Poor old Jolyon Palmer must feel a bit sad every time he see an article talking about the 2017 Renault seat, because, let’s be honest here , Kevin Magnussen is most likely there to stay. However the same can’t be said to Palmer who is still under immense pressure to perform considering he is yet to score points in 2016.
Despite their current back-marker status, the debate of who should get said seat is so fierce because a manufacturer like Renault could be a front running team within a matter of seasons. In simpler words, they have deeper pockets than most. Also, Renault wouldn’t continue in the sport if the future didn’t hold race wins and Championships, they aren’t here to survive like rivals around them.
So with Kevin Magnussen most likely locked into the number one seat, it is still argued whether or not Palmer deserves the 2nd. After winning the 2014 GP2 Championship, the British driver was given a test driver role at the previous iteration of the team, Lotus. When Romain Grosjean announced his departure from the team to Haas for 2016, Palmer was promoted to Lotus’s 2nd driver for 2016 alongside Pastor Maldonado.
However back then it was doubtful there would even be a Lotus team in 2016 that was until Renault bought the team back. When they did, the French manufacturer made immediate changes to the driver line up and sacked Maldonado in favor of Magnussen. Palmer kept his drive. I guess what I’m trying to say is Palmer is at Renault under very lucky circumstances.
But In fairness, I think Palmer has done quite well. Driving alongside one of the brightest talents in Formula One is hard work. He has proved in races such as Australia and Hungary that he can beat him on a good day. I just don’t think Renault are looking for a driver who’ll perform on a good day, merely one who will perform every day.
But if Palmer were to be replaced, who would do it? The first highly plausible option is Esteban Ocon, Renault’s current test and reserve driver. The first thing he has going for him is the fact that he is French; it’s only natural for Renault to like him. Joking aside, his country of origin won’t be the only thing to decide the spot; the Frenchman has an extremely impressive CV to back him up.
In 2014 he won the European Formula Three Championship and continued his rise to Formula One with the GP3 title in 2015. These impressive performances attracted the eyes of the Mercedes Formula One team. The defending World Champions gave the young 19 year old F1 tests throughout 2015 and a drive with Mercedes Team ART in the 2016 DTM season.
But his biggest step toward Formula One came at the beginning of 2016 when Renault rewarded him a third driver role. But Ocon’s 2016 fortunes weren’t done. Recently during the 2016 Formula One summer break he signed to drive for Manor Racing in the last 10 rounds of the season, replacing Rio Haryanto who had unfortunately run out of money.
This decision is perhaps the one that will seriously help Ocon seal the deal as many had debated whether or not Renault would give him a seat without previous Formula One race experience. Now that Manor will give him 10 races before 2017, it only heightens the chances of being the winner.
Ocon may be the front runner, but other serious contenders come calling if you peer into Renault’s development program. ART Grand Prix GP2 driver, Sergey Sirotkin, is a key member of the academy and has even conducted Friday running for Renault this season. If he wins the GP2 series this year, which doesn’t look likely at the moment, he’ll need a new role in 2016 because a GP2 Champion isn’t permitted to re-race in the series. Sirotkin has proved to be an extremely fast driver in 2016 but his title hopes have been slashed by bad luck and misfortune. Unless he can win the Championship it is unlikely Renault would promote him ahead of Ocon.
The next option who is probably a little less plausible is Sebastien Buemi. The Swiss driver has strong links to Renault through his Formula E race seat with the e.DAMS Renault team. Buemi won the Formula E championship this year and constantly out performed team mate, Nico Prost. These impressive performances have had many (including myself) question if Renault could promote him up to Formula One.
The one thing that will help Buemi dearly is his considerable experience in Formula One with Scuderia Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011. After a Red Bull Racing seat didn’t materialize, Buemi turned to Toyota and their sportscar program. His relationship with Renault would begin in 2015 with the inaugural Formula E championship, in which he would finish runner up.
The only downside for Renault is that Buemi’s links with Red Bull are still strong. Following the 2016 Formula E Championship title, Red Bull gave him a test drive at Mugello where Pirelli were testing their wider 2017 tires. Although this likely won’t lead to a Red Bull seat, the question of Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso contract is still on the table, so Buemi may have another entry point (as well as Renault) back into Formula One.
Considering his performances in the WEC with Toyota, I think Buemi does deserve a chance to be back in Formula One, with Renault or Toro Rosso. Renault would be the better option for him as a vacancy at Red Bull appears unlikely in the coming years. Buemi’s last attempt at Formula One failed due to the incredible pairing of Webber and Vettel. Although he had the talent to be a Red Bull driver, they never had room to promote him to the top team.
But the options aren’t just limited to these, other drivers in the paddock are still yet to confirm their contracts for 2017. One of these drivers, Jenson Button, is still yet to find a home for 2017, that is if the rumors are true that he is leaving McLaren. Whether or not he is going to Williams remains unclear, but Renault could certainly be an option as experience will be crucial in getting the French manufacturer back to the top. If Button does choose Williams, it’s presumed he’ll replace Felipe Massa. The Brazilian driver could be another option for Renault if he’s forced out of Williams because he continues to prove his could-have-been World Champion Class in every race. In fairness, Massa has not looked like an old man in the last season-and-a-half compared to his incredibly quick team mate, Valtteri Bottas.
To conclude, the introduction of new technical regulations for 2017 will make it incredibly important that Renault have a driver alongside Magnussen that is experienced, dedicated, and very fast. There is nothing to say that Renault won’t be in Mercedes current position at the start of 2017. These regulations are completely unknown territory for everyone in the paddock. Renault will be expected to announce their 2017 drivers within the month of September.
(By Steven Walton)