The NFL’s 32 teams start drafting its newest class of superstars on Thursday. What would the F1 grid this year look like if it started with something similar? I’ve taken a little trip to Imaginationland to find out what would happen and I can guarantee, all bets are off.
Three important points before we start:
A draft is not just about picking the best talent. Other factors have to be considered — projected potential, temperament, longevity of career, heck, even whether your pick would want to honour your decision and drive for you would be a huge part of it if this existed in modern F1.
Secondly, a draft doesn’t guarantee you a thing, it only secures you the exclusive rights to discuss a contract with the competitor for a year — the other half of the job is getting a deal over the line. A draft pick might also form part of a wider strategy: picking a star name can give a team leverage to make a trade or swap with a rival, especially if someone isn’t willing to sign a contract after you’ve picked them.
So let’s get started and see what that draft would look like, with picks in reverse order of 2018’s constructors’ championship. Williams, you’re on the clock…
Pick: Max Verstappen
Verstappen is any team boss’ dream and would be a consensus first pick in any F1 draft at this point. The Dutchman has it all — raw speed, thrilling race craft, a fiery but manageable temperament and the benefit of youth. He’s might to floor you with some ridiculous overtaking move one day and irritate you with some stupid statement the next (although he’s clearly matured over the past 12 months), but all told it’s a balancing act worth playing. Verstappen, who turns 22 in September, is the sort of can’t-miss-kid who could well be racing for another two decades. He’s F1’s youngest ever race winner and has already stood on top of the podium five times without being given a car with championship pedigree. What’s not to love?
While Lewis Hamilton has the fame and titles to his name, there are doubts about how long he will stay around, and it is unlikely he would take such a backwards step at this stage of his career. Would Verstappen? Well, despite some quite colourful outbursts over the recent past, Verstappen has the patience and wherewithal to understand that his day — or even his era — will come eventually. In this scenario Max will have to grit his teeth and hope he can drag Williams back up the grid until another team comes calling.
2. Alfa Romeo
Pick: Charles Leclerc
Another no-brainer. Leclerc is hot property at the moment, his reputation elevated by his near-win in Bahrain, but the truth is the hype around him has been building for years. He got his opportunity with Ferrari partner Alfa Romeo last year and it was a great match until he moved up to Ferrari — had they not got Kimi Raikkonen in return, Alfa might have been left kicking itself it only had one year of the Monaco native’s services.
It’s early to say whether Leclerc is mature enough at this stage to win a championship, but as a long-term prospect he is right up there with Verstappen in terms of what you want from a draft pick this early in the first round. In truth we don’t know if there is a fiery side to Leclerc’s character as we have seen in Verstappen, but the Dutchman’s remarkable career to this point is what relegates Leclerc to second pick overall. As I will elaborate on further down, it’s likely Ferrari – Alfa’s engine and technical partner – would have a big say in this decision…
3. Toro Rosso
Pick: Daniel Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo might not be flavour of the month in Red Bull circles at the moment but its hard to see its junior team Toro Rosso picking anyone else here. There’s no such thing as a ‘Toro Rosso contract’ — Red Bull’s drivers are contracted to the company and can be interchanged between the team as such. Red Bull didn’t want to see Ricciardo leave last year and with Verstappen already gone here, who better to lead its senior team than the Australian?
Ricciardo has forged a reputation as the grid’s premier overtaker and all of his wins have come with Red Bull. Given that he started his Renault career with a helmet design carrying the words “Stop being them”, it’s unlikely Ricciardo would be thrilled to be heading back there, but the promise of a competitive car in 2019 or 2020 might just be enough to make him forget about the reasons behind his decision to leave in the first place.
4. Racing Point
Pick: Lance Stroll
Say what!? We’ve had our first reach of the draft, ladies and gentlemen. With Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel still available, and a host of other names you would expect to get the nod, team owner Lawrence Stroll pulls the first shock of the day by deciding to keep it in the family and draft his son Lance with the fourth overall pick.
This makes complete sense when you think about it. The younger Stroll has twice gone where his father’s money has — once when Lawrence became a financial backer of Williams in 2017, the other after his takeover of Force India (now Racing Point) last year. It’s unlikely the Canadian billionaire would run the risk of waiting until the second round and potentially seeing his son driving at another team. Lance has shown glimpses of what he can do — a podium in Baku in 2017, for example, while he’s also shown a knack for some storming race starts — but this is a big, big reach at this stage in the draft.
It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s hope it works out for ’em.
Pick: Lewis Hamilton
Yep, you read that right – this fall Lewis will be taking his talents to…erhm… Surrey, England. It’s not quite Miami’s South Beach, but it would be probably as surprising and earth-shaking as Lebron James’ move there in 2010. That is assuming Hamilton would be willing to play ball and sign a deal.
And let’s be honest, it’s unlikely he would be. Hamilton often remarked at how sad he felt watching Alonso’s career fizzle out at McLaren over the past few seasons and he would understand the team is unlikely to compete at the front again until 2021 at the earliest (and that’s being very optimistic).
