There is no doubt that Alonso’s absence on the grid next year will represent a huge blow for F1, leaving McLaren with a gaping void to fill. But there is little time for the British squad to contemplate what it has lost, it must now look to the future. 

Alonso’s departure hands McLaren a big dilemma in shoring up its 2019 plans. It is highly likely next season will mark the first time since 2006 that the team will not boast either a current or former world champion within its ranks, while there is a high possibility it could end up with its most inexperienced driver line-up since the mid 1990s.

Multiple sources indicate Sainz is expected to be announced as Alonso’s replacement at McLaren as early as this week on a two-year deal. It would mark a poignant moment for Sainz, who highly regards his F1 idol and has enjoyed a number of on-track battles with his fellow countryman in recent years.

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A Sainz to McLaren deal would almost certainly mean Red Bull has picked Pierre Gasly and his experience of driving Honda’s latest F1 engine – which will power Red Bull in 2019 - as Daniel Ricciardo’s successor, with the Australian setting off the chain of shock driver moves at the beginning of the summer break by slamming the Enstone door shut on current driver Sainz.

That has ultimately freed Sainz from the shackles of the Red Bull programme, allowing him to chart a new career path with a team steeped in history and on the comeback trail. While he has not blown away Nico Hulkenberg this year, Sainz has undoubted talent and could well flourish in a new environment at Woking.

“We think Carlos is an excellent racecar driver,” McLaren Racing director Zak Brown said prior to Alonso’s announcement in Hungary.

“Of course Carlos is potentially in the market, [I] don't know his exact situation at Renault and Red Bull, but he is certainly someone as you go down the shortlist of drivers that you consider putting in your racecar if he was free, and if we had a seat, he would certainly be high up on the consideration for that.”

McLaren's other driver dilemma 

The big question that remains is who will partner Sainz? This poses a less straightforward call for McLaren, with the team making it clear it wants to avoid putting all its hopes of young talent. Alonso, who recently heaped praise on his current teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, could have just handed the under-pressure Belgian an unexpected lifeline at the team by choosing not to continue in F1 next year.

Vandoorne has struggled to match Alonso’s level of performance throughout his second full season - despite improvements made following McLaren’s switch from Honda to Renault engines – and he currently holds the unenviable record of being outqualified by the Spaniard for 17 consecutive races.

Numerous issues with a lack of downforce have ultimately hampered Vandoorne, prompting McLaren to change his chassis at the Hungarian Grand Prix, where he enjoyed a strong race and looked set to claim just his fourth top 10 appearance of the year until he suffered a heartbreaking retirement due to a gearbox problem.

McLaren has continued to offer support for Vandoorne, who now faces the biggest nine races of his career to date if he is to save his F1 career and back up the sort of hype that has shadowed him ever-since his supreme GP2 title campaign in 2015.

Another factor in McLaren’s decision is highly-rated protégé Lando Norris. Norris is considered a star of the future and he has impressed McLaren when he has been called upon to test its F1 car.

The Briton, who only turns 19 in November, appears destined for a spot on the grid in the near-future, having racked up an impressive rung of championship titles throughout his successful junior career – the most recent of which came last year in European Formula 3.

“We think Lando is obviously a future star,” Brown said. “We're going through our whole driver scenario, and obviously when you have a talent like Lando, you want to keep him in the family.”

Much will hinge on how Norris performs across the final four rounds of the Formula 2 campaign. Norris made a perfect start to 2018 by triumphing in the opening race of the season in Bahrian, but he is yet to return to the top step of the podium and has since been replaced at the head of the championship by Mercedes junior and chief rival George Russell.

Norris sits just 12 points adrift of Russell, who has amassed the most wins of any driver this season, racking up four victories. The Carlin driver has ultimately been unable to match the consistency of ART’s Russell, while race management has often proved to be his downfall. This was apparent in Hungary as Norris turned in a remarkable charge in wet weather conditions to charge into the feature race lead, only to take too much out of his tyres and ultimately miss out on a potential win.

If Norris can turn the tables on Russell and add the F2 title to his growing trophy cabinet, that might just sway McLaren to favouring its rising star over Vandoorne, particularly as he will no longer be permitted to race in F2 as the series’ reigning champion.

Should he miss out on the title, providing him with a second shot at success in 2019 would make sense, handing Vandoorne a last chance saloon to impress. Alternatively, a loan deal to Toro Rosso – fast-tracking the arrival of James Key to Woking in return - could be arranged, given the conundrum Red Bull faces with its young driver programme.

Assuming no other as yet unidentified targets emerge over the coming weeks, McLaren could bide its time and wait until the end of the season before making a final call. It looks as though the destination of the sole-remaining seat will be a straight race between its two young guns.

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