QUAR­TER TIME

AUS­TRALIA’S F1 STAR IS FAST AP­PROACH­ING A CROSS­ROADS – AND IT’S JUST ONE OF THE IN­TRIGU­ING SUBPLOTS OF THE NEW SEA­SON AHEAD.

Inside Sport - - Contents - – Ma hew Clay­ton

T

he For­mula One driver was at a cross­roads as he hit his late 20s. Glob­ally fa­mous, well­com­pen­sated fi­nan­cially for his tal­ents and a win­ner of mul­ti­ple Grands Prix, he was an es­tab­lished star with the only team he’d ever known. Which posed a ques­tion: stick with what you know, or take a cal­cu­lated risk, one with no guar­an­tees, but one that came with po­ten­tially greater re­wards?

The year and driver? No, not 2018 and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo; 2012 and Lewis Hamil­ton. The Bri­ton, world cham­pion in just his sec­ond sea­son in 2008, had been tied to McLaren since the age of 13, but de­cided it was time to cut the um­bil­i­cal cord. Then 27, Hamil­ton shocked the F1 es­tab­lish­ment for 2013 by dump­ing McLaren to head to Mercedes, win­ners of a soli­tary Grand Prix in three years since re­turn­ing to F1 as a con­struc­tor in its own right. At the time, the move seemed like mad­ness.

Since? Mercedes has be­come F1’s un­stop­pable force, win­ning four driv­ers’ and con­struc­tors’ world cham­pi­onships in a row from 2014, when F1 moved into the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hy­brid era. In the past four years, Hamil­ton has won three ti­tles, fin­ished run­ner-up to team-mate Nico Ros­berg in 2016, and taken his ca­reer win tally to 62 to trail only Michael Schu­macher in the sport’s his­tory books. All from zig­ging when his­tory, pedi­gree and com­mon con­ven­tion sug­gested he should zag. As a foot­note, McLaren hasn’t won a race since he le˜ ...

What does this have to do with the 28-year-old Ric­cia­rdo, who starts his eighth For­mula One sea­son in the Red Bull pen at his home race in Mel­bourne in March? He’ll tell you. Out of con­tract at the end of this sea­son and with a chance to ex­plore his op­tions as a free agent for the first time, the Perth-born prod­uct knows that his next deal could change the nar­ra­tive as he ap­proaches the mid­dle-age of his F1 life, and put him on a path where the race wins, he˜y bank bal­ance, fame and re­spect within his sport could be joined by world cham­pi­onships if he plays his cards right.

“I’m 29 and the next deal will take me into my 30s, so it’s not like I’m the young un­proven kid who’ll sign any­thing just to get on the grid,” he says.

“You look at Lewis and when he did his Mercedes deal, he was the same age if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly. He was al­ready do­ing very well where he was, but his ca­reer has re­ally taken off since then, hasn’t it? “So, there’s a lot to con­sider.”

Red Bull and Ric­cia­rdo has been a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial mar­riage. The driver’s ebul­lient per­son­al­ity aligns with the drink man­u­fac­turer’s im­age, and with five vic­to­ries in a four-year pe­riod of Mercedes turn­ing most Grands Prix into a race for sec­ond place, Ric­cia­rdo has be­come Aus­tralia’s fourth-most suc­cess­ful F1 driver, be­hind only world cham­pi­ons Sir Jack Brab­ham (14 wins) and Alan Jones (12), and the man he suc­ceeded at Red Bull Rac­ing, Mark Web­ber (nine). But there’s a grow­ing sense that if he’s to be­come a world cham­pion like Brab­ham and Jones were, and not fall short when the ti­tle win­dow is prised ajar like Web­ber did, he needs to “do a Hamil­ton” and back him­self to suc­ceed else­where. There’s a rea­son he could, and two more why he ar­guably should.

Last Oc­to­ber, Ric­cia­rdo’s team-mate, 20-yearold Max Ver­stap­pen, ex­tended his ten­ure with Red Bull un­til the end of 2020, the an­nounce­ment of his deal com­ing weeks a˜er team prin­ci­pal Chris­tian Horner urged the ex­cit­ing Dutch­man to stay long-term and “build a team” around him. Horner moved quickly to mend fences with Ric­cia­rdo a˜er the com­ments raised plenty of eye­brows up and down pit lane, the Aus­tralian telling Au­tosport “that is not what you want to hear” as Ver­stap­pen’s long-term sig­na­ture brought his own fu­ture into sharper fo­cus.

Ric­cia­rdo is eight years older than Ver­stap­pen, who ap­pears, at least in his first two years in the sport, to be a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion tal­ent the likes of which F1 hasn’t seen since Se­bas­tian Ve¥el burst onto the scene a decade ago. When your team­mate is younger, plainly very quick and has a length­ier deal with a team that wants to “build” around him, is Ric­cia­rdo des­tined to be­come Red Bull’s de facto no.2 driver, the mod­ern-day Web­ber to Ver­stap­pen’s Ve¥el?