The reason I have put this pick here is simple: McLaren is the first team who can financially compensate wasting a year or two of Hamilton’s career, and I can imagine CEO Zak Brown being brave enough to make the selection. As a man who had a big affinity for all things McLaren before he even took over the team he would likely love the romantic notion of a Hamilton comeback story and would no doubt play up the sentimentality factor as much as possible: what better way to round off Hamilton’s legacy than by doing what Alonso could not and returning his former team to championship glory?
Whether Lewis would see the appeal of that is another question entirely. Unless it could trade an unhappy Hamilton to another team (think the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers swapping Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers in 2005; Brown could use Hamilton as trade-bait for the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes), McLaren would likely have to fill this spot with whichever unattached free agents are left at the end of the draft. Fortune doesn’t always favour the brave.
Pick: Kevin Magnussen
I can hear what you’re thinking: what about Sebastian Vettel or Ferrari junior Mick Schumacher? Or what about an American driver for F1’s only American team? Well, the team has repeatedly been asked about two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden and former Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, while there will be rumours of Schumacher joining the team as long as it keeps its close Ferrari partnership. These would all be risky at this stage and don’t really fit with what Haas has proven itself to be about since joining the grid.
Team owner Gene Haas is a thoroughbred racer. He and team boss Guenther Steiner have also professed to going for the best available talent at every opportunity. Kevin Magnussen fits the mould of this team perfectly — he’s very talented, doesn’t care what you think about him and isn’t one to back down from a fight on track — and I would actually rate him, behind Daniel Ricciardo, as the second best driver not currently in one of the best three cars. At 26, Magnussen is young enough and hungry enough to justify coming off the board above some of the names, like Vettel, still left on the board at this stage.
Pick: Esteban Ocon
A Frenchman leading a French team’s resurgence, a match made in heaven. Now, it is true that Renault turned down the chance to pick Ocon for the 2019 season when he found himself on the losing side of a game of musical chairs last year, but that was because the chance of securing Ricciardo’s services was still open. Ocon was also tied to a close partnership with Mercedes and Toto Wolff, meaning a loan deal was the only real option.
Imagining that this draft freed Ocon — or rather, freed Renault — from the Wolff situation there doesn’t seem to be a more logical pick. It would make the Renault board extremely happy, giving it a big hook for a national audience, and it obviously helps that Ocon is rather good as well. The perfect man to lead the project Renault hopes will lead it back to championship glory last year.
8. Red Bull
Pick: Sebastian Vettel
Just imagine this, though… Vettel and Red Bull dominated F1 at the start of the 2010s and neither has been anywhere near as successful since parting company. At this point in the draft Red Bull would be in a tricky situation. There’s some good names available who you could even argue have better long-term value, but Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz and advisor Helmut Marko have always steadfastly believed in the products of their company’s racing programme. I imagine neither man would believe their luck if the four-time world champion was still available this late.
Vettel has a short-shelf life as a long-term commodity — some are suggesting he’s already thinking about walking away from F1 in the near future. But despite that and the long list of recent errors which suggest Vettel is past his prime, a memory of the good times would be enough to get this one over the line, as would the belief the team could return the German back to the brilliance we saw at the beginning of the decade.
Pick: Mick Schumacher
Ferrari and the Schumacher name go together like milk and cereal, but there’s more than just sentimentality behind this pick. Despite there being some bigger names and more ready-made talents available this is more than just about blindly believing the hype and picking a guy on his surname. Schumacher made a highly-publicised debut for Ferrari at the Bahrain tests and it’s unlikely the team would let his name drop into the second round of the draft, everyone at the team is wary of promoting him too fast.
Securing him here would actually be some smart long-term thinking from the Scuderia — they could draft Schumacher, trade with Alfa Romeo and get Leclerc, both ensuring the 2019 sensation is back in a red car and keeping control over the career of its junior startlet without him falling into the hands of Mercedes or another rival outfit. Schumacher might well be a Ferrari driver one day but everyone knows 2019 or 2020 would be way too early for that.
Pick: Fernando Alonso
Boom! Another ‘say what!?’ moment to round off the first round. There are a lot of people in the world who would drop everything to answer a phone call from Toto Wolff — Fernando Alonso is one of them. Wolff flirted with the idea of calling Alonso after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement at the end of 2016 but, given the German driver’s tricky relationship with Lewis Hamilton in the preceding seasons, opted for the safe, unassuming Valtteri Bottas over the problematic Alonso. With Lewis no longer at the team that factor is gone.
Wolff is the ultimate pragmatist but has shown time and time again he will always put the interests of the team ahead of everything else. At this point, who is the better lead driver – Valtteri or Fernando? For all the baggage that might come with him, we all know the answer to that question and so does Wolff (despite his close links to Bottas). This is the only team on this list which would make Alonso even consider an F1 return this early and you can imagine just how wide the Spaniard’s grin would be if it was his name being announced after Wolff handed his piece of paper in at the front of the room.
