Red Bull Racing pulled off the impossible. They managed to extend their prodigy and Formula One’s most promising talent Max Verstappen’s services till 2020 – a feat that most fans assumed would have never happened given Red Bull Racing’s lack of race-winning form and customer team status in the hybrid turbo era. In fact, there’s a good chance that even Ferrari and Mercedes would have never imagined this.
The stranger part of this puzzle is that Red Bull Racing are yet to confirm their engine supply from 2019 onwards. Could they continue with Renault, and that is if Renault wish to continue with them, because there are rumours that they might not. Or would Honda come good by then and would Red Bull Racing switch to Honda power? Or would a Porsche investment turn things around on the power unit front too? Irrespective of the uncertainty, Verstappen’s signing of an extension indicates that plans might be in place, or getting there sooner or later. Else a Verstappen wouldn’t have committed till 2020.
But did Verstappen have another choice than to continue with Red Bull Racing? It’s no secret that both Ferrari and Mercedes were interested in the young Dutchman. In fact, their existing contracts with Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas respectively end in 2018 – creating vacancy for either Red Bull Racing driver, and the first in line would have been Verstappen and then, Daniel Ricciardo.
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However, with Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) and Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) secure with their respective teams with multi-year contracts (also till 2020), would Verstappen have joined them as team-mates and settled for ‘number 2’ status? Or would he have risked a longer term at Red Bull Racing and attempted to build a team around himself – something that Christian Horner had already publicly indicated that he could have?
Thankfully, Verstappen chose the latter. It would have been awesome to see him go head-to-head with Vettel or Hamilton in the same machinery, but this may remain simply a wish, at best. However, in Verstappen’s case, age is on his side. By 2020, he will still be only 23-years-old and can switch to Ferrari or Mercedes then, once Vettel (who will be 33 years) and/or Hamilton (who will be 35 years) decide to hang their boots.
Also, like Vettel’s contract with Red Bull Racing, we are certain that Verstappen’s new contract shall have performance exit clauses too. If Red Bull Racing fail to deliver a race-winning package, Verstappen will be free to jump ship earlier than 2020.
In the Red Bull Racing-Verstappen love story, where does Ricciardo fit in? The Australian has impressed everyone with his talent and attitude. His attitude and honesty is a welcome change in the paddock. Also, Ricciardo’s five victories for the team have come when the team hasn’t had the most dominant car. While he has been beaten by Verstappen on qualifying form, his race results have stood out this season (he has scored eight podiums so far!). So what is stopping Ricciardo from extending his contract with Red Bull Racing? Here again, Horner has openly expressed his interest in extending Ricciardo’s services too.
The year 2018 will be Ricciardo’s fifth season with Red Bull Racing. While his achievements have been noteworthy, he has not been able to challenge for race wins on a consistent basis, let alone fight for the Drivers’ Championship. While evaluating Ricciardo and Verstappen’s situation, one must take into account their age difference; Ricciardo will be 29 years next season and while impatience to fight for the Drivers’ Championship will grow, his chances to actually take the fight to Vettel and Hamilton in a Red Bull Racing car over the next few seasons might not. Red Bull Racing’s power unit situation will worry Ricciardo more than Verstappen and maybe this is why he’s unwilling to commit just yet.
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So what could Ricciardo do next? He has partnered and beaten Vettel before at Red Bull Racing, so he knows that he can match the two title contenders on speed and talent. If he has to partner and beat Hamilton or Vettel to win the Drivers’ Championship, so be it. It could also make his victory that much more sweeter (like Nico Rosberg’s). However, in doing so, if he fails, he could be relegated to the dangerous ‘number 2’ slot. Should he decide to stay at Red Bull Racing, chances here too are high of him being a ‘number 2’ to Verstappen given Red Bull’s love for him. In effect, Ricciardo might need to choose playing a possible second fiddle to Vettel, Hamilton or Verstappen. But this is where an old saying could come handy for Ricciardo – with high risk, comes high returns.
In our view, Ricciardo might be more comfortable partnering Hamilton at Mercedes for two reasons. First, he knows what it is like to partner Vettel, especially if you are the one beating him. Also, will Vettel ‘allow’ Ferrari to hire Ricciardo as his team-mate? Second, Mercedes appear to be far fairer when it comes to driver treatment. The year 2017 has been a testimony to the equal status that they offer their drivers irrespective of their Drivers’ Championship status. This way, Ricciardo would know that he could get the Mercedes team to rally behind his championship cause if he is able to deliver results and take the fight to Hamilton and his other rivals.
As for Mercedes, Ricciardo’s personality and popularity will surely interest the parent brand – one that is consciously working towards changing their brand perception to attract younger buyers. However, come 2019, will they prefer to hire Ricciardo or promote their already waiting-in-line junior driver Esteban Ocon as they near Hamilton’s potential retirement date? The 2019 driver silly season is already interesting and we have only just started.
This post was first published on Firstpost and was co-written by Mithila Mehta