Dan Ricciardo has a huge year ahead of him at Red Bull: he has to beat tyro Max Verstappen – or leave
It’s a make-or-break year for the Aussie hotshoe. How will he fare?
is starting a year that will define the rest of his life in Formula 1.
And it could be the most important of his life, as the Australian seeks not only to fend off the growing challenge of Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, but do so while making the first big career choice he has ever faced.
Ricciardo has been a member of the Red Bull driver programme since 2008 but he is out of contract at the end of 2018. It is the first time in a decade – and the first ever since he made it to F1 – that he has been free to make up his own mind about where his destiny lies. Does he stick or does he twist? And on what factors will that decision depend?
Ricciardo remains in the very top echelon of Formula 1 drivers, along with Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Verstappen. But last year was the first in which there was a perception that his personal momentum had slowed a little.
A half-season in 2011 with HRT was followed by two intermittently impressive years with Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso before what he describes as his “breakthrough year” with the senior team in 2014.
Arriving as the new team-mate to a four-time world champion, Ricciardo was expected by many to slip into the role Mark Webber had generally played – of valiant number-two and general whipping boy.
Instead, he ended up comprehensively beating Vettel – out-qualifying him almost two to one, at an average pace differential of 0.298 per cent; beating him eight-three in races where a direct comparison could be made, by 71 points; and finishing an impressive third to the German’s fifth in the championship.
But it was not just the stats that impressed that year. He also took three victories, the best was by far a spectacular performance in the wet-dry Hungarian Grand Prix. That win in Budapest was sealed with an overtake on Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari with three laps to go. At the time it seemed almost preposterous in its audacity. But Ricciardo has since made that super-late lunge, just on the edge of control, his trademark.
It was the year that defined the Ricciardo blueprint – an elegance of style, blistering pace in qualifying and a tigerish aggression and outlandish opportunism in races.
So good was Ricciardo in 2014 that he effectively drove Vettel out of Red Bull. By mid-season Vettel recognised that his market value was in danger of dropping if he carried on getting whopped, and accepting Ferrari’s offer to replace a disaffected Alonso.
AN ‘AWESOME’ YEAR
Understandably, Ricciardo remembers 2014 fondly. “I will always say it was awesome,” he says, “and it is hard to replicate that. It was the year I went from being an F1 driver to being one of the top-regarded drivers through a lot of people’s eyes. That set me up.”
From there, Ricciardo just built further. There were no wins in 2015 and he ended the year behind team-mate Daniil Kvyat on points. But that was down to nothing more than the skewed reliability record, a fact underlined when Kvyat was unceremoniously demoted to Toro Rosso after four races of 2016. Even with Verstappen as his new team-mate, Ricciardo continued to excel.
He should have won early in the season in Spain – only for the team to split strategies and end up gifting the win to Verstappen – and in Monaco, where a tyre mix-up in the pits let in Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. He did eventually score a victory in Malaysia and he both out-qualified and out-pointed Verstappen over the season. Ricciardo so impressed onlookers that no less a luminary than Alonso picked him as the best driver of the year.
But then came 2017. Verstappen turned the tables in qualifying, and did Ricciardo 13-7 over the season. Ricciardo admits to having “overdriven” under pressure from Max.
Team boss Christian Horner is quick to defend Ricciardo, saying that knowledge of how good the older man is over one lap simply underlines the level Verstappen was at. Despite the head-to-head numbers, on pace there was almost nothing to choose between them, the gap averaging out at 0.03secs over the season – and only 0.015secs if Baku, where Ricciardo crashed in Q3, is discounted.
In races, the impression is that Verstappen had the upper hand. He won two races to Ricciardo’s one and lost some good results in the first part of the season to poor reliability. Yet Ricciardo had eight other podiums, Verstappen
“RICCIARDO REMAINS IN THE VERY TOP ECHELON OF DRIVERS, ALONG WITH ALONSO, HAMILTON, VETTEL AND VERSTAPPEN. BUT THE PERCEPTION IS HIS MOMENTUM HAS SLOWED”
only two, and Verstappen retired seven times to Ricciardo’s six, and Dan ended up 32 points ahead in the championship.
In short, then, although few would argue that Verstappen was overall the more impressive in 2017, it would be wrong to say that a firm picture had formed as to who was definitively the stronger driver. It’s all to play for in 2018.
Horner describes his line-up as “the strongest driver pairing in Formula 1. Max and Daniel push each other to such high limits and that’s tremendously exciting for us.” He also describes Ricciardo as “a phenomenal driver” who is “absolutely ready for a championship challenge if we can provide him with the tools to do the job”.
Despite this, there is a general feeling in Formula 1 that Red Bull is slowly becoming Max Verstappen’s team. Last autumn, Horner talked of the Dutchman being able to “build a team around him”. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that he had extended his contract – which at that stage already ran until the end of
2019, a year longer than Ricciardo’s – until the end of 2020.
