How Renault is key to the 2017 F1 driver market

If teams and drivers are practising their best poker faces, is it Renault that ultimately holds the best hand this silly season?
How Renault is key to the 2017 F1 driver market

There was a moment this year that had many predicting 2017 would be the moment the F1 driver market would finally see the shake-up fans have been craving.

Indeed, 2016 may have seen a new team enter the fray in Haas and Lotus morph back into Renault, yet not one of last year's top five teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams, Force India) elected to change their formula, along with Toro Rosso, Sauber and McLaren.

Even so, fans have been willing to play the waiting game as several high-profile drivers in high-profile seats neared the end of their contract this year, with many expecting (or at least hoping) it would spark the overhaul many feel F1 needs to break a stalemate that has placed safe choices over riskier punts.

However, if the 2017 hierarchy matches that of 2016 then the top positions will have an identical look to them, Mercedes re-signing Nico Rosberg, Ferrari agreeing a new deal with Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull firming up Max Verstappen's contract alongside Daniel Ricciardo following his mid-season swap.

Nevertheless, there are still notable seats up for grabs elsewhere potentially, not least competitive drives at McLaren, Williams, Toro Rosso, Force India and Haas, while Renault, Manor and Sauber have given little away about their future plans well into the silly season.

However, while it hasn't offered the most competitive package in 2016, of these teams could Renault ultimately represent the most tempting option for curious drivers in 2017?

At the very least, the French firm is the most thought-provoking proposition.

Indeed, while Renault's return to F1 as a fully-fledged constructor has not met expectations having cracked the top ten on just one occasion this year, the late decision to re-enter coupled to a laborious technical overhaul behind the scenes is not representative of the investment and potential it ultimately has.

It's what makes Renault such an intriguing proposition for the future... a factory team with the resource and knowledge to become a big player again, far more than the teams around it at the back of the grid. For drivers, it is a project worth believing in at 'grassroots'.

It's a scenario not dissimilar to Renault's previous return to F1 in 2002. Back then, the ex-Benetton outfit put its faith in a fledgling Fernando Alonso - at the behest of Jenson Button - and reaped the rewards when he clinched the 2005 and 2006 titles.

Indeed, while current drivers Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer have both expressed their desire to stay, insisting their good performances are being betrayed by a slow car, the long-term potential represented by Renault has piqued the interest of more notable drivers than its current form in isolation arguably befits.

With this in mind, it is perhaps little surprise that Force India driver Sergio Perez and Williams' Valtteri Bottas are heading up the candidate list.

Why? Because these are two rated drivers at a crossroads facing two critical career options... stick with what they know and risk stagnating their careers, or risk what they don't know to potentially further them. It's a dilemma.

Though now a relative veteran on the F1 grid having debuted back in 2011, Perez's stock has been rising steadily over the last 12 months. Currently in the midst of his third season with Force India, Perez achieved a career best ninth overall as the figurehead for Force India's charge to fifth in the constructors' standings last year.

Furthermore, he is well on course for more in 2016 after notching up eye-catching podiums in Monaco and Azerbaijan, while Force India is slowly eating into Williams margin in the fight for fourth overall.

By contrast, Bottas' reputation has slid the other way in tandem with Williams' dwindling efforts, the Grove squad struggling to maintain the momentum it established in 2014 and 2015 en route to third in the constructors' standings. Then again, it is easy to forget Bottas is the highest ranked 2016 driver yet to secure a seat for 2017.

For Perez, who worked hard under the radar to rebuild the confidence damaged by such a difficult season with McLaren in 2013, the interest from Renault will be vindication for the efforts he has put in with Force India since 2014, the Mexican stepping out from the shadow of his highly-rated (if undecorated) team-mate Nico Hulkenberg to arguably emerge as the team's most worthy asset.

Naturally, Force India is keen to keep its man and Vijay Mallya has made several claims indicating it has a firm deal, but paddock speculation suggests it is Perez's growing sponsorship portfolio that has the ultimate say in where he goes.

Indeed, Perez is arguably one of the best value drivers on the F1 grid when results and sponsors are taken into account and though Renault needs the Mexican investment less than Force India, commercially Perez's passport will holds great appeal for a manufacturer looking to strengthen its foothold in Central America.

Bottas doesn't quite have the same pull commercially but based on ability alone the Finn is still held in very high regard amongst those in know, while his combination of youth, experience and credentials makes him very tempting to a team like Renault.

Indeed, Perez has won fans with his occasional flashes of brilliance - usually after showcasing his impressive tyre conservation abilities -, but though it has been a while since we have seen a headline-grabbing performance by Bottas, his metronomic consistency in maximising the car underneath him remains impressive if not always noticeable.

Of course, Renault could sign both drivers but the consensus is that the second seat is being reserved for a driver from its impressive portfolio of prot?g?s, most likely by Esteban Ocon.

Young, French and tipped for stardom, Ocon need only conduct himself well alongside Pascal Wehrlein in his newly realised opportunity with Manor during the second half of the 2016 season to probably get the nod at Renault.

That said, Renault could face a stumbling block should Mercedes opt to place him elsewhere, but even then the team has GP2 title contender and well-backed Sergey Sirotkin waiting in the wings to fulfil its prot?g? quota.

In the meantime, the driver market remains somewhat on hold. Force India has made no secret its desire to retain Perez, not least because any replacement will need to bring some money to the table. The fact it has entrusted testing duties to the wealthy but unproven Alfonso Celis Jr and Nikita Mazepin - neither of which are F1 ready - is indicative of the cash-to-talent dilemma it faces.

Williams, meanwhile, has said it isn't in a rush to firm its driver line-up for the 2017 since it is seemingly keen on pursuing Jenson Button should he exit McLaren. Though Bottas' seat is considered far safer than that of his team-mate Felipe Massa, the potential arrival of Button puts his assumed #1 status under threat and he may feel compelled to take matters into his own hands as a result.

A clearer picture should form sooner rather than later as the summer break nears its end, but teams and drivers are practising their best poker faces, is it Renault that ultimately holds the best hand?

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