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The top 20 motorsport signings in 2019

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The top 20 motorsport signings in 2019
By:
Co-author: Jamie Klein
Dec 30, 2019, 12:00 PM

In the first half of a two-part end-of-year feature, Motorsport.com counts down the 20 signings made by racing teams that had the biggest impact in 2019.

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List

20. WRC: Sebastien Ogier to Citroen

20. WRC: Sebastien Ogier to Citroen
1/20

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Neither Ogier nor Citroen are sticking around for the second year of their two-year agreement, so objectively it really should go down as a failure. At the same time, the stats readout will be kind to the Frenchman’s 2019 detour – though his championship streak was snapped, he bagged three wins and became the first Citroen driver to place in the top three in the standings since Loeb’s exit as a WRC full-timer in 2012.

Predecessor: No driver completed the full season for Citroen in 2018, with Craig Breen sidelined for two races and Kris Meeke dropped after a crash in favour of Mads Ostberg. All three scored podiums, but only Loeb won in the C3 WRC, as part of a limited schedule.

Risk factor: If you can sign Ogier, you get it done. The alliance ended on a very sour note – with Ogier citing a lack of development as the reason for a premature exit and Citroen controversially pointing to his departure as the official cause for axing its programme – but it’s hard to fault the initial ambition.

19. F1: Daniel Ricciardo to Renault

19. F1: Daniel Ricciardo to Renault
2/20

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

A statement signing for Renault, Ricciardo largely had the upper hand over Nico Hulkenberg in what was a prestige F1 line-up.

It was almost certainly too prestige for where the RS19 was in the pecking order, but Ricciardo’s points haul was integral to keeping Renault clear of Toro Rosso and Racing Point and preventing the campaign from going down as a complete disaster.

Predecessor: Carlos Sainz performed more or less in line with expectations as he ran Nico Hulkenberg close and contributed his fair share of points. He was deeply unlucky to lose his ride as his Red Bull ties proved an inconvenience, and then demonstrated his worth at McLaren this year.

Risk factor: The risk in question was financial, rather than sporting, with ex-advisor Glenn Beavis’ now-settled legal claim suggesting Riccairdo’s salary at Renault is upwards of £20m per year. Ricciardo is top-drawer – but to get a return on such an investment Renault badly needs a better car.

18. IMSA: Pipo Derani to Action Express Racing

18. IMSA: Pipo Derani to Action Express Racing
3/20

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Derani had already established himself of the rising stars of the American sportscar racing scene when he was selected to partner Felipe Nasr in AXR’s #31 Cadillac this year.

The title may have eluded the Brazilian duo, but they came away with victories in the Sebring 12 Hours (Derani’s third success in the Florida classic) and Petit Le Mans, ending up second in the points despite the superiority of the Acura and the Mazda over the Caddy for the majority of the season.

Predecessor: Eric Curran. The American won the Prototype crown alongside Nasr in 2018 but stepped down to an endurance-only role this season, which was a precursor to standing down from driving duties altogether ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Risk factor: Despite his past successes at Daytona and Sebring, Derani had only one full season in IMSA under his belt when he got the nod to join Nasr at AXR. But the Brazilian certainly didn’t let that relative lack of experience show, while also making the transition from the now defunct ESM squad’s Nissan DPi to Cadillac machinery look effortless.

17. NASCAR Cup: Kurt Busch to Chip Ganassi Racing

17. NASCAR Cup: Kurt Busch to Chip Ganassi Racing
4/20

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

Joining Chip Ganassi Racing after five years at Stewart-Haas, 2004 series champion Busch gave the #1 car its first win since 2013 by seeing off brother Kyle during a late restart in Kentucky. Even before that win locked him in, he was well on course to make the play-offs.

His title challenge went no further than the opening round of said play-offs, but a win and 18 top-10s represented an overall healthy return that more than justified the subsequent multi-year extension,

Predecessor: Jamie McMurray had made the play-offs in 2017 but missed them the following year, and could have few gripes about Ganassi’s subsequent decision after ending the season 20th in the standings.

