Sunday, 12 august 2018, 07:33 , by Rob Watts
Daniel Ricciardo's impending move to Renault has had a major knock-on effect up and down the pitlane, and it could yet prove to be bad news for McLaren's Stoffel Vandoorne. Rob Watts analyses the Belgian's increasingly diminishing hopes of keeping his seat.
It's fair to say Vandoorne has struggled this season alongside Fernando Alonso, and he remains the only driver on the grid to have been out-qualified by his teammate at every race.
Now with Ricciardo's future decided, Vandoorne's current spot on the resulting driver merry-go-round looks a perilous one.
As soon as Pierre Gasly's expected Red Bull promotion is confirmed, Carlos Sainz will become a free agent and he is expected to turn down a return to the Toro Rosso team which gave him his debut in 2015.
McLaren boss Zak Brown is an admirer of Sainz's talents and said as recently as the Hungarian Grand Prix that the Spaniard would be "high up on the list" for a race seat in 2019, whereas Sainz has made no secret of his respect for Alonso, his childhood hero growing up in Spain.
Should Alonso decide to extend his F1 career for another season, an all-Spanish driver line-up will be a tempting option for Brown, who as a marketing man, will see the obvious commercial potential of pairing Sainz with the enigmatic two-time champion.
But where does this leave Vandoorne?
The harsh reality for the Belgian is that his future appears now to be out of his hands, regardless of what Alonso does.
Sainz is quicker and arguably holds more commercial value given the weight his surname carries in motorsport.
Lando Norris, McLaren's other option, has enormous potential and has already attracted the attention of several other teams on the grid.
Vandoorne's stock has fallen since his arrival in F1, and taking bad luck out of the equation, he simply hasn't done enough to be certain of his long-term place in the team.
In 31 races as Alonso's teammate, Vandoorne has been out-qualified 28 times and has been knocked out in Q1 on 13 occasions. Alonso has progressed into Q2 in all but two of those races.
Vandoorne's record in grands prix isn't much better.
When he and Alonso have both seen the chequered flag, Vandoorne has finished as the lead McLaren driver just once - the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix.
Prior to entering F1, Vandoorne's junior record was exemplary and his GP2 title-winning season was one of the most dominant in recent history.
So why has he been unable to carry that form through to F1?
One argument could be made for saying that Vandoorne has struggled to adapt to his driving style to cope with the lack of rear-end stability that has previously been a weakness of McLaren's car, whereas Alonso has been able to drive around it.
A wind tunnel correlation issue has seen forced the team to experiment during free practice sessions, hindering Vandoorne, who right now requires a trouble-free weekend in order to build consistency and confidence in the car.
A direct comparison with Alonso may seem unfair given the Spaniard's experience, but F1 is no finishing school and even team boss Brown says he "would like to see [Vandoorne] beat Fernando more often".
The summer break has come at a good time for Vandoorne, and with his home race in Spa up next, it offers the perfect opportunity for him to bounce back and show Brown and McLaren why they invested in him in the first place.
But with the driver market well and truly open, and Alonso expected to reveal his plans shortly, Vandoorne may not have more than a couple of races to prove he can turn things around - indeed rumours are already circulating that Lance Stroll making a switch to Force India could topple enough dominos to cost Vandoorne his seat before Spa.
Brown admits that due to McLaren's current situation, "having two young drivers in our car wouldn't be a great place to be", so a Vandoorne/Norris line-up seems unlikely if Alonso does decide to call it quits.
With four full seasons under his belt, Sainz has enough experience to deal with the pressure of life at McLaren and would appear to tick a lot of boxes for Brown.
Should Vandoorne find himself surplus to requirements, it's unlikely his F1 career will come to a sudden and abrupt end.
While his time at McLaren may not have lived up to expectations, Vandoorne remains a driver with untapped potential and could yet thrive in a different environment.
Vandoorne's former GP2 boss Fred Vasseur is one who could yet offer the Belgian a lifeline at Sauber.
Vasseur previously tried to sign him during his time at Renault and is known to be an admirer of Vandoorne's abilities.
Whatever happens, the next races could be crucial for Vandoorne if he is to avoid becoming a casualty of one of the most open driver markets F1 has seen in years.