Renault has arguably been left as the biggest loser in the Formula 1 driver market merry-go-round that dramatically sparked into life this week. 

The team was hit by the news that Daniel Ricciardo will be leaving following the expiry of his contract at the end of the year to join midfield rivals McLaren just 24 months after he arrived at Enstone. 

Ricciardo’s departure acts a big blow for Renault after it claimed the coup of securing the services of one of F1’s hottest commodities back in the summer of 2018, having prized him away from race-winning machinery at Red Bull. 

Why is Sebastian Vettel leaving Ferrari? |

But after a disappointing maiden campaign in 2019 - in which Renault’s progress reversed as it was leapfrogged by McLaren in the pecking order - Ricciardo was unsettled and began considering his options elsewhere. 

With Sebastian Vettel’s exit from Ferrari triggering a chain reaction of moves, Ricciardo ultimately decided that McLaren and its recent upward trajectory was the best bet to help him meet his personal goals. On Thursday morning he was swiftly announced as Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz’s replacement for 2021 at the Woking outfit. 

Renault confirmed talks over a renewal with Ricciardo had broken down in a statement which included a rather scathing and graceless dig from team principal Cyril Abiteboul, hinting towards a lack of loyalty. 

"In our sport, and particularly within the current extraordinary situation, reciprocated confidence, unity and commitment are, more than ever, critical values for a works team."

The nature of the veiled comments leaves question marks over just how badly the relationship between the parties has deteriorated, putting both driver and team in an awkward situation facing another season together in 2020 - assuming the campaign gets away at all following the delays caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are still unknowns over Renault’s future in F1 beyond the end of the current season, though Abiteboul stressed that significant changes to the sport’s financial rules - including an agreement to slash the budget cap from $175m to $145 - have led him to believe a stay is more likely amid a company-wide review into the French manufacturer’s operations. 

Assuming Renault does indeed stick around, it must find a replacement for Ricciardo. The team is losing a true box office character on and off the track. The combination of the Australian’s infectious personality and proven talent behind the wheel of an F1 car means Renault faces an extremely tough challenge to find a candidate who boasts a similar level of appeal.

Vettel's swansong or a surprise return for Alonso? 

The biggest names to be linked with Renault are Vettel and Fernando Alonso, who sealed the team’s only world championship successes with his back-to-back title triumphs between 2005 and 2006. 

As multiple world champions, either driver would mark an equally impressive capture to fill the Ricciardo-shaped void alongside the highly-rated Esteban Ocon, who is set to make his debut for the team this season. 

Abiteboul recently refused to rule out a move for Vettel and reports in the Italian press have claimed that Renault has already made the four-time world champion a concrete offer. However, German media outlets suggest Vettel will retire from the sport if he is unsuccessful in a bid to force a switch to Mercedes. 

For Alonso, a return to Renault for a third stint appears unlikely given he has previously stated he would only come back to F1 for competitive machinery that would enable him to fight for victories and world championships. 

Then again, Alonso retains a spiritual connection with Renault and the immense clout he’d bring to the brand might just inspire the company to invest in making him an offer he potentially cannot refuse, especially if they can convince him it is well placed for the incoming change in regulations.

An unlikely reunion or a wildcard candidate?

Another potential option could come in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg, who raced for Renault between 2017-2019. The German is on the lookout for a competitive drive after losing his seat at the French manufacturer at the end of last season and is available immediately given he is yet to nail down any other racing commitments. 

A revival of the Hulkenberg-Renault partnership would have some clear benefits as the German could slot straight into the team with ease knowing it inside-out from his previous tenure. 

In Hulkenberg, Renault would find itself a safe pair of hands who will bring home solid results and deliver the occasional exceptional performance. He could also slot into the role of team leader alongside the younger Ocon, although the unceremonious nature of his exit might count against such a reunion occurring. 

A wildcard candidate could be Pierre Gasly if Renault fancied its chances at luring the current AlphaTauri driver away from the Red Bull fold to field an all-French line-up. 

Such a move would provide Gasly the chance to re-establish himself at a works’ environment following the bruising demotion he endured just 12 races into his stint at the Red Bull senior team. 

Promoting from within 

An alternative would be to promote from within Renault’s own young driver programme, something Abiteboul has repeatedly signalled as being a clear target for the team, possibly as early as 2021. 

“I’m more inspired to work with the drivers of tomorrow than yesterday,” Abiteboul explained in a recent interview with CANAL+.

“We also have an academy of drivers,” he added. “We've got drivers who will maybe be ready in 2021 or 2022, so we've also got to have that mind.

“We created [the Renault Sport Academy] in 2016 with the objective of getting a driver into Formula 1 in 2021. We're going to be in 2021 [soon], obviously.” 

Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard are the team’s highest-placed juniors in Formula 2, while British Formula 3 driver Max Fewtrell is also on the Renault books. 

All three need to complete their respective campaigns on F1’s support ladder, but an impressive season could throw one of them into contention. 

Heading into his sophomore F2 campaign, Zhou is arguably the best-placed of the three to have a genuine shot of a Renault F1 seat, providing he can build on his strong run to seventh-place in the 2019 championship as the highest rookie driver. 

Zhou moved one step closer to becoming F1’s first ever Chinese racer earlier this year when Renault promoted the 20-year-old to the role of test driver for 2020. 

A sobering thought is that the late Anthoine Hubert would have also likely found himself in contention for the seat were it not for his tragic death last year at Spa-Francorchamps

Renault looks to have a number of options but ultimately is not expected to rush a decision on who will partner Ocon at the team in 2021. 

Which driver do you think Renault should replace Daniel Ricciardo with for the 2021 F1 season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.