A red-letter day

Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. To wit: Daniel Ricciardo made his F1 debut, if you count driving for HRT as driving for an F1 team, back in 2011 – half a season ahead of fellow Red Bull-backed contemporary Jean-Eric Vergne as the pair fought for the affections of those with influence at Red Bull Racing.

For Ricciardo to have half a season of racing under his belt before the head-to-head judgement against Vergne began was invaluable in the context of the 18 months that followed.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the fourth race of the season in Bahrain. With a qualifying lap that was arguably more impressive than anything another driver managed all season, Ricciardo hauled the Toro Rosso to sixth on the grid, a mighty effort in a car that, on merit, struggled to see the top 10 with a pair of binoculars. Veteran technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, not a man prone to blowing smoke where unnecessary, described Ricciardo’s effort of out-qualifying three world champions (Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen) in his fourth race driving anything other than a tail-end car as “quite extraordinary”. As has been much publicised since, Ricciardo undid a lot of that good work with a poor start and a meek first lap that saw him get elbowed all the way back to 16th, but those in the know recognised true pace – the sheer speed born of immense talent that few possess – when they saw it.

Jump ahead to 2013, and the departure of Schumacher and, to a lesser extent, Pedro de la Rosa in the off-season made Mark Webber the oldest driver on the grid, and questions that wouldn’t be asked of a 36-year-old had older drivers stuck around started to come. The ‘retirement’ word was used regularly throughout the Australian Grand Prix weekend, and brought Ricciardo’s future into sharper focus. Those familiar with Webber recognised the body language he displayed at Albert Park as a sign that he was competing in his final home Grand Prix, meaning time was of the essence for Ricciardo – and Vergne.

When Webber eventually announced his F1 retirement before the British GP in June, Ricciardo already had one foot in next year’s RB10 by dint of his flashes of top-drawer performance over the past season and a half. While Vergne was plodding around in Q2, three straight top-10 starts for Ricciardo immediately after Webber announced he was off to compete in sports cars was the ideal way to make the most of the situation.

While Ricciardo’s timing – married to no shortage of talent, which some keyboard warriors have discounted since he was promoted to Red Bull, choosing instead to talk up Vergne as the better option for the sake of appearing controversial and attracting attention to themselves – has been perfect, Red Bull might have played a blinder in choosing the Australian over a sure-fire bet in Kimi Raikkonen, who says little, gives away less and finishes in the points at close to every race. Perhaps by 2016, we’ll know more.

Sebastian Vettel is out of contract at the end of 2015, by which time he’ll be 28 years old, a potential five or six-time world champion, edging towards 50 Grand Prix victories and, ominously, with at least five years of his prime ahead of him. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso will be 34 and may well have had enough by then. Might Vettel do what his great friend and mentor Schumacher did and leave a known quantity behind for Ferrari, as Schumacher did in 1996 when he departed Benetton at a similar age (27)?

By then Ricciardo will be 26, have had two seasons in a top team, and should – if his career keeps progressing on a similar upward trajectory to his first two-and-a-half seasons – be ready to assume the mantle of being a team leader.

Had Red Bull chosen Raikkonen, he’d be 36 by then, and who knows if he’d be bothered staying in the sport by that stage (remember how miserable he made driving for Ferrari look in 2009?) A Vettel/Raikkonen pairing would have achieved nothing for Red Bull’s succession planning as it looked to fight with a McLaren where the talented (and cashed-up) Sergio Perez should be coming into his own, a powerhouse Mercedes outfit where Lewis Hamilton should still be a formidable force, and perhaps someone like a Antonio Felix da Costa, who could be ready to become a Grand Prix winner.

All food for thought.

While the success (or otherwise) of Red Bull’s decision to parachute Ricciardo into a race-winning car based largely on potential next season will be determined in due course, one has to wonder about the timing of Monday’s decision, which was perhaps predictable given the haphazard way the situation has been handled since Webber caught some sections of its management on the hop with his decision to quit the sport at Silverstone.

On Monday night, much of the English-speaking F1 press was at the premiere of Ron Howard’s film ‘Rush’ in London and missed the Ricciardo news, although listening to some of them whingeing that they didn’t get the scoop because they were otherwise distracted with their snouts in the trough was cause for some amusement. A world away from the media gravy train, most of Australia was about to wake up; Perth, Ricciardo’s home town, was sound asleep at 3.30am. As PR exercises go, it wasn’t the best. But one smiling Australian probably couldn’t have cared less.

Ricciardo’s attitude and approach since he first set foot in an F1 paddock has made an impression on everyone who has come across his path; while timing clearly is everything, perhaps another saying, that nice guys finish last, could be re-assessed in the coming years. For this scribe, who has interviewed far too many prima donnas in the F1 paddock to count, one certainly hopes so.

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