French young gun Pierre Gasly has emerged as the favourite to replace the Renault-bound Australian racer Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull, reports Autosport.
The news comes after Fernando Alonso’s decision to walk away from McLaren at the end of the season unearthed that team’s plans to nab Carlos Sainz Jr.
Ricciardo had been expected to re-sign with Red Bull, triggering a series of moves among Formula One’s mid-table teams, but his astonishing move to Renault – to replace Sainz – changed everything.
Sainz, 23, has been loaned to the French outfit by Red Bull since late last season after spending the first three years of career with Toro Rosso.
Red Bull retain the option of bringing him back into the fold for 2019 but the Spaniard was unlikely to accept returning to the feeder team.
Though Sainz had been mooted as a potential Ricciardo replacement in what would effectively turn into a direct swap, the 22-year-old Gasly is set for the promotion despite starting just 17 Formula One races since his debut late last year.
The move will follow a similar path to that of his future teammate Max Verstappen.
The Dutchman had 23 races for Toro Rosso under his belt when he was swapped with then Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat early in the 2016 season.
Gasly, who showed his promise with a GP2 title in 2016, has had a mixed start to 2018 in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso.
The Frenchman has had three retirements – via two accidents and one engine issue – and he has finished in the top 10 three times.
Sainz consistently finishes in the points and is considered a solid No.1 option for McLaren.
Gasly, despite being 19 months older than Verstappen, would slot in as the clear No.2 at Red Bull – something Ricciardo refused to do, having already proved himself in the sport before Verstappen’s arrival.
Team principal Christian Horner recently theorised that the 29-year-old Australian decided to leave for Renault because he was perhaps intimidated by his younger teammate.
Other speculation claimed Ricciardo was not offered the same financial and racing terms as Verstappen.
“I think it comes back to wanting to take on, in his words, a new challenge but I also feel he sees Max growing and growing in terms of speed and strength and he doesn’t want to play a support role I guess, for want of a better word, not that they are treated in any way differently,” Horner told the Formula One website’s official podcast last week.
“They would have equal status, as they have always had. I could understand if (Ricciardo’s move) was to Ferrari or Mercedes, but it’s an enormous risk (going to Renault) at this stage of his career.
“It’s been a bit like trying to convince a girl to go out with you, but she’s being pretty reticent. We have bent over backwards to make it happen, but if someone’s heart isn’t really in it, then…
“We gave Daniel everything he wanted and asked for and it still wasn’t enough. We were even prepared to do a one-year agreement so he was available to Ferrari or Mercedes should they come knocking in 12 months’ time.
“It wasn’t about money or status, commitment or duration. I think he felt ‘I need to take something else on in this stage of my career’. It might be an inspired choice, it might one that he regrets.”
Red Bull will embark on a new era in 2019 as Honda replaces Renault as the team’s engine supplier, a situation that played into Gasly’s hand given his experience with Toro Rosso this year.
The 2018 Formula One season returns from the summer break next week for the Belgian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel locked in a two-horse title fight.