DANIEL RIC­CIA­RDO

Dan Ric­cia­rdo has a huge year ahead of him at Red Bull: he has to beat tyro Max Ver­stap­pen – or leave

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS AN­DREW BEN­SON POR­TRAIT : ANDY HONE

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”.

MAX AM­BI­TION

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.

GET­TING HAM­MERED?

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

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