on to his seat, it’s likely that Red Bull will have to look beyond their driver programme in their quest to find a racer for their junior team, and a few familiar names have popped up.
One was Pascal Wehrlein, who recently cut ties with Mercedes – and Red Bull motorsport boss Helmut Marko admitted last month that the German was on a ‘long list’ of candidates to fill that second seat. That move seemingly isn't happening now though, after the German's move to Formula E was confirmed on Tuesday...
Another name recently mentioned is Alexander Albon, who currently sits second in the F2 standings behind George Russell. This link also comes as something of a surprise, with the London-born Thai driver currently preparing for his debut Formula E campaign after signing with Nissan e.dams. But Auto Bild claim that Albon is still on the Toro Rosso shortlist.
Dan Ticktum is not on that list though, with Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner recently suggesting a drive next year would come too soon for him – and the driver would not have enough FIA super licence points for a 2019 F1 seat anyway.
And according to The Independent, the man who beat Ticktum to the European F3 title - Mick Schumacher - is not on the radar either, while former Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi was also linked, but has now committed to continuing his Formula E career with Nissan.
Toro Rosso have remained very tight-lipped at the moment - and don’t be surprised if another name pops up in the near future…
The Silverstone squad are the only team yet to nail down at least one driver for 2019, although now Russell has taken his Williams seat next season, it’s surely only a matter of time before Lance Stroll’s switch is confirmed.
Ever since his father Lawrence led a takeover of the F1 team, Stroll’s name was linked with a move, with some suggestions a switch before the season’s end was on the horizon.
He even reportedly had a seat fitting in this year’s VJM11 car, although as it stands, he remains at Williams and with just four races of 2018 remaining, it seems more likely that a 2019 change will materialise.
So that leaves just one seat, with Sergio Perez, who played a key role in saving the team back in July, expected to be the driver who retains his seat.
Speaking last month, the Mexican, who joined Force India in 2014, told reporters: "If you're not in a Mercedes or in a Ferrari seat, Force India becomes a very attractive place.
"We've beaten everyone in the past two years. I've grown up a lot with the team. I'm happy with my plans. I think being here can be a good place for the coming years."
So that suggests it will be Perez partnering Stroll next season, with Ocon facing the very real possibility of not being on the grid next year.
Watch this space…