NOVEMBER 25, 2010
Is Webber the key for Ricciardo?
The pace of young Australian Daniel Ricciardo aboard the Red Bull in the recent Abu Dhabi young driver tests has given rise to speculation that a seat will be found for him in F1 next year, most likely at Toro Rosso. But will it?
The stories doing the rounds at the moment are that Sebastian Buemi would be the driver to make way after two seasons with the team. The Red Bull support programme is widespread and, as a consequence, can appear ruthless if drivers fail to win championships in the junior formulae or, presumably, show exceptional talent at the top level. Just one example of that is talented Canadian Rob Wickens, who lost his Red Bull support this year but went on to finish runner-up to Sauber reserve Esteban Gutierrez in this year's inaugural GP3 championship.
There has been little to choose between Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari this year. Buemi finished 16th in the drivers' championship with 8 points, while Alguersuari was 19th, with 5 points. The best result was an eighth from Buemi in Canada, with a ninth in Valencia and 10th places in Monaco and Japan. Alguersuari, meanwhile, was ninth in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi and 10th at Barcelona.
If you look at every qualifying session that both drivers ran (Q1, Q2 and Q3), Alguersuari was marginally quicker - by 0.02s!
Toro Rosso technical director Giorgio Ascanelli says of his drivers: "Jaime has progressed. More than anything he's fit. Last year he wasn't. He's now strong and a very good racing driver. He doesn't know how to brake yet --- look at his legs! -- but he knows that and is working on it.
"Sebastien was surprised by a team mate who he expected to be far from him but wasn't. I think he had a couple of races where he couldn't handle it but got a grasp of it. Unfortunately that period coincided with us running out of steam in terms of development, which hurt us a bit.
"The general comment, which they'll probably get a bit cheesed off about but which they know, is that every time they had to choose whether to risk something to get something better or preserve what they had, they preserved. I think that was conditioned by the lack of testing. They knew that if they caused a car stoppage it simply meant less miles, which they needed, but thinking like that makes it hard to take a step forward."
The overall impression, however, was that in a year in which Toro Rosso had to build its own car for the first time, without Red Bull Technology, and with an initially inconsistent wind tunnel and precious little CFD, getting the car and the operational side right was a bigger issue than the driver performance. As Ascanelli said, "we did what we should have done and finished ninth. If we'd been eighth it would have been a miracle, if we'd been 10th we should have been shot!"
In the circumstances, binning one of the drivers to make way for Ricciardo would seem harsh and is unlikely to achieve a great deal, unless Abu Dhabi data leads them to think they have the next Ayrton Senna on their hands.
Ricciardo incidentally, lists Senna and Mark Webber as his childhood heroes and you can't help wonder whether it could be his fellow Australian who holds the key to his elevation to F1.
In some ways, Webber's season with Vettel at Red Bull reminds you of the one Niki Lauda had alongside the younger Alain Prost at McLaren in 1984, albeit that Webber was much closer to Vettel in terms of outright pace than Lauda ever was to Prost. Despite being outpaced Lauda put in a superhuman effort teamed with guile, race craft and a little luck to beat the Frenchman to the '84 title by half a point. Niki though, had clearly shot his bolt. In 1985, Prost murdered him.
Webber looked clearly deflated on Sunday evening in Abu Dhabi and there had also been the surprising comments he'd made in Brazil, that the team emotionally favoured his team mate. He has a Red Bull contract for 2011 but, after a winter's contemplation, might he think better of it and hang up his hat?
Or, could there yet be a sting in the tail at Ferrari? The relationship with Felipe Massa will not have been the same post-Hockenheim and we have yet to see what develops around Group Lotus and Renault. If something does, it's likely that Nicolas Todt, Massa's manager, may be involved. Although Ferrari voiced messages of support for Felipe at season's end it is not impossible to envisage a scenario where Massa slots in alongside Robert Kubica, although the need for Vitaly Petrov's roubles could well militate against that.
If Massa did move, Webber could be seen as an ideal team mate for Alonso at Ferrari. Both are managed by Flavio Briatore (his business partner Bruno Michel was seen in discussion with the Red Bull management in Abu Dhabi), there is mutual respect between the pair and although Mark may be a mite too quick for it to be entirely comfortable, his pace and consistency should allow a decent stab at the constructors' championship. For Webber, Maranello would be the ideal place to finish his career.
Don't put money on either scenario but, if one of them transpired it would solve Helmut Marko's little three into two doesn't go conundrum.
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