Belgian Grand Prix: Thursday Drivers’ Press Conference

Highlights from Thursday’s driver press conference ahead of the 13th round of the 2018 Formula One season at the infamous Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The trio of drivers in the spotlight during today’s press conference include Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso), Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull), Fernando Alonso (McLaren) and Carlos Sainz Jr. (Renault). The media were keen to find out more about their decisions for 2019 as all four drivers will be racing elsewhere next year.

Future Calling

All four drivers were asked to comment on the new challenges they face racing elsewhere in 2019, starting with the incumbent Fernando Alonso:

“Well, it was a decision that probably I started thinking about last year, probably, and then this year, in 2018, there were a lot of changes into the team, with the engine manufacturer changes and things like that, so I thought it was worth staying one more year.

“I enjoy driving these cars, with the new regulations, with the big tyres, the big downforce, I was having fun and I think this year it was some kind of joy to keep racing and to have another go. But at the same time I made some changes and some priorities into this year, with the Super Season and the WEC championship and other things also, towards this direction and yeah, this year, a couple of months ago I decided that it was the right time, because I feel strong, I feel I’m driving at a good level and I want to say bye-bye to this sport when I feel strong, not when I feel not competitive or I don’t have any place to go and then you say bye-bye.

“I prefer to take my own decision and find new challenges that maybe Formula 1 cannot offer me at the moment.”

Daniel Ricciardo has already announced that he will join Nico Hülkenberg at Renault next season. He was asked about the new challenge such a move presents and how he came to make the decision to move teams:

“It was a long thought process, for sure. I guess I’ve been kind of bombarded with the question already at the end of last year. When Max announced his extension with the team then it kind of turned a bit of spotlight onto me. I obviously took my time with it. By no means an easy decision at all.

“I guess I got to a point where I felt I was ready for a change. I guess that was the long and short of it. I’m ready for a new challenge and I think just for me personally just some fresh motivation.”

Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. is set for a move to McLaren in 2019 as Alonso’s replacement. The Spaniard was asked about whether a move to Red Bull Racing had been on the cards following Ricciardo’s decision:

“As soon as Daniel was announced in Renault, there was obviously a period of time where I didn’t know where I was going to go. I had been preparing my options and McLaren has been one of them for a long time now. I have been in touch with the McLaren management for a year or two now. Because of that I was very calm about the situation. I just had to wait to see what happened and take my own decision.

“In the end it turned out to be good. I’m about to leave the Red Bull family in a good way. I owe pretty much my Formula 1 career to them. Thanks to them at the moment I am going to McLaren, because they put me into Formula 1 and I have been able to do a career thanks to them. I think I am opening a new chapter next year; my first two-year deal with the team and I just cannot wait.”

On Monday, Red Bull Racing officially confirmed that Pierre Gasly would be joining the team next season to race alongside Max Verstappen. Gasly expressed his amazement at his promotion to the team, especially after he was not even racing in Formula 1 twelve months ago.

“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing how quick things go in Formula 1, so for sure super excited about this new challenge. Yeah, pretty much I was surprised, like everyone, when I heard the news about Daniel. I had Helmut on the phone, who told me that they would take their time to make the decision. Difficult to disconnect when you know there is a seat available in Red Bull but I just tried to enjoy my break.

“I was just waiting for a phone call just to know if I will stay with Toro Rosso or jump into the Red Bull seat and Helmut called me to tell me that they made the decision and they want me to race for the team from 2019 onwards. Just super excited about it and it’s a massive step in my career and now I need to stay focused on the coming races.”

Grabbing Renault By The Horns

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Ricciardo’s decision to move to Renault was the major talking point of Thursday’s press conference. © Manuel Goria/Sutton Images

Daniel Ricciardo‘s announcement that he would move to Renault for the 2019 F1 season was the dominant talking point at the press conference. Questions ranged from whether Red Bull’s use of Honda engines next season or Max Verstappen were the cause of his decision, what the reaction of his team was and what challenges a fresh, new environment brought.

Speaking about Honda: “There are a lot of unknowns with everything. Obviously even the move where I am going to be next year. There is still a certain amount of risk or unknowns. Nothing was really that clear cut. Sure, Honda still really need to prove themselves at the front. But honestly there wasn’t really one key factor other than really myself and wanting to have a change of scenery I guess.”

Speaking about Max Verstappen: “No, is the short answer. I think externally around media and maybe some fans’ perspective as well that might be seen as the case, but honestly, internally, yeah in Baku and that we had an incident and a couple of on-track things, more round ourselves, but as far as equality went within the team, as I said, probably from the outside sometimes people thought that, but honestly hand on heart there was never any concern with that or any sign of that.”

