Formula One is enduring the silliest of silly seasons in 2018, with off-track competition rivalling its on-track counterpart for action and drama.
The freneticism is partly down to the fact 12 seats are notionally still up for grabs at 2019, but in an ironic twist for those free agents hoping to be seated when the music stops, lowly McLaren possesses the only seat not already locked into a political or economic deal.
With Carlos Sainz confirmed as Fernando Alonso’s 2019 replacement, Stoffel Vandoorne is under the pump to fend off a growing list of well-credentialed candidates.
There’s only one question to ask: who should McLaren choose?
The incumbent: Stoffel Vandoorne
Vandoorne has been struggling to impress his McLaren paymasters in his sophomore F1 season, and the miserly eight points to his name is doing little to change opinions when his teammate, Fernando Alonso, has amassed 44.
A chassis change in Hungary addressed a particularly poor run of form in the middle of the season and helped him mirror Alonso’s race pace that weekend until a gearbox failure forced him into retirement, but he backed that performance up by qualifying and finishing last in a dispiriting home grand prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
Worse was that he was outpaced by McLaren junior Lando Norris during FP1, a session billed as a potential shootout for 2019 — but Vandoorne would fairly point to the myriad technical problems that restricted him to half Norris’s lap count.
Technical and other problems have been the story of his career to date. The turmoil that has mired the team since his 2017 debut has hardly made for an environment conducive to nurturing a rookie, even one as highly rated as Vandoorne, and it’s been made doubly difficult for having to be compared to Alonso, one of this generation’s foremost talents.
But it’s hard to reignite lost enthusiasm in a driver, even if the mitigating circumstances are duly recognised. If the team is no longer fighting for him, perhaps its best to look for reinvigoration elsewhere.
The rookie: Lando Norris
Already contracted to McLaren is Lando Norris, who trails George Russel by just five points in the Formula Two championship. If he were to win the series, he would be barred from re-entering, forcing McLaren to find somewhere to place him in 2019. Why not Formula One?
But immediate promotion, F2 championship or not, brings peril for the British junior. With McLaren having stifled Vandoorne’s similarly promising career, could inserting a 19-year-old Norris into the same circumstances really be expected to produce different results?
And what effect would running a rookie have on the team? McLaren is at the very starting point of what will be an arduous rebuilding process — indeed the team is still without a technical director — and it must ask itself whether a teenage rookie will help or hinder these important first steps towards recovery.
It begs the question: will the benefits of the new-driver sugar hit last long enough to truly fire up a team fallen out of love with Vandoorne? It requires serious thought before pulling the trigger.
The mercenary: Esteban Ocon
If neither Vandoorne nor Norris fit the bill, things become really interesting.
Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was being lined up to move to Renault to replace Sainz — before Ricciardo sealed the deal — as an escape from the economic collapse facing Force India. Though the team has weathered the worst of the storm, Ocon is no less vulnerable, with his seat expected to be handed to Lance Stroll, son of Lawrence Stroll, the leading investor in Force India’s salvation.
Ocon is one of Formula One’s rising stars — he beat Max Verstappen to the 2014 Formula Three title — and partnered with Carlos Sainz he would deliver McLaren the midfield’s most formidable driver line-up. It would, as an aside, also do the sport a great service to keep such a talent in motorsport’s upper echelons.
But there’s a twist. Ocon is rumoured to have already had a seat fitting in anticipation of a midseason switch, but Sky Sports has reported that he was found to be too tall to fit in this year’s McLaren. If true, it potentially closes off Woking as a safe port.
Critical also will be whether McLaren would accept a continued Mercedes’s claim to the Frenchman. McLaren management has railed against Mercedes’s increased political clout in recent times, and the idea of investing in Ocon’s continued advancement only to hand him back to the works Mercedes team would surely be met with distaste.
The prodigal son: Sergio Perez
Ocon’s twist becomes only more significant, however, with Sky Sports further reporting that Sergio Perez is now in talks with McLaren despite the Mexican implying last weekend that he was set to remain at Force India.
It would be a most unusual reunion — trumped only by Alonso’s return to the team after his explosive split with McLaren in 2007 — given Perez almost destroyed his burgeoning career when he transferred out of the Ferrari junior program after two promising seasons at Sauber for a single year at Woking as the team began its decline.
The seemingly unlikely move might point towards an unravelling of the Stroll-led Force India rescue package or an increased Mercedes influence at the team facilitating Ocon’s renewal at Perez’s expense.
Perez has meticulously rebuilt his post-McLaren reputation as a midfield specialist, scoring five podiums in the process. His return to McLaren could be considered as unfinished business for the Mexican and would provide for a fascinating Perez-Sainz comparison.
The choice won’t be easy for McLaren to make. Key will be balancing the need to plan for future competitiveness while keeping the team motivated in the immediate term. Would Stoffel Vandoorne and Lando Norris fit that bill? Both are a risk, with the former thus far unconvincing and the latter obviously unproven.
Esteban Ocon is undoubtedly a future winner, but if he can’t be extracted from his Mercedes contract, there’s little reason to invest in his career only to benefit a powerful rival.
That leaves Sergio Perez is the most logical choice given his form and sponsor appear — the only problem is that he’s the one driver least likely to be available.
Such are the twists and turns of the 2018 silly season.