Daniel Ricciardo has been considered a champion in waiting since his giant-slaying Red Bull Racing debut in 2014.
“A matter of time,” they said when the Australian handed reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel a 71-point defeat to claim third in the drivers standings, in part precipitating the German’s Ferrari switch.
Five career grand prix victories, all of which came in a car that was not the fastest on the day, plus an unforgettable maiden pole position at the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix, the king of all driver tracks, backs up the claim that few, if any, doubt.
But talent is only half the championship-winning equation. Timing — being in the right place at the right time — counts every bit as much. Just ask Fernando Alonso.
For that reason Red Bull Racing’s Saturday press release heralding the agreement of Max Verstappen to a long-term contract extension should have been the cause of great consternation amongst Ricciardo’s fan base and perhaps the West Australian himself.
“As we now look to the long term with Max he is in the best place in the sport to build a team around him to deliver our shared ambition,” Christian Horner said, concluding the statement.
It may have been just one line of many, but it reads like a statement of intent — Max can make Red Bull Racing his team, equivalent to Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari or, to a lesser extent, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Verstappen can make himself Red Bull Racing’s number one driver.
Australia has been here before. Memories of Mark Webber’s Milton Keynes travails opposite Vettel have not yet faded.
Of course Red Bull Racing never actually favoured Sebastian over Mark — the contested front wing incident at Silverstone in 2010 aside — but it was nonetheless obvious in which basket the team had its eggs.
“When young, new charges come onto the block that’s where the emotion is,” Webber said in 2010. “That’s the way it is”
The difference between Webber and Ricciardo is that the latter, much like Vettel, is a product of Helmut Mario’s driver development programme.
There was motivation — the financial value of Red Bull backing Vettel’s junior career — to see Vettel succeed, and the same ought to be true of Ricciardo, who is likewise a protégé of the Red Bull Junior Team, and yet Marko is already prepared for a Daniel-less future at the team he oversees.
“Ricciardo is on the market,” Marko told Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport, foreshadowing negotiations ahead of Ricciardo’s 2018–19 contract expiry. “We must certainly look for alternatives. We will not be caught off guard.”
It’s a dramatic departure from the brand’s keep-at-all-costs attitude to Carlos Sainz when the Spaniard came onto Renault’s radar. Then Marko wouldn’t so much as consider trading one of his hard-earnt stars; now he seems far less perturbed about losing one of the herd.
“He has broken some records and I guess Red Bull, especially as a brand, would like him to break more,” Ricciardo acknowledged. “And that is fine. I get how it would boost the brand’s image.”
But even if he acknowledges there has been no bias against him inside the team, where does that leave the 28-year-old in the immediate term, with contract negotiations around the corner and a championship clock ticking?
Rumours have long linked Ricciardo with a move to Ferrari, where his Italian heritage and language skills would stand him in good stead with the brand and staff, and he’s also in the Scuderia’s traditional age and experience window.
But would Vettel, the former champion Daniel once vanquished, stand for him reappearing in the opposite garage? Even if the answer were yes, any driver to sign up in 2019 would be at risk of being squeezed out by Ferrari young guns Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi, who are in line to debut at Sauber next season and seemed destined to ascend to careers in red — if indeed they didn’t impress sufficient to warrant immediate promotion.
Ricciardo’s standing has also linked him to Mercedes, where Bottas exists on a one-year contract with a recent history of underperformance. Perhaps this too is an option — but why would the Silver Arrows outsource when Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is performing extremely strongly for Force India?
With the top two teams struck from the list the permutations enter murkier waters. Renault is a manufacturer team with big ambitions to return to podium contention next season, but is that achievable considering its current deficit and will that make it a championship contender in 2019 anyway?
McLaren, too, could be fertile ground, but perhaps only in the unlikely event Stoffel Vandoorne dramatically underdelivers and Lando Norris is thought too inexperienced to replace him — or if Fernando Alonso leaves, but surely this would suggest the team is far from title-winning form, rendering it too risky a move.
There are few long-term stable alternatives for Daniel Ricciardo. Indeed his only option, despite consensus saying he must find a team of his own, may be to renew terms with what could be Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing, where only comprehensively defeating the Dutchman — unlikely given both occupy a similar tier of talent — would be enough to deliver him the championship he craves.
Timing is critical in Formula One, but for Daniel Ricciardo, whose ascendancy has happened to coincide with that of Max Verstappen, timing might be poised to prove his undoing.