Daniel in the lions’ den

With F1 teams constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, the average age of the drivers on modern-day grids keeps falling. To wit: Mark Webber was 25 years old when he made his F1 debut in 2002. Just 11 years later, Daniel Ricciardo will start his 38th race at Silverstone at the end of June, which takes place the day before his 24th birthday.

Young in real life terms as Ricciardo is, eight of the 21 other drivers on this year’s F1 grid are younger than the West Australian, and most bring considerably more commercial muscle to their team. While 24 is not exactly ancient these days, the increasingly youthful face of F1 means the clock is ticking, and what’s worrying for fans of the Perth product is that his results appear to be going the wrong way just as a big prize could be presenting itself.

A drive with Red Bull Racing is one of the most coveted in the sport, and for the time being, Webber is in it. Many of those in the know are adamant this year will be Webber’s last hurrah, a thought aired even before the disgrace of Malaysia, where teammate Sebastian Vettel so openly flouted a team instruction and was, in Webber’s own words, “protected by the team as usual” when it was revealed that he’d put himself ahead of his employer (as an aside, would Webber have made it as far as Kuala Lumpur airport after the race at Sepang before being told he’d been relieved of his duties had the roles been reversed?).

For a bloke who was a grown-up before he made it to F1, and one with a strong moral compass in life generally, not just his sport, Vettel’s brazen betrayal cut Webber to his very core – and, perhaps, erased what few doubts there were remaining about what he would want to do next year.

The general consensus is that there’ll be a seat available at the team that has won the last three constructors’ championships (and seems well on the way to a fourth) for 2014, and if Red Bull (the company, not the race team) is serious about Scuderia Toro Rosso being used as a proving ground for the young driving talent on its F1 books, then Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t – shouldn’t – be an option to fill it. Given Vettel’s, shall we say, standing within the team, perhaps we won’t be surprised if the current Lotus driver (and Vettel’s badminton partner in Switzerland, no less) reluctantly appears before the sport’s photographers in Red Bull overalls for the official portrait pics in Melbourne (or, more likely, Bahrain) next March. But if Red Bull is to promote from within, current Toro Rosso drivers Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne are the two drivers in the box seat – and while Ricciardo looked to have the wood over his French teammate as this season began, Vergne has started to turn the tables in recent races.

With Webber’s future to be revealed by the (northern hemisphere) summer break in August, Ricciardo needs to strike back – and quickly – in the next three races before the good and great of F1 head to the nightclubs, befriend supermodels or do whatever else wealthy racing drivers on holiday do.

Two years ago, Ricciardo made his F1 debut at Silverstone, driving the twitchy HRT machine after being loaned to the back-of-the grid Spanish squad by Red Bull. Simply being in the sport was enough – Ricciardo’s wide grin, accentuated by his braces, showed you how happy he was simply to be there at first. Last year, things got more serious and, despite being out-scored by Vergne for the season (16-10), Ricciardo was generally the more convincing of the pair, annihilating his teammate 16-4 in qualifying in a consistent demonstration of his one-lap speed.

This year, things haven’t gone so smoothly for the Australian. Ricciardo leads Vergne 4-3 in qualifying and laid down an early marker with a strong seventh place in China, but in a sport where you’re only as good as your last race, Vergne has gained the ascendancy, finishing eighth in Monaco (after qualifying a career-best 10th) and backing that up with a sixth place on merit in Montreal last time out, the best result from his 27 races to date.

What do we know about Ricciardo in those two years since he made his F1 start? One, he can consistently transcend the capabilities of a car over one lap when everything’s on the line. Two, he’s a smooth driver who doesn’t over-stress his machinery. Three, he hasn’t allowed the somewhat surreal lifestyle and job requirements that come with being in such an elite group of sportspeople to change him one iota. Admirable traits, all three. But has he shown enough yet to be considered a lock for the Red Bull seat should it come up? Has Vergne, by dint of his recent form and because of the potential commercial benefits of his nationality by comparison, stolen the Australian’s thunder? And what of Antonio Felix da Costa, the 21-year-old Red Bull-backed ‘next big thing’ from Portugal who is tracking along nicely in the Formula Renault 3.5 series and is thought by many in the know to have more upside than either Ricciardo or Vergne when he eventually gets to F1?

The upcoming British Grand Prix is one of three races scheduled before F1’s now-standard mid-season break – and with the intrigue on the second Red Bull seat only set to intensify as we edge closer to August, there’s never been a better – and more crucial – time for Ricciardo to remind the sport of everything he has to offer, and why he was parachuted onto the grid two years ago at the same famed venue. His dreams of one day becoming Formula One world champion – and being able to take the next step towards achieving that end – may well come down to what he’s able to do in the next trio of races. Fair? Probably not. Reality? Perhaps.

Ricciardo’s talent is evident, but can he will himself to show what an Australian would call “enough mongrel” to capitalise on it? As every driver not named Sebastian Vettel has shown, there’s one way of leaving the Red Bull F1 program that doesn’t bear thinking about.

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