In three weeks we will be in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix and all eyes will be on local hero Daniel Ricciardo and his start to a defining F1 season.
The 29 year old knows he is in the peak of his career, he feels he’s ready to win a world championship if he has the right car, but there are two big question marks on his 2018 horizon.
The first is whether the new Red Bull-Renault car is a winner. In winter testing it has looked fast at times, but it’s not been a seamless week for the team and Mercedes are clearly driving within themselves at this stage.
The second is Max Verstappen. The 20 year old was re-signed by Red Bull at the end of 2017, the Austrian drinks giants seemingly making it clear who their point man is for the next three seasons. So where does that leave the likeable Aussie?
In a remarkably candid media round this week, Ricciardo spelled out his strategy regarding whether to renew with Red Bull or to move on in 2019.
“The performance is key, I will base my decision only on that,” he said. “I’m 29 I feel that I’m in the moment of my career when I’m ready to win the world championship so I have to put myself in the best position to do that. If we start winning with Red Bull, I will stay, no reason to change. If not..
“Red Bull have said, ‘We want you to stay alongside Max, but we understand you need to look at other offers. Take your time.’ – I appreciate and really respect that.”
He said that he had no ill feelings about Red Bull prioritising Verstappen’s signature on a contract extension, “It just made it easier to understand certain things and to adjust myself around that.”
I think it’s going to be very hard for him to beat Verstappen in the same car, so even if the new Red Bull is a race winner he has to move on for the sake of his career, unless he can find some way to unsettle the Dutchman, as Nico Rosberg managed with Lewis Hamilton in 2016.
But looking at the pair and their characters, it doesn’t seem to be in Ricciardo to do that. It would be more likely the other way around. Verstappen has all the hallmarks of a once in a generation driver, the only things that would stop him being a multiple champion are; being in the wrong car and losing discipline and focus in his life.
Then again Verstappen has time; Ricciardo does not.
Ricciardo is right to question the short term competitiveness of Red Bull. The engine will start out the season at a disadvantage to the Ferrari and Mercedes, that has already been stated. The question is by how much and how long it takes for development steps to close the gap.
Then there is the question of what engine the team will use in 2019. Renault wants an answer in spring and Christian Horner and his senior engineers will be evaluating the Honda engine in the Toro Rosso, which has certainly started the 2-18 testing looking reliable and drivable, even if it’s too early to say what the outright power is like.
If he decides to move on, Mercedes and Ferrari both have openings at the end of 2018 and Ricciardo has already been linked with both.
Asked whether he had the impression that Sebastian Vettel would not welcome him at Ferrari he said, “Maybe that’s right. You’d have to ask Sebastian.”
As for evaluating Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, he said, “His growth from when he arrived in F1 to now and his talent are clear for all to see. If he arrives fully prepared for a Grand Prix, then he is very strong.
McLaren is another possibility for Ricciardo due to a strong relationship with Zak Brown, but they are some way off winning a world title and that is Ricciardo’s first order priority in the next two to three years. After that he risks what happened to Fernando Alonso; younger drivers like Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen came along and there was no longer an opening in a title worthy car.
What do you think of Ricciardo’s situation? How do you think it will play out? Leave your comment in the section below