Risk factor: For someone who’s had a fair share of off-track controversies, Busch has been an extremely reliable pair of hands at SHR, even if he was largely in Kevin Harvick’s shadow. In signing him Ganassi was picking up a virtually nailed-on guarantee of a play-off berth.

16. WTCR: Johan Kristoffersson to Sebastien Loeb Racing

16. WTCR: Johan Kristoffersson to Sebastien Loeb Racing
5/20

Photo by: WTCR

Two-time World Rallycross champion Kristoffersson scored only nine points in the first three rounds as Volkswagen’s WTCR squads racked their collective brains over the TCR common ECU. But the floodgates opened at Zandvoort, and from that point on he outscored everyone but Yvan Muller over the 21 remaining races.

That run included Kristofersson picking up three of Volkswagen’s four wins, among them a spectacular triumph from 22nd on the grid in the season finale.

Predecessor: Sebastien Loeb Racing ran just two cars in its first season with Volkswagen in 2018, fielding Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani. Both returned as part of an expanded line-up in what proved the final season for VW’s works involvement in the category.

Risk factor: Though his main claim to fame are the World Rallycross titles, Kristoffersson had proven himself to be absurdly versatile long before 2019, becoming champion in STCC, the Italy-based Superstars Series and Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia. His record made WTCR success a sure thing.

15. Formula E: Pascal Wehrlein to Mahindra

15. Formula E: Pascal Wehrlein to Mahindra
6/20

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Having skipped the season opener due to contractual obligations with Mercedes/HWA, Wehrlein looked immediately at home in the all-electric series, and mounted serious challenges for victory in both Santiago and Mexico City.

But Mahindra's campaign tailed off from there, and a mid-season chance at glory went begging at Paris when Wehrlein was stripped of pole position due to a technical infringement.

Predecessor: Felix Rosenqvist was a Formula E standout in his two seasons as part of the Indian outfit, and was a bigger factor in the two respective title races than his final points tallies ultimately suggested.

Risk factor: Rosenqvist was lured away to IndyCar, but by picking up Wehrlein - an ex-F1 driver, a DTM champion and an evenly-matched former teammate of Rosenqvist in F3 back in the day - Mahindra maximised its chances of continued success.

14. WEC/ELMS: Nicolas Lapierre to Cool Racing

14. WEC/ELMS: Nicolas Lapierre to Cool Racing
7/20

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Almost single-handedly responsible for putting Cool Racing on the sportscar racing map, Lapierre was instrumental in the Swiss team scoring a pole position and two podiums in its first season of LMP2 competition in the European Le Mans Series after two anonymous years in the LMP3 ranks.

Then, in the squad’s first-ever race in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the 35-year-old carried his inexperienced teammate Antonin Borga to what can only be described as a fairytale class victory at Silverstone.

Predecessor: Two-time Le Mans 24 Hours starter Iradj Alexander, who stepped back from driving duties and into a sporting director role for 2019.

Risk factor: Pretty much nil. Ever since being jettisoned from the Toyota LMP1 line-up in 2014, Lapierre has re-invented himself as the benchmark LMP2 driver, with an incredible 100 percent record of four Le Mans victories in the class since 2015 (albeit one of these coming thanks to G-Drive Racing’s disqualification). Signing the Frenchman was pretty much about as risk-free a decision as Cool Racing could have hoped to make.

13. IndyCar: Felix Rosenqvist to Chip Ganassi Racing

13. IndyCar: Felix Rosenqvist to Chip Ganassi Racing
8/20

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Famed for his versatility after having successfully raced in all sorts of categories, Rosenqvist said he had to "calm down" and temper his expectations during his debut IndyCar campaign following a slightly rough patch mid-season.

Though he still needs to click with ovals, his road course form - yielding a pole position and a pair of runner-up finishes - was enough to beat Colton Herta to Rookie of the Year honours, and left little doubt that he can be a factor in future IndyCar title races.

