Has Verstappen pushed Ricciardo out of Red Bull?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Daniel Ricciardo has been considered a champion in waiting since his giant-slaying Red Bull Racing debut in 2014.

    “A matter of time,” they said when the Australian handed reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel a 71-point defeat to claim third in the drivers standings, in part precipitating the German’s Ferrari switch.

    Five career Grand Prix victories, all of which came in a car that was not the fastest on the day, plus an unforgettable maiden pole position at the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix, the king of all driver tracks, backs up the claim that few, if any, doubt.

    But talent is only half the championship-winning equation. Timing – being in the right place at the right time – counts every bit as much. Just ask Fernando Alonso.

    For that reason Red Bull Racing’s Saturday press release heralding the agreement of Max Verstappen to a long-term contract extension should have been the cause of great consternation among Ricciardo’s fanbase, and perhaps the West Australian himself.

    Formula One drivers Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kyvat.

    (Abdullah Minhas/Red Bull Content Pool).

    “As we now look to the long term with Max he is in the best place in the sport to build a team around him to deliver our shared ambition,” Christian Horner said, concluding the statement.

    It may have been just one line of many, but it reads like a statement of intent – Max can make Red Bull Racing his team, equivalent to Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari or, to a lesser extent, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.

    Verstappen can make himself Red Bull Racing’s number one driver.

    Australia has been here before. Memories of Mark Webber’s Milton Keynes travails opposite Vettel have not yet faded.

    Of course Red Bull Racing never actually favoured Sebastian over Mark – the contested front wing incident at Silverstone in 2010 aside – but it was nonetheless obvious in which basket the team had its eggs.

    “When young, new charges come onto the block, that’s where the emotion is,” Webber said in 2010. “That’s the way it is.”

    The difference between Webber and Ricciardo is that the latter, much like Vettel, is a product of Helmut Mario’s driver development programme.

    There was motivation – the financial value of Red Bull backing Vettel’s junior career – to see Vettel succeed, and the same ought to be true of Ricciardo, who is likewise a protégé of the Red Bull Junior Team. Yet Marko is already prepared for a Daniel-less future at the team he oversees.

    “Ricciardo is on the market,” Marko told Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport, foreshadowing negotiations ahead of Ricciardo’s 2018–19 contract expiry. “We must certainly look for alternatives. We will not be caught off guard.”

    It’s a dramatic departure from the brand’s keep-at-all-costs attitude to Carlos Sainz when the Spaniard came onto Renault’s radar. Then Marko wouldn’t so much as consider trading one of his hard-earned stars; now he seems far less perturbed about losing one of the herd.

    “He has broken some records and I guess Red Bull, especially as a brand, would like him to break more,” Ricciardo acknowledged. “And that is fine. I get how it would boost the brand’s image.”

    But even if he acknowledges there has been no bias against him inside the team, where does that leave the 28-year-old in the immediate term, with contract negotiations around the corner and a championship clock ticking?

    Rumours have long linked Ricciardo with a move to Ferrari, where his Italian heritage and language skills would stand him in good stead with the brand and staff, and he’s also in the Scuderia’s traditional age and experience window.

    Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull laughs during an interview with Formula One reporters.

    (Aron Suveg/Red Bull Content Pool)

    But would Vettel, the former champion Daniel once vanquished, stand for him reappearing in the opposite garage? Even if the answer were yes, any driver to sign up in 2019 would be at risk of being squeezed out by Ferrari young guns Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi, who are in line to debut at Sauber next season. They seemed destined to ascend to careers in red, if indeed they didn’t impress sufficient to warrant immediate promotion.

    Ricciardo’s standing has also linked him to Mercedes, where Bottas exists on a one-year contract with a recent history of underperformance. Perhaps this too is an option. But why would the Silver Arrows outsource when Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is performing extremely strongly for Force India?

    With the top two teams struck from the list the permutations enter murkier waters. Renault is a manufacturer team with big ambitions to return to podium contention next season, but is that achievable considering its current deficit and will that make it a championship contender in 2019 anyway?

    McLaren, too, could be fertile ground, but perhaps only in the unlikely event Stoffel Vandoorne dramatically underdelivers and Lando Norris is thought too inexperienced to replace him – or if Fernando Alonso leaves, but surely this would suggest the team is far from title-winning form, rendering it too risky a move.

    There are few long-term stable alternatives for Daniel Ricciardo. Indeed his only option, despite consensus saying he must find a team of his own, may be to renew terms with what could be Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing, where only comprehensively defeating the Dutchman – unlikely given both occupy a similar tier of talent – would be enough to deliver him the championship he craves.

    Timing is critical in Formula One, but for Daniel Ricciardo, whose ascendancy has happened to coincide with that of Max Verstappen, timing might prove to be his undoing.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • Roar Guru

      October 27th 2017 @ 9:57am
      Bayden Westerweller said | October 27th 2017 @ 9:57am | ! Report

      Wherever Ricciardo shakes out in 2019, the next agreement is the most definitive of his career as he’s just entered his prime.

