It has become unremarkable that McLaren and Williams are loitering at the back of the Formula 1 field. Younger fans won’t remember the teams as anything but backmarkers and while historically they are massively successful teams, the only performance that counts in F1 is that of today.
For 2019 both teams have gone for the same tactic. They have placed their hope of revival in the hands of Formula 2 stars. McLaren has chosen to promote Lando Norris after the teenager combined his F2 campaign with third driver duties for the team in 2018 and Williams has given an opportunity to newly crowned F2 champion George Russell.
Both drivers come with gleaming reputations, both have proved themselves beyond doubt in the junior formulas, both highlight to the world that Britain did not break the mould when they made Lewis Hamilton. And talents like that bring with it an excitement and added motivation to teams that have become used to languishing towards the back, potentially proving the catalyst for resurgence.
It is exciting, not just for McLaren and Williams, but for motorsport at large, that Russell and Norris have broken into F1. Pay drivers have always been, and always will be, part of F1 but a few years ago there was concern that they were clogging up too much of the grid and hindering the progression of less well-funded super-talents. With these signings it looks like F1 is going to be in good health for years to come in terms of raw talent.
But what can these two youngsters achieve in their debut seasons? They could follow in the footsteps of 2017 F2 champion Charles Leclerc who has pulled out enough astonishing performances from his Sauber to impress his way into a Ferrari for 2019. It’s the ultimate dream for every rookie but it isn’t the breeze Leclerc has made it look.
Equally Norris in particular could follow in the steps of previous McLaren young drivers Kevin Magnussen, Sergio Perez or most recently Stoffel Vandoorne. Red Bull is famed for its throw-away attitude to drivers but in reality the past decade has shown McLaren too can be hugely damaging to the careers of young hopefuls. This is something Norris needs to watch out for. Yes, the 18-year-old is incredibly highly rated, taking five titles in four years on his way to F1, but Magnussen and Vandoorne had quite the reputations too before they took their debuts.
Vandoorne was all but deified when he scored McLaren’s first points of 2016 when standing in for the injured Fernando Alonso but when he failed to match Alonso’s pace over the course of a season he was quickly swept aside. Alonso, the man widely regarded as the biggest talent of his generation.
Perez was the first casualty of McLaren’s tribulations, his confidence smashed when he joined a team beginning to falter and was dropped after a season in the sub-par car. The next year Magnussen took his seat but with the opportunity to turn the team’s fortunes around with the arrival of Alonso and Honda on board the Dane got left on the sidelines.
If McLaren wants to come out the other side of this rough patch it needs to stop blaming its young drivers and realise that the problems run much deeper than that. The team’s last British protegee has just gone on to take his fifth world title so it might be worth McLaren’s while to take the time to nurture this one.
It’s too early to make an informed judgement of McLaren’s potential performance in 2019. Realistically, the team is unlikely to be suddenly challenging at the front after so much internal turmoil. Two new drivers, and the loss of direction from Alonso, who was very much steering McLaren’s attempts of revival, is yet another chance of a fresh start for the team. Of course McLaren has spent the best part of six years reassuring the world that a return to winning ways is imminent and it’s difficult to know exactly what effect Norris will have on the team. As one of the most hotly anticipated talents of his generation Norris will bring positive attention to the team which is something McLaren has had precious little of in recent years.
Sainz hasn’t the experience of the departing Alonso which ultimately will impact the team but at the same time having Sainz as a team-mate might help Norris. Going up against the on-track and political might of Alonso in your debut year, with a car that is anything but easy to drive is a task Vandoorne proved is all but impossible. Taking on Sainz is a more manageable task, although very much still a challenge.
The future for Williams is even harder to anticipate. Rumours are continuing to fly with regards to the potential occupant of its second seat, with different drivers bringing different qualities, and budgets, to the team. Esteban Ocon is undoubtedly the people’s favourite, with the motorsport world uniting to declare it a travesty that his F1 future isn’t already secured.
The Frenchman is touted as the future of Mercedes and was regarded as a possible replacement for Valtteri Bottas as recently as six months ago. It is through bad luck and poor timing alone that he faces a year on the bench and if anyone deserves a lifeline its Ocon. Clearly immensely talented, he was eighth in the championship in 2017, only his first full year in F1 and has consistently given his much more experienced Force India team-mate Perez a run for his money in their time together.
What Ocon lacks is the big money that comes with current Williams driver Sergey Sirotkin. Sirotkin hasn’t set the world alight in his rookie year, although to be fair to him he has been encumbered by machinery hardly suitable for letting talent shine. With Ocon in the car, Williams will have a driver capable of wringing out everything the car is capable of. With Sirotkin, the money to create a more competitive car. It is the eternal conundrum of motorsport.
For Russell to have Ocon by his side in his debut season would be make-or-break for his career. He has to look competitive against a known, and immensely talented, quantity. But if Williams picks Sirotkin that won’t necessarily make life all that much easier for Russell either. The pressure will be on to resoundingly beat his team-mate, whatever the car is like. But Russell has replicated Leclerc with back-to-back GP3 and F2 titles so it isn’t a question of his ability. The maturity is there too- Russell chose to prioritise his F2 campaign over higher-profile F1 Friday morning practice appearances.
Much has been prophesied about these two. The British giants have turned to their up-and-coming compatriots to steady their sinking ships. Fresh talent, the best of British talent, a chance for a new generation to make its mark on F1. It’s been a tough few years for both teams but, for now at least, there is a glimmer of hope for 2019.