Predecessor: Ed Jones likewise picked up two podium finishes in his sole campaign with Ganassi, but was not often enough near the front to hang on to one of the series' most coveted rides.

Risk factor: Ganassi was clearly sweet on Rosenqvist, as a consequence of both his 2016 Indy Lights campaign and some reportedly stellar IndyCar test outings. Ovals were always going to be a hurdle, and one that's yet to be demonstrably overcome, but in every other aspect his signing looked a no-brainer.

12. Formula E: Oliver Rowland to Nissan e.dams

12. Formula E: Oliver Rowland to Nissan e.dams
9/20

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Though he ended his rookie Formula E campaign a deceptive eight championship places adrift of squadmate Sebastien Buemi, for much of the season it was Rowland who looked to be the reference Nissan driver, showing undeniable pace as he matched Buemi’s three pole positions.

Predecessor: Nico Prost was reasonably successful in his first three seasons with e.dams, but his form cratered with a meagre eight points in 2017-18, and he was not retained as the team transitioned from a Renault works operation to a Nissan one.

Risk factor: Rowland’s one-off FE appearance with Mahindra back in 2015 didn’t exactly convince doubters, yet there was no questioning the Briton’s record in junior single-seater championships. Nissan does deserve credit for managing to minimise damage from losing Alex Albon – who originally had been signed to take Prost’s seat – to Red Bull at late notice.

11. Formula E: Robin Frijns to Virgin Racing

11. Formula E: Robin Frijns to Virgin Racing
10/20

Photo by: Dan Bathie / Motorsport Images

Making a welcome return to the Formula E fold after his exit from Andretti, Frijns led the 2018/19 standings with five races to go but ultimately came up 30 points short of the title after a run of four non-scores.

Despite this, he still outscored Virgin's perennial team leader Sam Bird and brought home two of the team's three wins.

Predecessor: Former GP3 champion Alex Lynn's harrowing 126-point deficit to Bird proved difficult to ignore, although he was less experienced and dogged by considerably more reliability issues.

Risk factor:  Frijns should have never ended up out of a Formula E drive, and though Lynn will have felt hard done by, Virgin looked justified in taking the rational step of assembling one of the grid's strongest driver line-ups for 2018/19.

10. F1: Alexander Albon to Toro Rosso/Red Bull

10. F1: Alexander Albon to Toro Rosso/Red Bull
11/20

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Strong showings against Daniil Kvyat in the first half of the season at Toro Rosso had made it clear Red Bull had re-unearthed a gem of a driver. Admittedly, following the mid-season swap he wasn’t that much closer to Max Verstappen at Red Bull than Pierre Gasly had been, but he seemed a lot more forceful and composed in race trim, which translated into regular points.

Predecessor: Albon had been signed to replace Brendon Hartley, who himself had been brought in for a second chance with Red Bull. Hartley was occasionally a match for Gasly at Toro Rosso, but just couldn’t quite put the weekends together the same way as the Frenchman, which was reflected in their very different final points tallies.

Risk factor: Red Bull clearly likes to roll the dice, but it just keeps working out. Albon’s post-karting junior record didn’t scream F1, but he looked like he belonged right away – and while the mid-season swap could’ve hurt both him and Gasly, it seemed to come as a boost to both drivers instead.

9: F1: Lando Norris to McLaren

9: F1: Lando Norris to McLaren
12/20

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

The McLaren high points mostly came from Carlos Sainz, but Norris held up his end of the bargain in helping the team coast to fourth place in the constructors’ table. He would’ve run Sainz closer if not for some bad breaks, and was very much a match for the more experienced Spaniard over one lap.

Predecessor: McLaren’s previous prodigy Stoffel Vandoorne impressed everyone by finishing 10th as Fernando Alonso’s stand-in in Bahrain three years ago, but never reached similar heights in his full-time stint with the Woking-based team, and was let go after getting thrashed by Alonso last year.

Risk factor: Norris has repeatedly admitted he had doubts about how well he’d go in F1, but considering his junior record and how well he acquitted himself in free practice outings with McLaren last year, there was never going to be a great reason not to give him a shot. Hindsight has only made that clearer.

