Daniel Ricciardo’s shock bombshell to leave Red Bull for Renault in 2019 has left the Milton Keynes-based squad with a dilemma over which direction it opts to take with its Formula 1 driver line-up. 

Promoting Carlos Sainz - who remains under contract with the energy drinks company - alongside Max Verstappen might seem to be the most logical option but even that is not as foregone a conclusion as it appears on the outside. 

The Spaniard is considered the natural successor to fill a Ricciardo-shaped hole at Red Bull, having spent three years learning his trade at Toro Rosso before moving up the pecking order as part of a loan deal with midfield leaders Renault. 

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Sainz has previously suggested his future might not be clad in Red Bull overalls but any potential opening over a permanent switch to Renault has now been slammed shut after Ricciardo’s move to Enstone.

With Red Bull's option to keep Sainz expiring at the end of the month, it gives the team a very short timeframe to tie down the Spaniard. Sainz has made his intentions clear that he wants his next contract to be a two-year deal in a bid to shore up his future in the sport, and that could open the door to a change of scenery at McLaren, possibly alongside fellow countryman and idol Fernando Alonso

Sainz could be swayed by McLaren considering his limited options, particularly if he wants to avoid being reunited with Verstappen and the potential of an explosive intra-team rivalry - with tensions still lingering following their spell together at Faenza that ultimately saw the Dutchman fast-tracked to the senior team ahead of Sainz back in 2016. 

The Woking outfit has also openly admitted an interest in Sainz, with McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown refusing to rule out running two Spaniards in the team. 

“We think Carlos Sainz is a very good race car driver. This is the time of year where you talk to a lot of drivers as we have two seats that we are trying to fill,” Brown said at the German Grand Prix at the end of July. 

“As Fernando said, he is not yet sure what he wants to do, what he wants to drive, so those are scenarios that we are working through and talking to a variety of drivers.

“But we keep those conversations internal and ultimately it’s a bit of a group decision about what we will do with drivers.

“As far as having two drivers from the same nationality, we are fine with that.”

Should Sainz favour Woking over Milton Keynes, Red Bull has the luxury of cherry-picking one of the standout drivers on the 2018 grid in the shape of Pierre Gasly

After a year on the sidelines, the Frenchman has finally been able to demonstrate the type of performances to justify the hype that has surrounded him ever since his title-winning GP2 campaign in 2016. 

A brilliant fourth place in Bahrain and timely sixth-placed finish in Hungary have acted as reflections of Gasly’s obvious talent, lifting him up to 13th in the drivers’ standings and ensuring Toro Rosso has remained ahead of a revitalised Sauber squad in the constructors’. 

Gasly has shown signs of being ready to make the jump to Red Bull, while he will also boast a year’s worth of valuable experience driving with Honda power. The Japanese engine manufacturer will supply Red Bull with power units from next season and bringing in a driver who is well versed in all things Honda could strengthen Gasly’s case. 

Red Bull is faced with a tough decision in its bid to have the strongest possible line-up at its disposal while maintaining team harmony, and it will be mindful of the very real prospect of losing two of its star drivers from its stable in the space of a year, given the increasingly sparse pool of up and coming stars.

That brings in its secondary conundrum at Toro Rosso. Red Bull no longer boasts the influx of drivers to call upon from its esteemed young driver programme, which is currently spearheaded by young British star Dan Ticktum. 

Ticktum currently lies second in the European F3 championship at the half-way stage of an impressive season, though even if he was to win the title, he would still fall short of qualifying for a superlicense required to race in F1. 

Red Bull has already had a request to run Ticktum during the second and final in-season test of 2018 in Hungary rejected. Only a rare exception from the FIA would allow Ticktum to fill any vacancy at Toro Rosso. 

Japanese F2 duo Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino are both Honda proteges, but neither driver boast the necessary superlicense points, while an outside bet could be placed on former Red Bull junior Alexander Albon if he secures a top three finish in F2. A curveball alternative could be found in ex-F1-turned-IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi, though it would be rare for Red Bull to look outside of its own programme. 

The difficulty in trying to find a suitable young driver to partner Brendon Hartley might persuade Red Bull to keep Gasly at Toro Rosso for at least one more year. Toro Rosso saw an approach for McLaren protege Lando Norris knocked back earlier this season, but McLaren might be tempted to use the teenager as a sweetener to speed up the arrival of James Key in a part-exchange deal, which might be a solution to Red Bull’s dilemma. 

However, delays over any announcement from Red Bull could actually hinge on the the next steps of Fernando Alonso. Should Alonso opt to leave the team in favour of a full-time switch to IndyCar and a second bite at the Indy 500 cherry - which represents the final stage of his Triple Crown bid - McLaren will want to ensure it keeps Norris. 

McLaren is holding off sorting out its driver line-up until Alonso has made up his mind over his future, but it is highly unlikely to field a young driver pairing. 

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The biggest loser out of the situation could be Esteban Ocon, who missed out on a spot at Renault after Ricciardo dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s with the team. The Mercedes junior’s best option now looks to be his current team Force India, though Lance Stroll could take his place after the Canadian’s father, Lawrence Stroll, led a consortium to rescue Force India from administration in news that emerged on Tuesday evening.

That could potentially allow Ocon to fill Stroll’s seat at Williams, but Mercedes will also be keen to find a space on the grid for its latest protege George Russell should he hold onto his position at the top of the F2 standings come the end of the season. From 2019, Mercedes won’t even have the luxury of being able to place any of its drivers in DTM following its impeding departure from the series. 

Haas and Sauber’s line-ups are likely to take shape once Ferrari has announced who will partner Sebastian Vettel, though it is thought Kevin Magnussen will remain with the US squad following a strong first half to the current campaign, leaving minimal spots left to sort with Mercedes and Renault now both locked out. Should Haas opt to drop Romain Grosjean, Perez and Ocon could be contenders, along with Ferrari youngsters Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi. 

The toughest decision of Ricciardo’s career has left a number of questions marks over how the 2019 F1 driver line-up jigsaw will piece together. Whatever decision Red Bull takes, it is set to have major repercussions up and down the grid.

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