The motivator was Red Bull’s belief that Mercedes were chasing Verstappen, who had a clause in his contract allowing him to leave at the end of 2018. Although it was unlikely the team would perform so poorly as to allow its conditions to be met, Red Bull offered him a huge pay bump, making him the third-best-paid driver in F1 this year, behind Hamilton and Vettel.
Although Ricciardo admits he was “surprised by the timing” of Verstappen’s deal, he has said he has no concerns for now about the team favouring one over the other. But he has also repeatedly emphasised Verstappen’s youth, and that he has room to grow in experience and therefore expertise more than some of the other drivers – the implication being Ricciardo knows beating him is not going to be easy.
The risk for Ricciardo is that Verstappen continues the momentum from 2017 and takes another step forward, increasing the marginal gap he extended over his team-mate. If he does so, that could have two major effects on Ricciardo’s future – it might harm his appeal to other teams, and could potentially consign him to a de facto support role if he were to stay at Red Bull.
On the other hand, if Ricciardo can resolve some of the issues he believes affected his form in 2018 and level the qualifying score while maintaining his strong race form, it would have the opposite effect.
Horner has said he wants Ricciardo to sign a new contract and stay on. “Early in the new year, once we’ve seen how the car’s performing, then it’s our priority to make sure that we retain Daniel in the team until at least 2020,” he says.
“It’s also a critical time in his career. He’s 28 years of age. This next step is going to be crucial for him and we just want to make sure we give him the right car to be able to deliver his potential.”
If he stays, though, he will have to partner Verstappen and he may well feel that is something he does not want to do – either in terms of performance or if he feels the team is navigating too far in that direction.
If he leaves, the most obvious destination for Ricciardo is Mercedes. Not only would it potentially be a step up in competitiveness and give him a shot at the title that, right now, it cannot be said his current team can guarantee. But it would also allow Ricciardo the chance to test himself against Hamilton, something he has said he would like to do.
Beat Hamilton, and all questions about where exactly Ricciardo stands as a driver would evaporate. On the other hand, if the idea of taking on Verstappen lacks appeal, then Hamilton at Mercedes is hardly likely to be an easier challenge.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff has been open about the fact that Ricciardo is on his list for 2019. But, rather like Red Bull, he wants to “see how the first third of the season pans out, whether our car is good enough and strong enough, and then we will analyse and then take the right decisions”.
Ricciardo is one of three main options at Mercedes, assuming Hamilton stays, while the others are to keep Valtteri Bottas or promote their protégé Esteban Ocon from Force India.
The word on the street is that Wolff is leaning towards Ocon. That's as long as the Frenchman takes another step forward in 2018 – ie decisively beats team-mate Sergio Pérez after what can perhaps be termed as a 1-1 draw last year, with the Mexican shading the first half of the season and Ocon the second. If Ocon does not progress, Mercedes could yet stick with Bottas – but that would require the Finn to perform strongly in the first half of 2018 in a way he did not in the second half of 2017.
A year or so ago, Ricciardo and Verstappen were at the top of Ferrari’s wish-list, but Vettel’s signing until 2020 has now shifted the ground at Maranello. They are committed to the German, and it is believed they would not – and some believe could not, contractually – sign a direct rival who would undermine what is believed to be Vettel’s guaranteed number-one status.
Ferrari’s plan is to promote Charles Leclerc alongside Vettel in 2019 as long as the Formula 2 champion proves himself in his debut season at Sauber. If not, they may well stick with Kimi Räikkönen for another year.
Renault are an option, though. They are known to be very keen on Ricciardo. Nico Hülkenberg is heading into the last season of a three-year deal, and Carlos Sainz is on a oneyear – and potentially longer – loan from Red Bull. Either way, there is a seat available there, should Ricciardo be interested.
But would he be? On the one hand, being the number-one driver for Renault’s factory assault has an appeal, but even the French team themselves have said they do not expect to be challenging for the title until 2020 – so it might be a competitive step backwards. Of the other teams, only Mclaren would be a realistic option, but the level of their appeal very much depends on where they shake out in their first season with Renault engines.
There are even question marks over Red Bull. Renault have made it clear they do not want to continue supplying engines beyond this season – although they are contractually obliged to if Red Bull ask them. But their other option, Honda, is of limited appeal unless the Japanese manufacturer massively steps up its level now it has switched to Toro Rosso.
So even assuming Red Bull do dangle a contract in front of Ricciardo, he may not be that keen to sign it. And that’s without considering the Verstappen factor. In the end, it all comes back to the fact that beating Verstappen this year – or at least not being obviously beaten by him – is the key to the next phase of Ricciardo’s career, wherever that may happen to be.
“ALTHOUGH RICCIARDO ADMITS HE WAS 'SURPRISED BY THE TIMING' OF VERSTAPPEN'S NEW DEAL, HE HAS NO CONCERNS ABOUT THE TEAM FAVOURING ONE DRIVER OVER THE OTHER”
Ricciardo drove the first laps in the testing-liveried RB14 at Silverstone in mid-february