Drivers switching teams is nothing new in Formula 1. Drivers move in search of the fastest car, and teams look for the fastest driver, capable of winning the title, but the gamble is even bigger this season.
2020 was due to be the last season of the current Formula 1 regulations, with a switch to ground-effect rules due to begin in 2021, but like everything else, the coronavirus put a stop to it.
As of yet, not a single wheel has been turned in anger in 2020, apart from pre-season testing, and so nobody really knows where they stack up in the pecking order.
With the first ten races either cancelled or postponed, and still no clarity around if and when racing will get back underway, it was expected that the driver market would remain stagnant, and let’s be honest, who could disagree?
But, it was never going to be that straightforward. A number of drivers have contracts finishing at the end of 2020, and for good reason. They want the opportunity to be able to move around if they think another team will have understood the new regulations better than others.
When Formula 1 announced that the new regulations were being put back by a year, it put a spanner in the works. Some drivers would only be looking for a one year deal, so they have the opportunity to move again at the end of 2021, but some of the teams want their drivers to commit for the longer term.
‘Silly season’ always hits around the end of April/ start of May, and this year was no different, but unlike most years, it got sent into disarray when Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel announced they would be parting ways at the end of the year.
In some ways, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Vettel look dejected at times last season and it is clear the Scuderia are looking to Charles Leclerc for the future, but Ferrari still put forward a contract with a view to keeping Vettel for the short term at least.
As you would expect, the seat at Ferrari got everyone speculating who would move to Maranello. Daniel Ricciardo was a clear favourite as it had been no secret that he had wanted to move there from Red Bull.
But, Ferrari decided against signing the Australian, and instead moved for Carlos Sainz, who had a strong season at McLaren in 2019.
Subsequently, McLaren signed Ricciardo and now a seat is left open at Renault, with a number of strong candidates available.
In a normal season, these moves would be big talking points but wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, however this season it is completely different and a big gamble to all involved.
As mentioned earlier, nobody knows where they are in the pecking order, although Sainz can be confident he has a car capable of winning races at Ferrari. But, Ricciardo’s move to McLaren and the open seat at Renault aren’t as clear cut.
Ricciardo moved to Renault on the basis that they would move towards the top three over the next few years. In 2018 they finished fourth in the championship, but last year fell backwards, behind McLaren.
Indications from testing suggested that they could have fallen even further behind, with Racing Point appearing to have produced a strong car, but the reality is, nobody knows for sure. It could be that Renault have found some gains for this year, but need to do further work to unlock the full potential, and with another season of stable regulations, it is not inconceivable that they could make larger improvements than some of their rivals.
If that is the case, they could jump ahead of McLaren and leave Ricciardo regretting yet another move.
The same could also be said for McLaren. They have been incredibly vocal about the budget cap, and since the pandemic hit they are not having to look at other financing options, one being mortgaging their heritage assets and factory. Not a great indication of financial stability.
If the finances are tight, then it is entirely plausible that they don’t have the funds they need to develop the car at the rate required to stay as best of the rest.
Obviously, drivers move around all the time in Formula 1, but they usually do so mid-season when they have an idea of how each team are performing. This year, they are jumping in blind.
Now it’s not to say that switching teams this year is a bad move. Sainz’s switch will no doubt reap a number of race wins as reward for moving over the next few years, and Ricciardo’s move to McLaren could be a masterstroke if the Woking squad can close the gap to the top three even more than they did last year.
But, the risk is higher and drivers that move could find themselves struggling more than they expected, which in turn could harm their future.
And it is not only drivers that have the risk. Teams do too. Renault for example have an open seat, but who do they put in there. Vettel is available, and while he would be a brilliant coup for the French manufacturer, his form was patchy last year. Then again, a break from racing could have allowed the four-time world champion to recover his form, and he could be exactly the asset they need to fight further at the front.
Again, like drivers, teams have the ability to judge form throughout a season, and it can change year on year. This time, they are all going in blind.
It will be interesting to see how the 2021 grid shapes up as the year goes on, but it is clear that these moves could pose the biggest gamble in recent years.