8. World Superbike: Alvaro Bautista to Ducati

8. World Superbike: Alvaro Bautista to Ducati
13/20

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

A MotoGP-level talent with no MotoGP ride, Bautista partnered up with Ducati in World Superbikes and had Kawasaki’s Jonathan Rea on the ropes after winning his first 11 races.

Rea’s superhuman resilience meant Bautista’s title challenge could not survive a run of mid-season crashes, but he still easily posed the biggest threat the all-time WSBK benchmark had faced in a while.

Predecessor: Marco Melandri added to Ducati’s trophy cabinet during his two years in the team and was a perfectly acceptable back-up to Chaz Davies.

Risk factor: Bautista’s arrival was widely seen as a coup for Ducati and WSBK even before he won 11 races on the trot. Letting him slip away for 2020 is the bigger risk here.

7. Super Formula: Nick Cassidy to TOM'S

7. Super Formula: Nick Cassidy to TOM'S
14/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

After narrowly missing out on Super Formula title glory last year, Cassidy got his revenge on Naoki Yamamoto this year, adding a maiden crown in the premier Japanese single-seater series to his SUPER GT success of 2017.

Both Cassidy and Yamamoto switched teams over the off-season, but it was the New Zealander who really justified the faith shown in him by TOM’S as he put teammate Kazuki Nakajima to shame and delivered the squad its first championship in five years.

Predecessor: James Rossiter, who by his own admission endured a “shocking” 2018 season at TOM’S that yielded not even a single point. The Briton switched back to SUPER GT for 2019 after being snapped up by Nissan.

Risk factor: The transition from the family atmosphere of Kondo Racing to Toyota’s flagship outfit might have tripped up some drivers, but Cassidy had the advantage of already having worked with TOM’S since 2015 in All-Japan Formula 3 and SUPER GT, so the risk was pretty minimal.

6. IndyCar: Colton Herta to Harding Steinbrenner Racing

6. IndyCar: Colton Herta to Harding Steinbrenner Racing
15/20

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

It’s debatable how much much of a ‘new signing’ Colton Herta was for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in 2019, considering he previously raced for Steinbrenner and the team’s technical partner Andretti in Indy Lights. But as a series rookie this year he probably just about qualifies, and he made one heck of a first impression.

A winner in his third start and again in the season finale, a regular presence in the Fast Six, and ahead of all of the Andretti drivers but Alexander Rossi in the standings (beating Ryan Hunter-Reay on countback), Herta looks destined to be a key IndyCar player for years to come.

Predecessor: With no Andretti alliance to speak of at that point, Harding fielded a Chevrolet-powered entry for Gabby Chaves, who would finish no higher than 13th during his stint.

Risk factor: Herta’s presence was a prerequisite for the Andretti link-up, so it was arguably Andretti rather than Harding that was taking the risk. But then again, Herta looked a safe bet long before his maiden win in COTA.

5. Super Formula: Alex Palou to Nakajima Racing

5. Super Formula: Alex Palou to Nakajima Racing
16/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

In many respects, the perennially underrated Palou was the standout driver of Super Formula in 2019, scoring three pole positions and a crushing win at Fuji in his first season, and with a team that had become accustomed to its role as little more than a grid-filler.

Without the loose intercooler pipe that wrecked his race in the Suzuka finale, it’s more than possible that the new Dale Coyne Racing IndyCar recruit would have emerged as the first rookie champion since Ralf Schumacher back in 1996.

Predecessor: Palou effectively succeeded Narain Karthikeyan as the ‘gaijin’ in Nakajima Racing’s Super Formula stable. The Indian ex-Formula 1 racer mustered just a sole points finish in 2018 (still an improvement on zero the previous year) before switching over to the team’s SUPER GT stable for 2019.

