While the Formula 1 driver market may have been a little underwhelming throughout 2017 with the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen all staying put, there has been an unusual number of driver swaps and in-season moves going by recent years.

Not since 2009 when five teams made in-season swaps have there been so many changes, with Antonio Giovinazzi, Jenson Button, Paul di Resta, Pierre Gasly and, most recently, Brendon Hartley all getting chances in F1 that were not planned at the beginning of the year.

In the case of Hartley and Gasly, their opportunities have arisen at Toro Rosso in the final quarter of a bumpy year for the team. A lack of performance from Daniil Kvyat led to him being shuffled out - twice - while Renault's push to strike a deal for Jolyon Palmer to exit early allowed it to draft Carlos Sainz Jr. in early.

Toro Rosso will head into this weekend's Mexican Grand Prix with a driver line-up boasting just three races of F1 experience - and against the backdrop of the midfield battle that has raged through the season, the changes mean a late-season shift in power could be on the cards.

And it is Renault who may be about to cash in. Literally.

There's a case for all of the midfield teams ruing missed opportunities this year. Even in Force India's case, its comfortable run to P4 in the constructors' championship has been blighted by in-team fighting between Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, costing it a possible podium finish. McLaren's woes have been very well-documented, with its inclusion under the 'midfield' umbrella being merely occasional, while Haas is continuing to adjust to life in F1.

For Williams, Toro Rosso and Renault, though, its driver picks are where the missed opportunities lie. In the race for fifth in the constructors' championship, all of them have thrown away opportunities due to under-scoring drivers.

In Williams' case, this covers both Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll. The drivers may be at either end of their career, yet there had been more of an expectation for Massa to step up and take the lion's share of the team's points. Instead, just four points separate them in the drivers' standings.

The disparity has been more glaring for Renault and Toro Rosso. At Renault, Nico Hulkenberg single-handedly filled its points balance up to Singapore when Palmer finally got on the board, although even the German has not scored since Spa. Sainz's domination over Kvyat was less pronounced in qualifying but glaring in races, taking 48 points to the Russian's four in their time together - over 92 per cent of the team's total.

Say Toro Rosso had had two Sainzs, or Renault had two Hulkenbergs, or Williams had a driver with two-thirds more than the points of Stroll - and the picture in the constructors' championship would look very different.

It is for this reason that Renault's signing of Sainz is particularly significant in the race for P5 as we enter the final three races. The team has gone from one regular points scorer to two, with the Spaniard's stunning display on debut for the team in Austin proving he is already ready to take the fight to the other midfield racers.

Sainz made his presence felt immediately last weekend as his run to seventh and haul of six points lifted Renault back above Haas to P7 in the constructors' standings. The two teams have traded blows back and forth in recent races, making Sainz's score and the five-point gap to Haas a crucial one.

But it does not look set to stop there for Renault. With three races to go, Toro Rosso is next on its hit list, with there also being a five-point gap from sixth to seventh.

And in light of the driver changes made and its rapid rate of development, you would have to fancy Renault making up that gap between now and the end of the season - if not by the end of the weekend.

Gasly and Hartley may fit with the purpose of Toro Rosso, pointing to the future and being very much part of the team's 2018 planning, yet it also puts the team at serious risk of writing off the end of the season. The drivers are by no means incapable of scoring points; the fine margins in the midfield fight makes every extra lap of experience and knowledge of the car crucial, though.

Kvyat may not have had a future with Toro Rosso beyond the end of the year, but he would have been a better option focusing on this season alone. His run to P10 in Austin was seamless, proving what he is capable of on a good day. Small points may not have been enough to keep Renault back, yet it is hard to see either Gasly or Hartley delivering a great deal more.

Renault may even dare to look further up the pecking order. Williams sits just 20 points clear in fifth, meaning if both Sainz and Hulkenberg can regularly feature in the points through the closing three races, all at circuits that don't play to the FW40's strengths, the French manufacturer may yet meet its seemingly ambitious pre-season target of a top-five finish in the teams' championship.

It wouldn't just save Renault some face - it would act as a big financial boost too. Budgets for manufacturer teams may not be solely set by final constructors' championship positions, but extra cash in a pocket is always welcome in F1, particularly when on a development drive like Renault is.

With the difference between P8 in the constructors' championship and P5 being somewhere around $14 million in prize money, it would be a big, big gain for the team. The push behind the financial payoff to Palmer is clear to see.

The midfield battle has been a subplot to the battle for supremacy at the front of the pack for much of this season. But as we head into the final couple of races with the championships practically settled, it is the push for P5 and the rewards that come with it that may emerge as the primary focus point for the F1 paddock in the run to Abu Dhabi.


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