Speaking about the reaction from Helmut Marko: “It was all tight with deadlines. It’s not something I knew for weeks or months. It was all pretty much… when it got announced right before the break… obviously Renault was part of my considerations for some time; they didn’t come out of nowhere at the last hour, but yeah, I was really torn, obviously, with what to do and that process took time.

“When speaking to Helmut he was understanding, I think, in many ways of course. He’s known me for ten years and I think he’d sensed at times some frustration or maybe something changing in me, so I don’t think it completely surprised him, but sure, he was a little bit disappointed that I was moving on. From my side, of course, it makes me sad to move on but it was nice to know that I was wanted there and they wanted to keep me—but it was all very calm and respectful. So it was all I could ask for.”

Speaking about falling into a routine at Red Bull: “We don’t have a nine-to-five job and we’re not going to the same office everyday. But I guess many years of more or less going to the same factory or whatever, that kind of routine, I felt like at time my enjoyment of the sport was becoming a little bit, I don’t know, dulled down, a bit numb at times, and I just thought part of the routine was causing that.

Early Retirement?

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Countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. answering the media’s questions. © Manuel Goria/Sutton Images

Fernando Alonso‘s decision to step away from Formula 1 in 2019 also was a key talking point during Thursday’s press conference. The media was keen to find out whether the Spaniard’s decision was permanent, whether he have stayed with a competitive car and comments he made about the predictability of Formula 1.

Speaking about permanent retirement: “Right now, I’m thinking it’s a goodbye. But, you know, life changes very quickly. Life has also taught me in the past how things may change, in a couple of months’ time or in a years’ time. As I said in the press release, when we announced the retirement, it’s to leave the door open, because I don’t have the crystal ball to know what is going to happen in the future. As I said, for me it’s a bye-bye, but who knows in the future.”

Speaking about whether he have stayed with a competitive car: “I did not stay because, as I said also last week, winning now, there are probably only two teams which they can win. They continue with their drivers for the following years. And the Formula One we are seeing now maybe is not the Formula One I dream of when I was a kid, or when I joined in 2001. That’s a bigger reason. As Daniel said before, when you come to the same place for many years and you repeat the same thing, see the same people, there is one day that maybe you don’t get so emotional about the challenges. That’s the reason why.”

Speaking about the predictability of Formula 1: “Formula One has always been a sport that dominates with one team or two teams and the package is way more important—but yeah, there have been different seasons and different years where we had a little bit more freedom of strategy, of choices, or tyres.

“Even if one team was clearly dominant that season and World Champion at whatever part of the year, there have always been some races with heat, with cold, with wet, with Inters, it provides some action. Same with strategy. In 2004 I think I won zero grand prix but I was in a couple of pole positions, or podiums of whatever because we chose to run light fuel on Saturday, so a gamble for the race. There has been always a little bit of action. Maybe now it’s not the same. It’s nothing to compare.

“All my comments are not to compare those seasons against these years recently, or other series compared to this series because normally my words have been taken to compare different series, or different seasons and say that I’m wrong. Probably I’m wrong. It’s my decision and I’m happy with that.”

Young Bull, Old Bull

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Carlos Sainz Jr. answered questions over whether a move to Red Bull had been on the cards. © Manuel Goria/Sutton Images

Following the announcement that Pierre Gasly would be taking Ricciardo’s place, Carlos Sainz Jr. was asked about what his chances of moving to Red Bull were:

“I think it’s impossible to be disappointed to be leaving a team to go to McLaren. It’s one of the dreams I had as a kid and to be joining McLaren in the future, it’s impossible to be unhappy. Yes, I’ve been part of the Red Bull family for a very long time and I always said that Red Bull was one of my main objectives but as a racing driver, the McLaren family pushes you a lot to that and it is impossible to be disappointed with that and I think that pretty much covers it.”

And Pierre Gasly in relation to joining Max Verstappen at Red Bull and filling Daniel Ricciardo’s shoes:

“I think it’s pretty exciting. I think Max is one of the best drivers on the grid at the moment. Of course I am only in my first season in Formula 1 and I’m still taking experience, but I think there is a great opportunity ahead of me. I have a really good relationship with Max. I know him a really long time; we raced together in karting.

“I think as a team we have the potential to do great things together and yeah, I’ve worked with the team for a couple of years now. For sure, I will have things to learn in the first few races and the first months, because I’m still quite new in Formula 1. But my long-term target is to be the best in the sport and if I want to be the best I will have to fight against the best. I think Max is one of the best drivers on the grid at the moment, so I take it as an amazing opportunity to drive next to him.”

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Pierre Gasly sat next to the man he is to replace at Red Bull in 2019 during the press conference. © Manuel Goria/Sutton Images

Practice for the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix gets underway tomorrow.

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