The most politically complex Formula One driver market is slowly winding down for the season, but it’s not all good news for this season’s grid of drivers.
Last week’s confirmation of Lando Norris’s promotion to McLaren, for example, was great news for the up-and-coming Briton, but it was another nail in the coffin of Esteban Ocon’s 2019 prospects.
Ocon has been caught in the political crossfire between chief backer Mercedes and the non-Mercedes-aligned constructors. When ordinarily any number of teams would jump at who is one of the grid’s most talented young drivers, the Frenchman is tainted in the eyes of teams not politically allied with the Mercedes works team.
“When you’re looking for a driver long term and he has ties to another manufacturer, that’s a tick in the wrong box,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown said, explaining his decision not to hire Ocon.
Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner agreed.
“If he was to be contractually free, he’d be an obvious candidate for Toro Rosso,” Horner said. “But Red Bull aren’t going to invest in a Mercedes driver.”
It’s left Toto Wolff in an awkward and frustrating position. Having seen Pascal Wehrlein locked out of Formula One this season, Ocon now seems likely to join him, and significant questions over whether Formula Two title leader George Russel will be able to find a place in F1 next season are now being asked.
But the Austrian believes he might have a solution.
“Give us a third car,” he said. “Make it mandatory to put a young driver, with maximum two years [of F1 experience], in that car.”
The idea of having three-car teams is kicked around Formula One every so often without real backing, but with the sport’s regulatory and commercial structures up for renewal and with Mercedes being a considerable player in negotiations, could Wolff be the driving factor in making it a reality?
Formula One should be wary, because opening the door to third cars comes with a litany of problems.
The first is that the midfield teams will rightly vociferously protest against it because more frontrunning cars would only push them further away from the podium and out of the points.
Notwithstanding driver error, variable weather and mechanical failure, the top six of any grand prix reliably comprises the six Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing drivers, but in a three-car scenario this would extend to the top nine, leaving just one points-paying place for a midfielder.
Worse, imagine the prospect of a single-team podium, particularly if any one team was to steal a march on the others in the style Mercedes did from 2014 to 2016.
Further, adding a third car would also present teams with an additional financial burden at a time budgets are already stretched.
An easy answer to the financial problem would be to make the third car optional, particularly given the wealthiest teams tend to have have the largest junior driver programmes and therefore the greatest need for extra seats, but this would give three-car teams an unfair points-scoring advantage over their two-car rivals.
A workaround on could be to tweak the regulations to pay points further down the order, as has already been mooted. But as explained here earlier in the season, any adjustment to the points system detracts from the challenge of scoring and would potentially add extra unnecessary complication.
The sport could exclude third cars from the points — after all, in this hypothetical they’re for junior development drivers only — but this would also be problematic. Imagine the scenes if one of the third-car drivers were to win a race but be barred from taking to the podium because their entry effectively didn’t count.
Fielding non-scoring cars would also tempt teams to deploy their third drivers in a purely tactical role to frustrate rival teams, which would detract from the racing spectacle.
But considering the outcome the three-car solution is attempting to achieve is to keep young drivers like Esteban Ocon in Formula One, the most significant drawback of Wolff’s plan is that it is self-defeating by design.
A third car exclusively for drivers with two years or less F1 experience would be closed to Esteban Ocon, who is fast approaching the end of his second full-time season in the sport.
After all the effort to change the regulations and after all the money spent to field a grid of three-car teams, Formula One would still lose Esteban Ocon from its ranks.
So what’s the solution? As Wolff further notes, ending development programmes would hand an advantage back to those drivers who are best able to pay their way up the ranks. This can’t be the answer.
Instead Mercedes should make peace with letting Ocon go.
As many a dumped Toro Rosso driver will attest, the backing of a junior programme is really a gamble that you’ll arrive in the sport in time for an opening at the senior team to materialise. If Mercedes is satisfied with its Lewis Hamilton-Valtteri Bottas line-up, then the team needs to accept that its gamble hasn’t paid off.
Better Mercedes write off its losses than allow the politics of Formula One to write off Ocon’s burgeoning career.