Sebastien Buemi is shaping up as the leading candidate to race for Toro Rosso in next weekend’s United States Grand Prix as the Formula 1 team searches for a driver to replace Pierre Gasly.
Toro Rosso announced last week that Gasly would be joined by the returning Daniil Kvyat for the remaining four races of the season following Carlos Sainz Jr.’s early move to Renault.
Gasly made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso in Malaysia after Daniil Kvyat was dropped due to poor form, but uncertainty quickly arose surrounding his participation at the Circuit of The Americas due to the clash with the Super Formula finale at Suzuka on October 22, where the Frenchman is Honda’s sole title contender.
Red Bull team advisor Helmut Marko said last weekend the announcement was a “mistake”, with reports from multiple outlets emerging on Thursday claiming that Gasly would not be featuring in Austin.
Toro Rosso is short on options for a replacement given FIA Super Licence requirements, leading to Toyota LMP1 and Renault Formula E driver Buemi entering the mix.
Buemi raced in F1 for Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011 before being dropped to make way for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, prompting the Swiss driver to link up with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Buemi won the WEC title in 2014 and became Formula E champion in 2016 with Renault, giving him more than triple the required 40 Super Licence points to race in F1.
Despite losing his Toro Rosso seat at the end of 2011, Buemi retained his links to Red Bull, and recently completed running in its 2017-spec F1 car in a Pirelli tire test.
Asked directly at Suzuka if Buemi could return, Marko remained coy, saying: “With Red Bull, anything is possible.”
Besides Buemi, Toro Rosso is short on options for drivers to replace Gasly, with no other racers inside the Red Bull family meeting the required Super Licence criteria to step in.
Porsche WEC racer Brendon Hartley was linked to the seat by multiple sources to NBC Sports, with the New Zealander still boasting ties to Red Bull despite being dropped from its junior program at the end of 2010.
Hartley has raced with Porsche since 2014 and claimed the WEC drivers’ championship in 2015 to give him the 40 points required for a Super Licence.
However, Hartley does not fulfill the Super Licence criteria as he has not completed 300 km in an F1 car from the past four seasons, with his last F1 test coming back in 2012 with Mercedes.
Hartley’s travel schedule also is problematic. He won last weekend in Atlanta at Motul Petit Le Mans in a Nissan Onroak DPi on Saturday, and would then have needed to travel shortly thereafter to the WEC event in Fuji this weekend.
So unless a narrow window appears to complete a private test to rack up the required mileage between now and the start of on-track running at COTA, he is not an option.
Red Bull has not hired a driver from outside of its own umbrella since signing four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais to Toro Rosso back in 2008, making a change in approach now seem unlikely.
However, the team may have no choice but to if it is keen on finding a driver to evaluate for a 2018 F1 seat, potentially to partner Gasly and replace the struggling Kvyat.
The 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi is a favorite son of Honda, who will become Toro Rosso’s F1 engine supplier next year, and would be a popular fan option for the U.S. race, as he was in 2015 when he last competed with Manor. However, the American is currently out of the country, believed to be filming TV show The Amazing Race.
Another Honda-linked driver is Formula 2’s Nobuharu Matsushita, but the Japanese youngster falls way short of having the required Super Licence points to be a viable option.
As noted in a report by Auto Motor und Sport, Renault youngster Sergey Sirotkin could be a candidate as he has the required Super Licence points and could offer financial backing from the Russian SMP Racing program.
Renault has already confirmed Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. for 2018, cutting off Sirotkin’s most obvious route into F1, but Toro Rosso could yet become an alternative were deal to be struck.
Regardless of who steps in for the Austin F1 race, Toro Rosso will be unable to use any additional drivers this year due to the FIA-imposed limit of four per season.
Buemi has no clashes between now and the end of the F1 season, with upcoming WEC races in Shanghai and Bahrain falling between the grands prix in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
Gasly is set to return following his appearance in the Super Formula finale for the final three races of the season as he makes a case for a full-time drive with Toro Rosso in 2018.
As per the previously cited report from Auto Motor und Sport, a decision will be taken by Red Bull and Toro Rosso on Tuesday.