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MAY 15, 2018

What future for Daniel Ricciardo?


Daniel Ricciardo, Spanish GP 2018
© The Cahier Archive

What future for Daniel Ricciardo?

With Sebastian Vettel sure to remain at Ferrari until the end of 2020, and Lewis Hamilton just a few details away from signing a new deal with Mercedes, the man everyone is watching on the drivers' market is Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has done a sterling job since he joined Red Bull at the start of 2014, winning six of the nine Grand Prix the team won since then, but he doesn't seem to feel completely at home there anymore, as the management has a strong love affair with Max Verstappen that is here to last.

For years there have been rumors linking Ricciardo with a future at Ferrari and not so long ago Toto Wolff admitted the Australian would be a candidate for Mercedes should his team need or decide to look outside its current pool of talent. With Christian Horner openly admitting his team's first choice is to extend Ricciardo's contract, the Australian seems spoiled for choice but a closer look at the situation shows he might have not a lot of choice and could be forced to accept staying at Red Bull in spite of his own wishes to move to pastures new.

Taking for granted Hamilton will sign a new deal with Mercedes sometime soon, Toto Wolff has to decide whom to pair with the four-times World Champion for the near future. In spite of being severely underrated outside the team, for reasons I find it hard to understand, Valtteri Bottas enjoys the support of the technical team at Brackley and also seems to be Lewis Hamilton's preferred teammate. Not because he's easy to beat, far from it, as was demonstrated in Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan earlier this year, but because he's completely apolitical, a real team player and doesn't suffer from mood swings that can really affect the ambiance in the team.

In case Wolff decides - against his own personal interests given he's commercial linked to the Finn through a company now managed by his wife - to drop Bottas, the Austrian has mentioned Esteban Ocon and George Russell as drivers capable of, one day, driving for the Silver Arrows. But we can discount the GP3 champion as a 2019 candidate because he'd be a rookie in a winning car - a real risk with no possible valid pay off - and Ocon hasn't really done better against veteran Sergio Perez than Bottas against Hamilton since they've been paired at Force India. Although the Mexican is a much better driver than he's generally given credit for, even he would admit he's no Lewis Hamilton, so replacing Bottas with Ocon wouldn't make a lot of sense.

Which leaves Wolff with a choice of renewing the contract with Bottas or trying to get Daniel Ricciardo to be Hamilton's next teammate. Ricciardo and Bottas were closely matched back in 2008 when they raced each other in Formula Renault but the Australian made progress quickly, thanks to Red Bull's support and has a more impressive CV than the Finn. But is he a faster driver, a more complete tester or a more accomplished team player? The answer to all three questions seems to be no, because Bottas and Ricciardo, with completely different temperaments, seem to be evenly matched in almost all areas, the Australian having an edge in his ability to overtake, while the Finn is the most impressive driver in the field when it comes to putting consecutive fast laps in with consistent times. With nothing to gain with the swap - and nothing to lose in terms of competitiveness, let's make it very clear - Mercedes wouldn't be able to improve the internal harmony because with Hamilton and Bottas things work perfectly. But they could be getting into a heck of a lot of trouble if the Brit and the Australian get on each other's nerves, so that's the only risk on the horizon and the reason I believe Wolff will prefer to keep things as they are for the near future.

Much as he'd love to move to Mercedes and measure himself against Hamilton, Ricciardo's chances of achieving this goal seem slim, so let's see how much better his chances are to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari.

On paper, even though the Finn is enjoying his best season since he returned to Maranello, replacing him with Ricciardo would be beneficial for the team, for he was faster than Vettel when they were together at Red Bull back in 2014 and, unlike Raikkonen, may conceivably stay in Formula One for another seven or eight years, giving the Scuderia security for the post-Vettel era. The Australian is almost as uncomplicated as the Finn, would fit in the Italian team perfectly given his Italian origins and would be the darling of the Italian media, but he doesn't seem to be Vettel's favorite option. The German enjoys having Raikkonen alongside and seems to have a big say in the decisions regarding his future team mate. As the management also seems to prefer the current status quo, as long as Vettel remains in Maranello it will be difficult for Ricciardo to join the team.

Which leaves the likeable Australian with the unwanted prospect of remaining for a sixth consecutive season at Red Bull Racing, or Max Verstappen Racing, as some cynics in the paddock have dubbed the Milton Keynes-based team… On top of not being very comfortable with the internal situation, he understandably feeling like an unwanted son in his own family, Ricciardo can legitimately have doubts about his chances of winning races and fighting for the title with a Honda powered Red Bull in 2019. For all the progress the Japanese manufacturer has done in the last six months it's clear Honda is still not at the same level as Mercedes or Ferrari and it will be difficult to catch up before the end of the current set of technical regulations.

But Red Bull won't wait for Ricciardo's decision forever. Horner has warned, playing the Carlos Sainz's card against the Australian wish to delay his decision as much as possible - or at least until there's a chance of moving to either Mercedes or Ferrari. Ironically, the Spaniard also doesn't seem interested in joining Verstappen at Red Bull, after their difficult relationship at Toro Rosso, so whatever Helmut Marko and Horner will choose, there will be one unhappy driver at Milton Keynes next year!

For Ricciardo to find a solution for this situation he'd have to take a big gamble and bet on a Renault or a McLaren resurgence in the next two years - and in the English team's case only if Fernando Alonso would retire, as it's complicated to get equal treatment as long as he's there. But those are even longer shots at success than racing for Red Bull. So in spite of his obviously high rate in the market, Ricciardo doesn't look like he's master of his own destiny, which must be a very frustrating for a driver who can clearly win the World Champion if he'd get his hands on the right car.