Formula 1’s Driver Market

Since it became apparent that Frenchman, Esteban Ocon could be without a drive in Formula 1 for the 2019 season, there has been a lot of debate and plenty of views and opinions aired about the driver market and what Ocon’s predicament says about the sport as a whole.

Ocon is currently racing for the now called Racing Point Force India team, having been with the Silverstone based constructor since 2017. He is also backed by Mercedes and is highly rated having won the European Formula 3 Championship in 2014, beating amongst others, Max Verstappen, as well as going on to win the GP3 Series in 2015 before making his Formula 1 debut in the middle of the 2016 season with Manor Racing.

Ocon
Esteban Ocon, Force India F1 Team” by Jen_ross83 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

However with the recent movements in the Formula 1 driver market for the 2019 season, it has meant that Ocon faces the real possibility of being without a drive for next season as Ricciardo scuppered Ocon’s own plan to be in a Renault seat for 2019. Lawrence Stroll’s takeover of Force India has meant Ocon is highly unlikely to see out the rest of 2018 and therefore won’t compete in 2019 with the team. While other opportunities, such as at McLaren or Scuderia Toro Rosso have or are being hampered by his affiliation with Mercedes as they are seen as a direct rival of McLaren and the Red Bull owned Scuderia Toro Rosso.

There are some fundamental issues that prevent young drivers like Ocon getting into and staying in Formula 1. The first issue is the number of drivers with ten or more seasons in the sport. As the sport has got safer, it has meant drivers have had longer careers at the top, which in turn has limited the opportunities for promotion for the likes of Ocon. Consider that Valtteri Bottas only achieved promotion to a top team after Mercedes were left scrambling for a replacement after Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement at the end of 2016. Without it, Bottas would probably still be at Williams. Also consider that Leclerc has only managed to get a Scuderia Ferrari drive for 2019 because the team have actively let Raikkonen go, rather than the Finn retiring. The same can be said for Sainz continuing his career or/and McLaren junior Lando Norris gaining a promotion as Alonso has finally decided to compete elsewhere in 2019, opening up a seat. Without these kinds of movements in the driver market there are fewer seats available for young drivers to fill, the issue is compounded as some of the experienced midfield drivers don’t get promoted to the top teams, leaving even fewer seats available for young drivers to fill.

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Another factor is that it doesn’t help that a lot of the teams on the current grid have some form of young driver programme with Mercedes, Renault, Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari all providing backing to drivers in junior racing series. This doesn’t include the likes of Haas and Williams who give backing to a young driver of their own, from time to time. The five big teams already constitute half of the current grid and are unlikely to loan young drivers to each other, which leaves only eight seats available for a driver from these programmes to fill, this as you have to take into consideration that Toro Rosso is Red Bull backed and is dedicated to fielding Red Bull young drivers. It also doesn’t help that some teams provide backing to more than just one young driver, for example Mercedes backs Ocon, Formula 2 racer George Russell and previously had Pascal Wehrlein competing in Formula 1, Renault have at least three of their own, while Ferrari have Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi, not to forget there are a further eight Ferrari backed drivers currently competing in junior formula such as European Formula 3, GP3 and Formula 2.

With only ten teams on the grid and only twenty seats available, when you take into consideration the more experienced drivers being able to lengthen their careers and the multiple and quite large young driver programmes, it is inevitable that some talented drivers will lose out on racing in Formula 1. This having not taken into consideration the close relationship between midfield teams and their engine suppliers, think of the relationship that Scuderia Ferrari have with Haas and Sauber and how it has meant that Ferrari backed young drivers have been able to get valuable driving time in free practice sessions. Also consider that due to the close ties between Ferrari and Sauber, it means Ferrari have a say on one of the Sauber seats, which is in part how Leclerc secured a 2018 drive. This in turn means that there isn’t an opportunity for a Renault or Mercedes backed driver. Yes the Mercedes backed Pascal Wehrlein did race for the Ferrari powered Sauber in 2017, but that was when the relationship between Ferrari and Sauber wasn’t as strong, as Sauber were considering a switch to Honda engines at the time.

Another issue to consider is the financial situation of some of the teams not fighting at the front of the grid. Although many will bemoan a team such as Sauber or Williams fielding a driver that comes with a sizeable amount of backing, effectively buying an F1 seat. There is no point in these teams fielding someone like Ocon if they are going to end up going into administration halfway through a season due to a lack of available finance, as happened with Force India. It only provides a short term solution as a young driver, in Ocon’s case, would still end up looking for somewhere else to drive for the rest of the season or the following season, in what would now be an even smaller grid.

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In an ideal world Formula 1 would be a racing series that sees twenty highly talented and competitive drivers competing in ten evenly matched teams. However, all who observe and get involved in Formula 1 have to realise the reality of the sport, that there are well over twenty drivers competing for, currently, only twenty seats in Formula 1. With not many of those teams being in a financially stable situation, talented young drivers will miss out to those drivers who bring a budget, as well as fall victim to the politics that take place within the sport and lastly to the veterans who still want to race for a few more seasons, as Ocon and Mercedes are finding out. Whether it is fair or right is irrelevant, as historically Formula 1 isn’t a fair or just sport, just take into consideration the infamous crashgate scandal at the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix or the metaphorical ‘Class B’ championship that has emerged over recent seasons. The matter of the fact is this is the reality within the sport, and unfortunately, like on the track, there are going to be winners and losers in the driver market.

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