While recording this week’s episode of the Inside Line F1 Podcast, I joked whether Carlos Sainz Jr. will still be called Carlos Sainz Jr.! Why? Because for the 2018 Formula 1 Season, the Red Bull Racing junior driver has been loaned to the Renault F1 Team, basically he’ll go from racing for Red Bull’s junior team (Toro Rosso) to racing for the former World Champions and now a works team, Renault F1 Team. So he’ll no longer be Red Bull Racing’s ‘junior’ driver. Got it? #PJ
Carlos Sainz Jr is the biggest beneficiary of the now concluded McLaren-Honda-Toro Rosso-Renault saga. The son of one of the most talented rally drivers in the world, the young Spaniard’s Formula 1 career seemed to have hit a ceiling within the Red Bull Racing camp.
With Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo contracted to drive for Red Bull Racing for 2018, there was a lack of vacancy for Sainz to be promoted from Toro Rosso — Red Bull’s junior team — for next season. Sainz’s only option was to continue racing with Toro Rosso — his 4th season with the team. Not surprisingly, no other Red Bull Racing junior has ever driven for Toro Rosso for four seasons, so Sainz’s impatience to move into a faster car was only valid. (Read: Ricciardo, The Only Happy Red Bull Driver)
It wasn’t too many races ago from this season when Sainz publicly expressed his disappointment of stagnating within the Red Bull Racing camp. But, Red Bull did what they do to all their drivers — gag them! However, being patient with Red Bull Racing has proven to be lucky for Sainz; Red Bull Racing has agreed to ‘loan’ Sainz to Renault for 2018, a move that would prove beneficial on many levels.
First, Sainz won’t be racing for Toro Rosso-Honda, the new partnership that was announced yesterday. It would be one thing to race for the junior team in his 4th year, but it would be another thing altogether to race for them with the worst engine (currently!) on the grid.
While there is hope in the paddock that Honda will progress next season, as a driver, the worry would naturally be about career-progression in case they don’t. From fighting in the mid-field this season — Sainz scored 36 of Toro Rosso’s 40 points this season — he could’ve been relegated to Fernando Alonso’s (also his mentor) position next season — that of using humourous radio messages to express disappointment about having a non-performing and unreliable engine.
Second, racing alongside the much-talented and experienced Nico Hulkenberg at Renault. After Max Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat swapped cars (from Toro Rosso to Red Bull Racing and vice versa) last season, Sainz has regularly out-performed Kvyat. At Renault, it would be good for Red Bull Racing as well as Sainz to have Hulkenberg as a good point of reference. 2018 could be a career-changing season for Sainz as it could lead him to an extension at Renault, one of the three works teams on the grid.
While Renault’s start to the hybrid-turbo era wasn’t the best, they have narrowed the gap to Ferrari and Mercedes and with higher investments from the car company, they are only expected to get quicker next season. There are few who believe that the works Renault team should end up fighting for third in the Constructors’ Championship with their customer teams — Red Bull Racing and McLaren.
In fact, there’s a rumour doing the rounds that Renault have offered their current driver Jolyon Palmer a severance package to vacate his cockpit starting the next race in Malaysia. Should this come through, it would be the first step towards having Sainz race for Renault starting this season itself. The question of course would be if Toro Rosso, who are six points ahead of Renault in the championship, would be okay with his early release.
Third, could be a return to Red Bull Racing in 2019. Ferrari and Mercedes have extended contracts with both their Finnish drivers only for a single season. All eyes would be on Verstappen and Ricciardo — both expected to be free agents for 2019 and later. Should either or both of them deflect to rival teams, Red Bull Racing would then have the option to recall Sainz from Renault. The ‘loan’ works perfect for Sainz as well as Red Bull Racing — a partnership that has grown together since 2010. This means that basis current form, Sainz could have faster cars to race in 2018 and possibly 2019!
However, has Red Bull Racing been outsmarted by Renault in this saga? There was a paddock rumour — which Red Bull Racing’s Christian Horner shot down — about Red Bull’s plans to assess the Honda engines via Toro Rosso in 2018 and dump Renault and switch to Honda in 2019. But, it seems that Renault read through these intentions and have already conveyed their decision to not supply engines to Red Bull Racing after the 2018 season.
The once successful Red Bull Racing-Renault partnership that won four Constructors’ Championships back-to-back from 2010 to 2013 has faced a turbulent relationship in the hybrid-turbo era of the sport.
First, Renault believed that Red Bull didn’t credit them enough for their championship wins and second, Red Bull Racing were impatient and quick to blame Renault for their lack of performance in this new era. However, if Renault do pull the plug on their supply and Honda fails to pick up pace, Red Bull Racing will be back to being powerless (without a power unit!) on the grid!
In 2015, after Renault’s engines didn’t make the cut, Red Bull Racing was left powerless after Ferrari and Mercedes refused supply.
The other impact that the Honda-Renault swap between McLaren-Toro Rosso could be on Red Bull Racing’s Junior Driver Program. Sebastian Vettel, Ricciardo and Max Verstappen — all graduates of this program had a good car at Toro Rosso during their training years before progressing to the marquee Red Bull Racing team. (Read: What About The Red Bull Young Driver Program?)
However, if Honda’s downward spiral continues and Toro Rosso goes the McLaren way, how will Red Bull Racing be able to assess new talent and groom them for a future in the sport? Sainz’s potential replacement at Toro Rosso would be Pierre Gasly — the 2016 GP2 Champion and currently 2nd in the Japanese Super Formula Championship.
All of this leads to one question — will Dietrich Mateschitz watch the fate of his billion-dollar investments in Formula 1 be controlled by the engine politics? The next regulatory change is only expected in 2021 — but that is three long seasons away and we know how impatient Red Bull gets when success doesn’t go their way.
Parallel to the swap-saga, there are rumours about Porsche entering Formula 1 via buying out Red Bull Racing and Red Bull staying on as a sponsor. Would that be the future of one of the sport’s most iconic privateer teams of this era?
This article was first published on Firstpost and was co-written with Mithila Mehta