Risk factor: Given Palou was a rookie with a somewhat patchy record in Europe, the Spaniard has to be regarded as a slightly risky choice despite his impressive showings in testing. Only 22, perhaps his age could have also been a cause for concern, although a season racing in Formula 3 with ThreeBond in 2017 at least meant that he wasn’t totally new to the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese racing scene.

4. NASCAR Cup: Martin Truex Jr to Joe Gibbs Racing

4. NASCAR Cup: Martin Truex Jr to Joe Gibbs Racing
17/20

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

The breakthrough driver of the past half-decade in NASCAR, Truex was never going to end up without suitors after Furniture Row closed down. His first season with Gibbs yielded seven wins, and he just missed out on adding a second title.

Predecessor: Former Xfinity champ Daniel Suarez finished 21st in his second season as a Gibbs Cup driver in 2018. The Mexican had his moments as part of JGR’s set-up, but was never going to keep the ride at Truex’s expense.

Risk factor: Furniture Row and Gibbs were in a technical alliance, so the latter knew full well what it was getting in Truex, especially as it also added his (now-retired) crew chief Cole Pearn.

3. F1: Charles Leclerc to Ferrari

3. F1: Charles Leclerc to Ferrari
18/20

Photo by: Gareth Harford

Promoted from the Alfa Romeo Sauber team to replace Kimi Raikkonen, Leclerc bagged an outrageous seven poles, scored two of Ferrari’s three wins and convinced Ferrari to lock in his spot at the squad for the next five seasons.

His alliance with teammate Sebastian Vettel proved fragile, but this was just as a much a reflection of Leclerc asserting himself over the German for most of the season as a result of any specific action.

Predecessor: Raikkonen had signed off with one of his better campaigns from a wildly uneven second stint Ferrari in 2018, but it took Leclerc just one season to eclipse both his win tally from 2014-18 and his best year in terms of points per race during that same period (12.6 for Leclerc in 2019 versus 12.0 for Raikkonen the year prior).

Risk factor: Team boss Mattia Binotto has maintained it was “not a risk” to promote Leclerc – and though Ferrari did have to sideline a safe pair of hands and a fan favourite, Leclerc was always going to be the better bet longer-term.

2. F1: Carlos Sainz to McLaren

2. F1: Carlos Sainz to McLaren
19/20

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Sainz was a shining beacon of McLaren’s rejuvenation in 2019. In addition to securing a superb sixth in the standings, he ended the team’s podium drought by finishing third after starting at the back of the Interlagos grid, and was widely hailed as one of the season’s top performers.

Predecessor: Fernando Alonso was pretty obviously McLaren’s best driver during its miserable four-year stint from 2015 to 2018, and scored a lot more points in the final year than the MCL33 warranted. But his status as a two-time champion and dissatisfaction with running in the midfield clearly put the outfit under a fair bit of pressure.

Risk factor: Though Renault had lined up at least two candidates to replace him, Sainz would’ve been top of any other midfield outfit’s list the second he was cut loose by Red Bull.

1. MotoGP: Fabio Quartararo to Petronas SRT

1. MotoGP: Fabio Quartararo to Petronas SRT
20/20

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Quartararo became MotoGP’s youngest-ever pole-sitter in May, and then spent the rest of the year punching well above his weight as an independent rider.

Though a maiden win proved elusive, he comfortably surpassed his targets for 2019, finished as the top rookie and top independent rider, and split the two works Yamahas in the riders' standings.

Predecessor: The Petronas-backed SRT outfit was new to MotoGP, but much of the structure was inherited from Marc VDS – as was rider Franco Morbidelli. As such, Morbidelli’s 2018 teammate Tom Luthi – who scored no points on the Honda and swiftly returned to being much better in the intermediate class – may count as the ‘predecessor’ here.

Risk factor: Even after its attempts to court Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo fell through, the team could’ve gone with a safe pair of hands in Alvaro Bautista. It gambled on a rider with one win across four seasons of Moto3 and Moto2 instead, and he proceeded to make any past scepticism look silly.

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About this article

Series Formula 1 , MotoGP , WRC , World Superbike , WEC , IMSA
Author Valentin Khorounzhiy