IT was the move that nobody saw coming.
Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to sign with Renault instead of Red Bull is the biggest shock in quite a few seasons of F1’s transfer market.
It’s the biggest since Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement after winning the 2016 title, or Sebastian Vettel’s switch to Ferrari at the end of 2014.
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Ricciardo’s move is such a surprise because Renault is one team that he hasn’t been linked with in the many months he’s had to contemplate his future.
Mercedes? Yes. Ferrari? Definitely yes. Red Bull? Yes, after all, there were worse options. McLaren? Remember what I said about worse options…
But Renault? Renault? The team whose lethargic engines have prevented him from fighting for the world championship these past few years?
Yet move to Renault he has, joining Nico Hulkenberg in yellow for 2019.
It throws quite a spanner into F1’s delicate driver transfer market, with Ricciardo one of several key pieces amid the overall puzzle of the 2019 driver line-up.
Here’s what Ricciardo’s shock switch means for next year’s grid.
No change of plans here for 2019. They locked in Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at the German Grand Prix, closing off one potential avenue for Ricciardo.
What it does do, though, is make Bottas’ position more secure. The Finn is only signed until the end of next year, with Mercedes holding an extra one-year option on his services.
Max Verstappen is the only big-name driver off contract at that point — and Ricciardo’s departure means it will do even more to ensure the Dutchman hangs around long term.
Despite Ricciardo saying ahead of Germany that there was still a sliver of hope of him heading to Maranello next year, it will not come to pass.
Sebastian Vettel is confirmed for 2019, but the Scuderia is yet to determine who his teammate will be.
The sudden death of Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne, who it was thought was pushing for change, has strengthened the likelihood that Kimi Raikkonen will be retained for another season at least.
Charles Leclerc is still a chance at securing a rapid promotion, but he is more likely to ply his trade at a different Ferrari-powered team in 2019.
As stated above, Max Verstappen will now be the defacto Numero Uno at Red Bull. But who joins him?
The logical answer is Carlos Sainz. He’s under contract with Red Bull, he is now out of a drive at Renault (muchas gracias, Daniel …) and he was virtually a match for Verstappen when they were together at Toro Rosso.
So why didn’t Red Bull announce him alongside Ricciardo’s departure, just as they did Daniil Kvyat’s promotion when it revealed Vettel was leaving in October 2014.
The current thinking is that Sainz is keen on a move to McLaren, and that the British squad is keen to have a rated top-line driver to place alongside Fernando Alonso — assuming ‘nando wants to keep racing in F1.
Red Bull also has the option of promoting the impressive Pierre Gasly to its main squad, although that would leave Toro Rosso with a bit of a dilemma …
Force India has a bit going on at the moment. The team has been placed into the hands of administrators at request of driver Sergio Perez, who is one of several creditors awaiting payment.
But Perez did so to prevent another creditor issuing a wind-up order that would kill the team; this way, Force India has a chance of surviving long-term in under new ownership — and its 400-odd work force no longer face sudden unemployment.
Its future driver line-up will depend on its saviour.
Williams driver Lance Stroll has been linked with a move to the team, with his father Lawrence Stroll reported as part of one of the consortiums looking to purchase the team.
Perez is off-contract after 2018 but is a team favourite and brings Mexican sponsorship backing, making him a strong candidate to stay.
Esteban Ocon’s plans, however, have been thrown into a bit of disarray by Ricciardo’s move.
The French squad were expected to try and poach Ocon away from Force India amid its current uncertainty, with reports he could have driven for them as soon as the Belgian Grand Prix.
Ocon is still a Mercedes junior driver, but aside from Force India and the factory squad there is just one other team on the grid that use Mercedes engines.
Their driver line-up hinges on what Fernando Alonso decides to do.
His contract undoubtedly contains a break clause based on performance, and the McLaren-Renault hasn’t been the contender for race wins he would have hoped for.
He has no other better options up the grid — unless he somehow snags the second Ferrari seat — and that IndyCar rumour keeps lingering.
Andretti Autosport, the chief contender for his services, has set a deadline of next weekend on how long they can wait for Alonso to confirm a move across the Atlantic.
If he stays, the team is keen on bringing Carlos Sainz across for an all-Spanish driving line-up.
That would mean Stoffel Vandoorne — a highly-rated GP2 champion and McLaren junior driver — would be cut loose.
McLaren also has the highly-rated Lando Norris on its books, but the Brit may have to wait an extra year for his F1 debut.
Both its drivers are off-contract at the end of the season. If it had to keep only one, Kevin Magnussen is the racer most likely with Romain Grosjean enduring a hit-and-miss 2018 season so far.
The American-owned squad may not have a choice, thanks to its strong links with Ferrari.
If Charles Leclerc doesn’t land the seat alongside Vettel, it’s suspected that the Scuderia could place him at Haas alongside Magnussen.
2019 is looming as a year of big changes for Williams.
The Martini title sponsorship deal comes to close at the end of this year, and if Lance Stroll leaves it could potentially leave a sizeable hole in its finances.
This could see Williams become more aligned with engine supplier Mercedes, giving it a similar style of relationship as that between Ferrari and Haas.
Regardless, Mercedes is expected to play a role in the deliberations over its driver line-up for next year.
Impressive GP2 racer George Russell, a Mercedes junior that just happens to be British as well, has been linked to making his F1 debut with Williams next year.
Current driver Sergey Sirotkin has had a solid rookie season amid difficult circumstances, and has a sponsorship dowry to boot.
But given Esteban Ocon’s predicament, could Mercedes parachute the Frenchman in to Williams? And what of Robert Kubica? The Pole is still super-keen on a return to F1, although a shortfall in sponsorship meant Sirotkin beat him to the second seat this year.
If Pierre Gasly is passed over for a seat at Red Bull’s big table, then he is a lock to spend an extra season at Toro Rosso.
Brendon Hartley is not expected to get a second full season, a harsh call given the poor luck and reliability the WEC champ and Le Mans 24 Hours winner has endured in 2018.
But Red Bull’s junior driver stocks are on the dry side.
Its preferred option, Dan Ticktum, has been foiled as the British racer doesn’t have enough Superlicence points to even be allowed to test for an F1 team this year, never mind race for one next year.
Honda could use its influence to place one of its junior drivers at Toro Rosso, making noises in May that it was keen to do so.
Movements up the grid will dictate the Swiss team’s line-up.
If Charles Leclerc is placed elsewhere by Ferrari, it’s likely that fellow Scuderia junior Antonio Giovinazzi will be anointed with his first full-time season in F1.
Marcus Ericsson is a contender to stay with the team, while Stoffel Vandoorne has also been linked with a seat should he be forced out at McLaren — although the Swedish driver’s funding would likely tip the balance in his favour.