Alonso confirmed on Tuesday that he will leave the sport when his current contract expires after rejecting McLaren’s offer of a renewal, a decision that the team were prepared for due to “open dialogue” between the two-time world champion and chief executive Zak Brown.
It leaves an enticing space on the grid for 2019, and despite Sainz having a recall clause in his contract with Red Bull, he looks set to take the place of his compatriot in what will be his second team switch in little more than a year.
The clause in Sainz’s contract only allows him to be brought into the senior Red Bull team, not the Toro Rosso outfit that he left last October midway through the season in order to join Renault ‘on loan’.
Renault have already announced that Daniel Ricciardo will partner Nico Hulkenberg next season, putting Sainz out of a seat. With Red Bull understood to be favouring young Frenchman Pierre Gasly to replace Ricciardo and join Max Verstappen next year, The Independent understands that Sainz is set to join McLaren as their experienced driver for 2019 in what will be his fifth year in F1.
An announcement is expected to be made by McLaren confirming Sainz before the resumption of the season at Spa in two weeks’ time. But the team remain undecided on who will partner Sainz, having been forced to alter their plans for next year after Alonso’s decision.
Had the two-time world champion stayed for another year, McLaren were expected to partner him with Sainz and replace Stoffel Vandoorne, whose two underwhelming years in the sport so far have seen him finish in a high of seventh place (twice in 2017) and regularly outperformed by Alonso. But with Alonso departing, Vandoorne looks set for a stay of execution and one last chance to prove himself.
McLaren test driver Lando Norris would be the alternative, but a plan is already in place for the British driver to remain in Formula Two next season and up his testing commitments with regular drives during Friday practice – likely at the expense of Vandoorne.
A decision on the second McLaren seat is not currently a priority for McLaren, given that 18-year-old Norris is currently 12 points behind F2 series leader George Russell and could yet follow in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton by winning the championship and graduating straight into the F1 line-up.
Vandoorne is also a past F2 champion, but he has been unable to repeat that success in the premier class and his struggles this season leave his future in the sport on thin ice.
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