An­other move in the driver mar­ket that could have an equally sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Ric­cia­rdo’s op­tions is the sign­ing of 2017 F2 cham­pion Charles Le­clerc to drive with Sauber, which has a new align­ment with Fer­rari-owned Alfa Romeo for 2018. At 20, Le­clerc rep­re­sents the fu­ture, and al­most cer­tainly sig­nals the end of the ca­reer of 2007 world cham­pion Kimi Raikko­nen, who turns 39 in Oc­to­ber and hasn’t won a race in five years. No Aus­tralian has ever driven for Fer­rari in F1, and with Le­clerc’s forth­com­ing de­but sea­son show­ing

Fer­rari en­vis­ages a fin­ish line for Raikko­nen’s highspeed su­per­an­nu­a­tion tour, the door has likely been closed for the Aussie with the Ital­ian her­itage for the time be­ing.

Which brings us to Mercedes. The Sil­ver Ar­rows were le stunned when Ros­berg won the 2016 ti­tle and promptly quit, bring­ing an end to a frac­tious three-year pe­riod when Mercedes’ dom­i­nance came against a back­drop of in­terteam ten­sion be­tween the Ger­man and Hamil­ton. With its world cham­pion elect­ing to stay home, Mercedes moved quickly to prise

Val‡eri Bo‡as out of his Wil­liams con­tract last sea­son, a fi­nan­cial sweet­ener on Wil­liams’ Mercedessup­plied en­gine bill al­low­ing the Finn to wrig­gle free to be­come Ros­berg’s re­place­ment.

On the sur­face, Bo‡as’ de­but sea­son at the sport’s bench­mark team was per­fectly ac­cept­able – three wins, third over­all in the cham­pi­onship – but he won just one of the fi­nal 11 Grands Prix as Hamil­ton turned a tense ti­tle fight into a rout by win­ning five of the first six races aer F1’s sum­mer break, ris­ing to a level that Bo‡as (and the rest) sim­ply couldn’t match. Given the car ad­van­tage Mercedes had over Fer­rari, Bo‡as’ in­abil­ity to oust Ve‡el from the run­ner- up spot in the cham­pi­onship was a cross on his 2017 re­port card, and a one-year con­tract ex­ten­sion for 2018 was a tepid en­dorse­ment from his team.

Is the Finn, a ju­nior ri­val of Ric­cia­rdo’s, re­ally the long-term so­lu­tion at Mercedes? Is Mercedes­backed young­ster Este­ban Ocon, about to start his sec­ond full-sea­son with Force In­dia, up to com­pet­ing for a top-line team at this stage of his ca­reer? And, em­ploy­ing a longer lens, how long will Hamil­ton, now 33 and him­self out of con­tract at the end of 2018, carry on? Aer Ros­berg walked on a whim, Mercedes will be ex­tra wary of safe­guard­ing its fu­ture while look­ing to cap­i­talise on the present.

All ques­tions we don’t – and sim­ply can’t – know an­swers to just yet. But what the sport does know is what Ric­cia­rdo brings. He’s ar­guably the most apo­lit­i­cal driver on the grid and, for some­one who has be­come a me­dia go-to for a sound­bite, is a leader with deeds as much as words, a con­sis­tent pres­ence with no agen­das or so much of the bull­shit that comes with F1. There’s no en­tourage, no- (for­get even low-) main­te­nance and a laser-like fo­cus when the vi­sor snaps shut.

And then there’s his on-track body of work. For all of the hype about Ver­stap­pen, Ric­cia­rdo has fin­ished ahead of the Dutch­man in the world cham­pi­onship in both sea­sons they’ve been team- mates, and he trounced four-time world cham­pion Ve‡el when they were at Red Bull to­gether in 2014. And in wheel-to-wheel com­bat? Ric­cia­rdo’s pass of three ri­vals in one cor­ner in Azer­bai­jan last year – voted by the sport’s fans on so­cial me­dia as the best over­take of 2017 – was as un­sur­pris­ing as it was breath­tak­ingly au­da­cious.

Early in­di­ca­tions are that F1 2018 will be a fa­mil­iar tale; Mercedes up front, with Red Bull and Fer­rari squab­bling for sec­ond-best sta­tus. Red Bull should be closer than it has been in re­cent years, but for all of the aero­dy­namic ben­e­fits of de­sign­ing a slip­pery chas­sis, F1, since 2014, is an en­gine for­mula first and fore­most. And of the op­tions avail­able, there’s only one you’d want.

In the 79 races held in the past four years, Mercedes-pow­ered cars have won 63 of them, and a sub­tle reg­u­la­tion tweak for 2018 will do li‡le to raise hopes of stalling the sil­ver stam­pede. Each driver now has just three new en­gines to com­plete the sea­son in a cal­en­dar that has ex­panded to 21 Grands Prix. Given Ric­cia­rdo and Ver­stap­pen took mul­ti­ple grid penal­ties last year for ex­ceed­ing their pool of Re­nault power plants when more (four) could do less (20 races), it doesn’t bode well.

Ve‡el will keep Fer­rari in the fight, but 2018 is likely to come down to Red Bull ver­sus Mercedes as the clock ticks on Ric­cia­rdo’s fu­ture. He could be for­given for ap­ply­ing the sim­ple logic of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” as he pon­ders his next move.

Is Dan des­tined to­be­comeRed Bull’s de facto no.2 driver, the mod­ern­dayWeb­ber to Ver­stap­pen’s Vet­tel?

Ric­cia­rdo in a Red Bull ... but for how long? Daniel pon­ders the fu­ture.   Lewis Hamil­ton. € ‚ƒ Dan and Max, rid­ing along like best buds.

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