There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the driver market in Formula One this week.
Mark Webber’s imminent exit has triggered something of a black hole, pacified by only the non-combative PR speak being used by all parties, yet is just one successful contract negotiation away from obliterating the paddock.
I’m not sure that metaphor stacks up, but you get the point.
Webber’s seat is the plum drive for 2014. Red Bull has cash. It has experience. It has Adrian Newey.
It has all the ingredients to continue leading the sport. This is why former World Champion Kimi Räikkönen is the hot favourite to parachute in and attempt to reap the rewards.
It does make sense – on the surface, at least. Räikkönen’s highly marketable, and his no-nonsense attitude to F1 politics appears – again, on the surface – to line up with the values Red Bull Racing says exists at it’s core. Not to mention Räikkönen’s a proven winner, and Christian Horner’s team is in a position to be picky.
But that’s just on the surface.
There are two compelling reasons why Red Bull shouldn’t – no, mustn’t – sign the Finn. And the first is that all that surface stuff is misleading.
It’s been a long time since Red Bull practiced what it preached. It might have been the cool kid once, but it’s since grown up and taken out a mortgage – and the evidence for such a metamorphosis is everywhere.
It’s evident by the way they have struggled to manage the divisions between their drivers, the flagrant use of team orders despite previously being against them, and their ruthless wielding of political power to their own advantage.
Don’t get me wrong, all of this is the mark of a great F1 team – but it’s not compatible with that original RBR image.
Kimi’s contract with Lotus has secured him a personal freedom unprecedented by any other moment in his career. Lotus principal Eric Boullier knows that the team environment is important to Räikkönen’s performance.
So, Boullier has provided him with a working schedule considerably lighter than that of any other driver for another top team.
Conversely, Red Bull maximises the use of their drivers, and their schedules are heavy with promotion. Räikkönen will have to adjust to a lifestyle considerably different to that which he currently enjoys.
And let’s not forget it’s that sort of environment that turned him off F1 completely while working with Ferrari.
Red Bull mustn’t be stupid enough to assume it can tame Räikkönen with a sizeable retainer.
But there’s another reason: hiring Räikkönen would destroy the credibility of the Red Bull Junior Team.
Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne are the two latest drivers on the near incomprehensible list of F1 hopefuls to pass through the development programme, and their ascension to the top of the Red Bull tree would give the Junior Team a shred of much-needed credibility.
It has, to date, moved just one driver out of Toro Rosso and into a top car – Sebastian Vettel – while no fewer than eleven other drivers have fallen by the wayside before and since his promotion.
And without their Red Bull life support, all of them found their F1 career hopes dashed as quickly as it took Helmut Marko to shred their contracts.
Up to this point, the programme has been able to defend it’s merciless turfing of young talent by claiming it has no other place to put them in. The seats at Red Bull haven’t been spilt in a while. It’s harsh, but it’s the risk you take when you choose the Red Bull route.
But, thanks to Mark Webber, that excuse is void. To deny one of the two talented Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers now would be to devalue the risk taken by the countless forgotten apprentices of the programme. It would mean the possibility of promotion never really existed, and would mark the Junior Team and STR ownership as a colossal waste of money.
The value of the entire Red Bull feeder operation hinges on this decision.
Should Horner decide in favour of Räikkönen, not only could it prove disastrous for the Finn and the delicate harmony within the team, but whatever good may have been in the programme must be reassessed as flagrant and meaningless trashing of careers.
It owes that seat to every one of those young drivers as much as it does to Ricciardo and Vergne.
So the decision is this: build a stable future for the Red Bull Racing brand, or capitalise on a short-term gain and consign every driver bar one to pass through its doors to the F1 scrapheap for nothing.
And what a senseless waste that would be.