      It’s unfortunate that we’ve been unable to gauge his true standing alongside Verstappen this season, though Red Bull has already indicated where it sees the ledger. The opening races in 2018 will be crucial otherwise he’ll become de facto number two.

      What is certain is that he deserves a car at his disposal which is capable of championships to demonstrate where he lies, regardless of his status within the team, and if he catches whichever team-mate offside for being too competitive, that’s tough luck.

      As much as Mercedes and Ferrari are the logical suitors, there’s something about Renault and making it his own project which is attractive, though Hulkenberg and Sainz already indicate towards a formidable partnership into the future.

      • Columnist

        October 28th 2017 @ 7:14am
        Michael Lamonato said | October 28th 2017 @ 7:14am | ! Report

        Renault has wanted Sainz for a long time, so it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which the team would give him up — except, perhaps, if it switched him for Ricciardo. But it all might depend on how well Hulkenberg and Sainz get along and work for the team. If the dynamic is good, is that worth disrupting if they’re delivering results? I think any questions that might remain over Hulkenberg will be dispelled if he matches Sainz, in which case the benefits of a switch could be marginal anyway.

        But I do think Renault could be the most likely option at this point — a straight Sainz-Ricciardo swap under Carlos’s loan agreement could be the way forward. Otherwise a risky one-year Ferrari deal might be the only other option.

    • October 27th 2017 @ 2:57pm
      Tlux said | October 27th 2017 @ 2:57pm | ! Report

      Dan has nothing to worry about. He’s easily out performing both Kimi and Bottas.

      He has mass market appeal. Is probably #2 in the popularity stakes, behind Kimi.

      He is genuinely in the box seat to chose either Merc or Ferrari for 2019. Yes there is a regulation change coming in 2021/22, but there will still be 3 WDCs and 60 race wins on offer whilst we wait.

      And as we reach the end of a regulation cycle, the distance between teams should tighten up. Dan’s quick, smart and opportunist approach to racing is perfectly suited to go deep into a World Championship fight.

      • Columnist

        October 28th 2017 @ 7:11am
        Michael Lamonato said | October 28th 2017 @ 7:11am | ! Report

        Absolutely he’s outperforming Raikkonen and Bottas, but I don’t think that’s what necessarily matters to Ferrari or Mercedes. Ferrari is using Raikkonen to keep the seat warm until it has a viable alternative — perhaps Ricciardo or perhaps one of its own juniors — and Bottas is performing enough to win Mercedes the constructors championship without hassling Lewis Hamilton. The team has been much happier this season than it was with all that Hamilton-Rosberg tension, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they retained Bottas for a number of years so long as his form doesn’t drop any further. No question Ricciardo’s better than both, I think — but I also don’t think that’s the point.

    • October 27th 2017 @ 4:26pm
      steve said | October 27th 2017 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

      I believe and have done since Verstappen’s first race at Red Bull when he was handed the race by the team, that Max is the clear number one driver in Helmut Marko’s eyes, His re – signing also should be a clear indicator to Daniel that he is now the number two, regardless of what is said publically by the team. I actually think that Renault is looking the more attractive option at the moment, though they have to continue to close the performance gap to the Mercedes and Ferrari engines. In my opinion, Daniel needs, and deserves a car that is capable of winning races on its own, not relying on others to fall over.

      • Columnist

        October 28th 2017 @ 7:09am
        Michael Lamonato said | October 28th 2017 @ 7:09am | ! Report

        I think almost all of the sport agrees that Daniel needs a title-winning car, but the next most important thing is that he has the full backing of a team. Even if Red Bull Racing was completely neutral in all senses, could either Verstappen or Ricciardo fight properly with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, who are obviously the number one drivers at their respective teams?

        Renault could firm as Daniel’s best option but, as you say, it all depends on how much progress they make. Theoretically, with Carlos Sainz there on loan, it could be a matter of switching the two — but then after all the trouble pairing Verstappen and Sainz caused at Toro Rosso, maybe Red Bull Racing will think twice about that.

        • October 29th 2017 @ 6:19pm
          steve said | October 29th 2017 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

          I get the sense that Daniel, should he stay at Red Bull, or move up to Mercedes of Ferrari will be the number two, I get the distinct feeling Daniel already knows this about his current team. I doubt that McClaren nor Williams will be putting forward race winning outfits any time soon. It would seem that Renault would be his best choice to be the leader in his own team, but can they put together a race winning engine and chassis package for him? Should he make the move to Mercedes or Ferrari I think Vettel would be the most worried out of he and Lewis. Daniel has already trounced him quite convincingly as a team mate already. If it comes down to these two teams, Daniel strikes me as favouring himself over, and wanting to challenge himself against Lewis in the same car. It would be one Id love to see TBH.

    • October 31st 2017 @ 6:30am
      FrozenNorth said | October 31st 2017 @ 6:30am | ! Report

      Daniel is a star. Max is a superstar.

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