A few lines was all it took – for what those lines did and didn’t say. Listed among the names set to drive the Red Bull RB9 at this week’s Young Driver Test at Silverstone: Daniel Ricciardo. Not listed: Jean-Eric Vergne. And not stated: that the quest to become teammate to Sebastian Vettel at the three-time reigning Formula One constructors’ champions is now down to a race in two.
Ricciardo’s inclusion in the list of drivers on Red Bull’s ‘A’ squad for the three-day test is a clear statement of intent by Red Bull Racing that it’s the West Australian, not his French teammate, who is now the favoured Scuderia Toro Rosso pilot to potentially take over Mark Webber’s vacated seat from 2014 onwards. On the surface, it’s a little harsh on Vergne, given he out-scored Ricciardo 16-10 last year, and shades him 13-11 in their intra-team battle this season. But quality can play as big of a part in such decisions as quantity, and in the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ bubble that F1 operates in, Ricciardo’s recent performances since Webber announced he was quitting F1 late last month – a fine eighth at Silverstone and a second successive equal career-best qualifying effort of sixth a week later at the Nurburgring – surely played a big part.
Of course, Ricciardo has tested with Red Bull before, but the stakes were never as high as this time. Rewind to Jerez in 2009, when a 20-year-old Ricciardo drove the RB5 at an end-of-season young drivers’ test in Spain, when the drivers in attendance actually were young (we’re wondering what the soon-to-be 37-year-old Webber makes of being included in this year’s YDT). In what amounted to a showcase of up-and-coming talent from across the world, Ricciardo was more than a second – light years – quicker than anyone else on those three days in the south of Spain.
A year later, the week after Webber’s biggest career disappointment when he narrowly missed the 2010 world title in Abu Dhabi, Ricciardo’s next Bull run was arguably more impressive. Yes, the track was rubbered in nicely after three days of on-track activity at the Yas Marina Circuit, but setting a best lap time that was 1.3 seconds quicker than Vettel had recorded to take pole position for the season finale confirmed he had the right stuff, and he was on the F1 grid halfway through the next season with HRT.
What does this week’s opportunity mean for the 24-year-old? Yes, it’s another chance to impress those who matter in the Red Bull hierarchy, namely one Helmut Marko, Vettel confidante and assessor of talent coming through the Red Bull-backed ranks. By now, 39 races into his F1 career, Ricciardo is a known quantity; the test and his performance in it will be as much to confirm what the top brass already know as anything else. Where the stopwatch comes to a halt is important, but not the be all and end all. How he works with new people, what feedback he offers, and how he fits in with the team might be just as critical; that said, a strong position on the Wednesday afternoon time sheets won’t hurt.
To many, including this observer, Kimi Raikkonen is still the favourite for the seat alongside his badminton partner Vettel; the Finn is still super-quick, will drive the wheels off anything he parks his backside in and is as utterly disinterested in anything else to do with F1 as ever. All attractive qualities for a team that likes to push the street cred angle as much as it likes to rack up drivers’ and constructors’ titles. But Ricciardo is now very much in the frame, and all eyes will be keenly focused on what he’s able to achieve on Wednesday.
Repeatedly stepping up when the stakes are raised is a sign of a driver with that little something extra. Ricciardo’s performances since his compatriot Webber announced he was leaving the sport augur well. As did Jerez 2009. As did Abu Dhabi 2010. Can Silverstone 2013 be spoken about in years to come as another landmark moment in Ricciardo’s career? Thanks to Tuesday’s announcement, we’re about to find out.