Pick: Valtteri Bottas
One of the big losers of this whole draft process is the unfortunate Finn. Overlooked by the first nine teams, and then pushed aside by some cunning draft strategizing by Wolff, Bottas finds himself back at the team his career started with at the lowest point in its history. He will hope any proposed Mercedes-McLaren trade around Hamilton falls through and that Wolff suddenly has second thoughts about going all-in on Fernando.
12. Alfa Romeo
Pick: Kimi Raikkonen
The Iceman is staying put, with Alfa content that it has either Leclerc or Mick Schumacher’s services for the year. Raikkonen and Alfa makes sense — he didn’t top any team’s draft board for the first round but he’s still a guy you want to have in your race car. He can continue the Kimaissance at the team formerly known as Sauber, based just down the road from his home in Switzerland where the Finn spends his free time as an increasingly endearing family man with the best Instagram account in F1 today.
13. Toro Rosso
Pick: Jean-Eric Vergne
Red Bull’s bosses have never shied away from giving people a second chance and Jean-Eric Vergne’s championship-winning form in Formula E has made him worthy of one. He was unlucky to be overlooked for the Red Bull seat Ricciardo earned in 2014 and was doubly unlucky to be cast adrift at the end of that year completely when the team had to make room for Max Verstappen.
14. Racing Point
Pick: Sergio Perez
Racing Point becomes the first team to end up with its real-life line-up in this fictional universe. There are some good young talents available but it’s unlikely Lawrence Stroll would want another young driver overshadowing Lance, while Perez is fondly thought of in the team for his string of podiums since joining in 2014 and the role he played in saving the team from the brink of collapse last summer.
Pick: Lando Norris
Having potentially blown his first round draft pick with a wildly optimistic shout for Hamilton, Brown plays it safe in the second round by grabbing the first driver he signed to McLaren’s junior programme. Norris is highly thought of in racing circles and Brown is convinced he’s capable of winning world championships in future.
Pick: Pierre Gasly
With Red Bull opting for Vergne when it could have picked Gasly, Haas steps up to nab the Frenchman at 16. As outlined earlier, Haas always preaches about going for a good blend of youth and experience and Gasly fits that bill perfectly. Newgarden could have been a left-field pick here, but for reasons already explained he would probably be a fair way down a list of potential candidates here.
Pick: Nico Hulkenberg
Hulkenberg drops to 17 and finds himself back at Enstone. Hulkenberg has impressed Renault since he joined the team and at this point it seems to be a straight choice between the German or Carlos Sainz, who drove together at the team last year. Hulkenberg comprehensively out-performed Sainz on that occasion and that would be enough to see him picked here.
18. Red Bull
Pick: Carlos Sainz
Sainz finally gets his Red Bull dream drive. With a thinning list of potential drivers and the desire to always stick to its academy products where possible, Red Bull would turn to the Spaniard here and probably think they’ve got a bit of a steal. Sainz has never had a lucky break in F1 in terms of the driver market but now he finds himself back in the Red Bull programme — whether the team decides to keep him in the senior team or place him back at Toro Rosso would be another question entirely.
Pick: Daniil Kvyat
The torpedo has been painted red, with Ferrari rewarding Kvyat for his service as its simulator driver in 2018 by taking his name off the board with its second pick. Ferrari were genuinely disappointed to see Kvyat go when he returned to Toro Rosso as he played a valuable role in the team’s development throughout the year. What an opportunity for the Russian to show what he’s really made of.
Pick: George Russell
Toto Wolff manages to snag his junior starlet at the bottom of the draft after seeing him fall — unfairly — to the final pick. If you look at the choices the teams above has made there is an argument for each to pick who they did over Russell, however talented the reigning Formula 2 champion might be. It’s unlikely Russell will be kicking himself too much at falling this low, however, as it would mean he would be staring at a rookie season challenging for podiums and victories rather than 19th or 20th every weekend.
So your 2019 line-ups in full (before potential trades etc are considered…)
Mercedes: Fernando Alonso, George Russell
Ferrari: Mick Schumacher, Daniil Kvyat
Red Bull/Toro Rosso: Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel, Jean-Eric Vergne, Carlos Sainz
Renault: Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg
Haas: Kevin Magnussen, Pierre Gasly
McLaren: Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris
Racing Point: Lance Stroll, Racing Point
Alfa Romeo: Charles Leclerc, Kimi Raikkonen
Williams: Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas
Free agents: With the picks for Alonso and Vergne, Romain Grosjean and Alexander Albon are the unfortunate two to miss out. That’s incredibly harsh on Albon, in all honesty, as he has already proved his talent so far this season, but that’s just the way the chips fell in the two rounds of drafting. Grosjean will also feel hard done by, but it’s hard to see any of the teams above picking him over the selection they made in the tail-end of the draft.