The Singapore GP answered a lot of questions as to the make-up of F1 in 2018, but not all.
The Honda / McLaren split was officially announced, with the Woking team swopping engines with Toro Rosso. Renault were able to extract Carlos Sainz from Toro Rosso as part of deal, though officially the move is being characterised by Red Bull as a loan, Sainz will be at Renault for the next three years. That move officially ended Jolyon Palmer’s tenure at the team. The Honda / McLaren / Renault / Toro Rosso announcements and the first lap of the race overshadowed Force India’s announcement that Sergio Perez had signed a new one year contract with the team. With McLaren now officially being supplied by Renault for the next three years, it’s almost a certainty that Alonso extends his contract with the team. Toro Rosso will move Gasly into Sainz’s seat. With the exception of Sauber and Williams, 2018 is set for both drivers and engines.
The only questions concerning Sauber are whether Ferrari get their way and put both their junior drivers, Leclerc and Giovinazzi, into the team, or the teams owners hang tough with Ericsson. Regardless of what happens it’s almost a certainty that Pascal Wehrlein is out. And that leaves us with Williams.
Williams, a team that has won nine constructors F1 world championships and sits second overall behind Ferrari, and who at one time had the pick of the best drivers available in F1, now find itself in the unenviable position of trawling for low ranking pay drivers for both of their seats. While the team currently sits fifth in the constructors world championship, that fact masks how bad they really are, they have only scored half the points of their natural rival – Force India and are only a handful of points ahead of Renault and Toro Rosso, teams burdened with an underpowered and unreliable power unit. Williams, who looked marginally competitive at the beginning of the season, now find getting into Q2 a struggle. A Lowe point for the team? We now look at the choices the team has for its second seat
The team always has the option of doing nothing. Massa can be re-signed. Though it’s abundantly clear that Massa is well past his best before date. He should be thumping Stroll – yet he sits just three points ahead of his rookie teammate. But he is Brazilian and that brings us to Felipe Nasr, a driver lurking in the weeds.
Nasr has been touted by some simply because he is Brazilian and 25. Both Liberty Media and Ecclestone worry about the viability of the Brazilian GP without a local driver. He does meet Martini’s age requirement, but unless Liberty Media or Ecclestone or some unknown sponsor is willing to cough up millions to save the Brazilian GP his chances are effectively zero.
Williams as a Mercedes customer, could have some pressure exerted on them by Toto to sign Pascal Wehrlein, but that would likely cost the team its Martini sponsorship, valued at around $10M- $15M, as Wehrlein is under 25 years old. That cost, plus the other benefits that Williams would demand, are likely to high for Mercedes to bear, especially for a driver that they appear to have given up on in F1 and seem to be positioning for Formula E.
Williams seem to have only three real choices. Palmer, Di Resta and Kubica. And none of them will have Williams jumping for joy. I’ll rank them from most to least likely in my opinion.
Jolyon Palmer. Widely regarded as one of the worst drivers currently in F1, Palmer has had to bear driving an unreliable car and being on a team where the focus is his teammate. It could easily be argued that had Renault not been in a turf war between Abiteboul and Vasseur for control of the team, Palmer would have been dumped at the end of 2016. Palmer’s main problem stems from his bad qualifying where he is on average six places behind Hulkenberg. His race results are better, being on average three places behind, which is comparable to where Kyvat and VanDoorne are behind their teammates. Maybe he isn’t as bad as he appears. Palmer also brings, it has been reported, around $10M is sponsorship. And to a cash hungry team like Williams, that looks juicy. He also has two seasons driving a (or a season and ¾’s) turbo car.
Paul di Resta. Williams reserve driver. di Resta did a commendable job in Hungary after being called in at the last minute after Massa took ill. His connections to Mercedes are long. He also knows the team. No one would call di Resta “Mr. Excitement”, but he does get the job done and has always been a solid if unspectacular driver capable of scoring points. His downsides are being out of F1 since 2013 and not having much if any sponsorship behind him.
Robert Kubica. The wild card. I didn’t rank Kubica as the least likely because I don’t think he still has the potential to return to F1 – but because he carries, in my opinion, way too much risk. There are still far too many questions surrounding him. Essentially a one-armed driver who has been out of F1 for six years, where the steering wheel has to have all the controls on the left-hand side. The Renault test after Hungary showed he could did a race distance – but his best time was slightly slower than Palmer’s best time in the actual race. And a test isn’t a race week-end where there are three practice and potentially three more qualification sessions, then the race, and sometimes you’ll have to do it all over again a week later. You just don’t know if he physically can do it. He has enlisted Nico Rosberg to manage him and apparently a simulator test is in the works. Another issue for Kubica is the lack of sponsorship he has.
F1 is at its core a conservative business. In the end I think Williams play it safe and go with what they know. Kubica for all the hype of how he has progressed is still too risky. He could be a star again or he could after a couple or three races show he doesn’t have it, then Williams are in a real bind.
Playing it safe means going with Palmer and his $10M on a one-year deal. His performance would be assessed after half the season and if he has done okay, you continue. If he is failing you still have the option of replacing him with di Resta.
Anyone have Claire Williams email?