If I’m brutally honest, Nico Hulkenberg’s decision to change from Force India to Renault at the end of 2016 has surprised me, and I think it has surprised many of you too. Although I had seen rumors in the media, I genuinely thought: ‘here’s a foreign newspaper who want some viewership by making up false claims.’ But Hulkenberg’s move is very, very real and leaving a top team like Force India has thrown a serious curveball into the Formula One driver market. And now the big question remains, which driver will have step up and fill the massive hole left by Hulkenberg at Force India for 2017?
The first option who has already proven he is a shining talent is Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman is currently getting his first taste of Formula One after being awarded a seat at Manor over the 2016 summer break. The problem with Ocon is that Force India isn’t really where he wants to be. Rather Ocon would rather be with his backers, Renault Sport. The only reason that move hasn’t materialized so far is Ocon’s (other) strong relationship with Mercedes. They would rather him stay at Manor, or move to Force India – teams both powered by Mercedes engines. If Ocon is unable to overcome Mercedes demands to get the Renault seat, Force India is his next best option. They are currently the strongest customer Mercedes team and would provide Ocon with a strong platform to show off his talent and pure skill. And this move looks ever nicer as rumors have begun to circulate the Formula One world that Renault have resigned Kevin Magnussen for 2017, which would complete their line up.
But if those rumours are false and Ocon were to go to Renault, who else would be in the mix? Pascal Wehrlein, is similarly backed by Mercedes and tipped to be next in line to a drive with the works team. He is currently Ocon’s team mate and would also benefit from a stronger team to show off his skill. If Ocon can’t get to Renault, then these two are neck and neck as they vie for the same seat. Their respective performances in the last two rounds of 2017 could decide where they end up next year.
And speaking of recent performances, it was Wehrlein who recently showed inexperience with a touch of arrogance during practice for the United States Grand Prix. After beaching his Manor in the gravel, Wehrlein repeatedly ignored his engineers orders to shut his engine down, instead choosing to keep it running in hope of being pushed free by marshals. Formula One engines are so complicated that leaving the power unit running whilst the car is stationary will overheat the PU very fast. With Manor (and Force India for that matter) on a very tight budget, teeny mistakes like this can leave huge impressions on a team.
And when speaking about budget, it’s something Force India are relatively low on. Unlike Mercedes and Ferrari, Force India cannot throw money at their car in a hope to make it faster, merely they have clever and resourceful engineers who work on tight monetary constraints to extract performance. This means Force India would seriously benefit from a driver who brings in sponsorship money, like current driver Sergio Perez. But the downside to this is usually a driver with money may not be satisfactory in terms of skill. But, there is an option for Force India to rope in a driver with money and experience: step forward Felipe Nasr. The Brazilian driver is about to finish his 2nd season of Formula One participation with Sauber, but he is yet to secure a place on the 2017 grid. After a strong 2015 season, Nasr has endured a horrid 2016 campaign. The initial rounds of the championship had him stuck in a chassis he felt noticeably uncomfortable in. After the team hesitantly changed it, he proceeded to crash with his team mate Monaco. The season hasn’t improved after these events and Nasr still hasn’t scored any points in 2016. He would be mad if he didn’t want to get out of Sauber and Force India would provide a far better base for the Brazilian to jump start his career.
But if Vijay Mallya doesn’t think Nasr is up to the task, he could also choose Jolyon Palmer for the role. Palmer began his Formula One career with Renault’s return to Formula One this year. Although the start of the season was shaky to say the least, Palmer has been a force to reckon with in the latter stages of the season. This has been evident through his ability to rival Kevin Magnussen consistently in qualifying – Palmer has finished ahead of his team mate over one lap five times in the last eight rounds (not including Mexico where Palmer didn’t take part). However, with this much talent on display it’s still a question of whether or not Renault will opt to retain Palmer. The French constructor is yet to announce their 2nd driver for 2017 and if it didn’t turn out to be Palmer, he could effectively prove a straight swap for Hulkenberg to Force India.
Lastly, and most implausibly, is Alfonso Celis Jr. it’s important to mention him as he currently serves as Force India’s test driver. The 20 year old has competed in FP1 sessions for the team throughout 2016 whilst also competing in Formula V8 3.5 with varied success. Although he is inexperienced, the Mexican is understood to bring in substantial amounts of money. With an all Mexican driver line up, the team would certainly be popular in the very large monetary market of America, which would significantly help the financial side of the team. However, the skill of the driver may not be quite worth the move – thus proving the aforementioned implausibly.
Reflecting on all these choices, I find it especially difficult to actually pick a driver for Force India’s 2nd 2017 seat. The team has considerable choices in terms of the amount of skill they need versus the monetary gains they wish to make. I’m really not sure, but if you are, tell us what you think in the comments below!
By – Steven Walton