There is currently a lot of noise going on in and around McLaren surrounding the immediate future of Daniel Ricciardo, but who will ultimately be the one to replace him if he leaves?
Ricciardo’s contract expires at the end of the 2023, but he has had extreme difficulty finding his feet at the Woking side since he joined in 2021, epitomised by the fact that he has now gone four races without scoring a point.
He lines up outside the top 10 for the fifth time this season ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, although Lando Norris’ elimination in Q2 in Baku also means that neither McLaren will be in the top 10 on the starting grid for the third time in 2022.
Norris has now out-qualified the Australian 22 times in 30 races and, while the 32-year-old looked a lot closer to his team-mate than he has previously, this has been another sobering weekend for himself and McLaren.
Amid criticism from CEO Zak Brown, extreme difficulty in getting used to the car, and a team-mate in Norris who is almost destined to one day be a world champion, there are constant rumours that Ricciardo may be dropped at the end of the current season.
He insisted ahead of the weekend in the Land of Fire that there is an agreement in place for next year, and he is “committed” to improving his fortunes with the team.
Inwardly at least, while there is a great appreciation for the outstanding character that Ricciardo is within the paddock, there will be drivers vying for his job in the coming years.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly has had his name dropped into the conversation in the last week after Red Bull’s Sergio Perez extended his contract until the end of 2024.
Since being dropped back to the junior side under its Toro Rosso guise in 2019, Gasly has managed three podiums and a victory in Monza in 2020.
He will start the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in P6 after qualifying in the top six for the 17th time since the beginning of last year, but it no longer looks as though his tremendous form since returning to the Italian team is going to earn him another go in the main fold.
The Frenchman’s deal with AlphaTauri is up at the end of the current season, but this will be renewed for next year if he is unable to find alternative employment for next season.
Realistically, the 26-year-old ought to be actively looking for somewhere else for next season, because his progress with AlphaTauri has saturated now that Perez has re-signed with the Austrian outfit, leaving him with no route back up.
He was urged by journalist Tom Clarkson to “do a Sainz” and jump from the Red Bull system to McLaren much like Carlos Sainz did in 2019, but if he is to try and secure a seat for next year, he may have some competition.
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso is another whose deal expires at the end of this season, and there appears to be a reluctance from Renault CEO Luca de Meo to assure the Spaniard of his future.
This is due to the presence of Oscar Piastri, although the young Australian now appears set to replace the struggling Nicholas Latifi at Williams next year.
The door to Aston Martin could be open for either Gasly or Alonso if Sebastian Vettel calls time on his illustrious career at the end of the current season, but Alpine would surely be mad not to try and keep the double world champion around.
At 40 years of age, he has now out-qualified team-mate Esteban Ocon four times in 2022, and he may well have had a pole and a podium in Melbourne earlier in the year had it not been for some wretched misfortune.
He finished on the podium in Qatar last season – his first rostrum appearance since 2014 with Ferrari – and he has made it clear that he wants another “two or three” years in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Alonso won four races in 2007 during his first spell with McLaren in 2007 as he and team-mate Sir Lewis Hamilton finished the year level on points and just one behind champion Kimi Raikkonen.
After numerous controversies that year – including spygate and a pit box stalling incident in Hungary – Alonso fell out with team boss Ron Dennis, and moved back to Renault in 2008.
The 32-time race winner made a sensational return in 2015 following Ferrari’s difficult 2014 campaign, and there was plenty of promise in the brand-new project in Woking with Honda power units coming back to the fold.
Sadly, Alonso, Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne managed 31 points finishes in 61 races between 2015 and 2017 with the Japanese brand in the back, and they failed to finish on the podium once in that time.
The Spaniard’s fortunes were not an awful lot better a year later when the team switched to Renault power, so that was it for Alonso, who took two years away from F1.
Now that there is a possibility that the Enstone-based team might not renew him, there could be a case to say that he might return to the eight-time constructors’ champions.
Truthfully though, those two chapters of Alonso’s career are likely closed, and it would be a surprise if he expressed a desire to re-open them given that, the second time more so than the first, they simply did not pan out as he would have hoped.
There is something romantic about Alonso being at the team with whom he won both his titles with in 2005 and 2006 and, with contract talks likely happening in the summer, it is difficult to see Alonso leaving Alpine this year.
As for Ricciardo, everyone in F1 would be glad to see him stick around for one more year, at the end of which his McLaren seat will be up for grabs.