Australia’s F1 star is fast approaching a crossroads, and it’s just one of the intriguing subplots of the new season ahead.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 2018 ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE
The Formula One driver was at a crossroads as he hit his late 20s. Globally famous, well compensated financially for his talents and a winner of multiple Grands Prix, he was an established star with the only team he’d ever known. Which posed a question: stick with what you know, or take a calculated risk, one with no guarantees, but one that came with potentially greater rewards?
The year and driver? No, not 2018 and Daniel Ricciardo; 2012 and Lewis Hamilton. The Briton, world champion in just his second season in 2008, had been tied to McLaren since the age of 13, but decided it was time to cut the umbilical cord. Then 27, Hamilton shocked the F1 establishment for 2013 by dumping McLaren to head to Mercedes, winners of a solitary Grand Prix in three years since returning to F1 as a constructor in its own right. At the time, it seemed like madness.
Since? Mercedes has become F1’s unstoppable force, winning four drivers’ and constructors’ world championships in a row from 2014, when F1 moved into the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era. In the past four years, Hamilton has won three titles, finished runner-up to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016, and taken his career win tally to 62 to trail only Michael Schumacher in the sport’s history books. All from zigging when history, pedigree and common convention suggested he should zag. As a footnote, McLaren hasn’t won a race since he left …
What does this have to do with the 28-year-old Ricciardo, who starts his eighth Formula One season in the Red Bull pen at his home race in Melbourne in March? He’ll tell you. Out of contract at the end of this season and with a chance to explore his options as a free agent for the first time, the Perth-born product knows that his next deal could change the narrative as he approaches the middle-age of his F1 life, and put him on a path where the race wins, hefty bank balance, fame and respect within his sport could be joined by world championships if he plays his cards right.
“I’m 29 (this year) and the next deal will take me into my 30s, so it’s not like I’m the young unproven kid who’ll sign anything just to get on the grid,” he says.
“You look at Lewis and when he did his Mercedes deal, he was the same age if I remember correctly. He was already doing very well where he was, but his career has really taken off since then, hasn’t it?
“So, there’s a lot to consider.”
Red Bull and Ricciardo has been a mutually beneficial marriage; the driver’s ebullient personality aligns with the drink manufacturer’s image, and with five victories in a four-year period of Mercedes turning most Grands Prix into a race for second place, Ricciardo has become Australia’s fourth-most successful F1 driver, behind only world champions Sir Jack Brabham (14 wins) and Alan Jones (12), and the man he succeeded at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber (nine). But there’s a growing sense that if he’s to become a world champion like Brabham and Jones were, and not fall short when the title window is prised ajar like Webber did, he needs to ‘do a Hamilton’ and back himself to succeed elsewhere. There’s a reason he could, and two more why he arguably should.
Last October, Ricciardo’s teammate, 20-year-old Max Verstappen, extended his tenure with Red Bull until the end of 2020, the announcement of his deal coming weeks after team principal Christian Horner urged the exciting Dutchman to stay long-term and “build a team” around him. Horner moved quickly to mend fences with Ricciardo after the comments raised plenty of eyebrows up and down pit lane, the Australian telling Autosport “that is not what you want to hear” as Verstappen’s long-term signature brought his own future into sharper focus.
Ricciardo is eight years older than Verstappen, who appears, at least in his first two years in the sport, to be a once-in-a-generation talent the likes of which F1 hasn’t seen since Sebastian Vettel burst onto the scene a decade ago. When your teammate is younger, plainly very quick and has a lengthier deal with a team that wants to “build” around him, is Ricciardo destined to become Red Bull’s de facto number two driver, the modern-day Webber to Verstappen’s Vettel?
Another move in the driver market that could have an equally significant impact on Ricciardo’s options is the signing of 2017 F2 champion Charles Leclerc to drive with Sauber, which has a new alignment with Ferrari-owned Alfa Romeo for 2018. At 20, Leclerc represents the future, and almost certainly signals the end of the career of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who turns 39 in October and hasn’t won a race in five years. No Australian has ever driven for Ferrari in F1, and with Leclerc’s forthcoming debut season showing Ferrari envisages a finish line for Raikkonen’s high-speed superannuation tour, the door has likely been closed for the Aussie with the Italian heritage for the time being.
Which brings us to Mercedes. The Silver Arrows were left stunned when Rosberg won the 2016 title and promptly quit, bringing an end to a fractious three-year period where Mercedes’ dominance came against a backdrop of inter-team tension between the German and Hamilton. With its world champion electing to stay home, Mercedes moved quickly to prise Valtteri Bottas out of his Williams contract last season, a financial sweetener on Williams’ Mercedes-supplied engine bill allowing the Finn to wriggle free to become Rosberg’s replacement.
On the surface, Bottas’ debut season at the sport’s benchmark team was perfectly acceptable – three wins, third overall in the championship – but he took victory in just one of the final 11 Grands Prix as Hamilton turned a tense title fight into a rout by winning five of the first six races after F1’s summer break, rising to a level that Bottas (and the rest) simply couldn’t match. Given the car advantage Mercedes had over Ferrari, Bottas’ inability to oust Vettel from the runner-up spot in the championship was a cross on his 2017 report card, and a one-year contract extension for 2018 was a tepid endorsement from his team.
Is the Finn, a junior rival of Ricciardo’s, really the long-term solution at Mercedes? Is Mercedes-backed youngster Esteban Ocon, about to start his second full-season with Force India, up to competing for a top-line team at this stage of his career? And, employing a longer lens, how long will Hamilton, now 33 and himself out of contract at the end of 2018, carry on? After Rosberg walked on a whim, Mercedes will be extra wary of safeguarding its future while looking to capitalise on the present.
All questions we don’t – and simply can’t – know answers to just yet. But what the sport does know is what Ricciardo brings. He’s arguably the most apolitical driver on the grid and, for someone who has become a media go-to for a soundbite, is a leader with deeds as much as words, a consistent presence with no agendas or so much of the bullshit that comes with F1. There’s no entourage, no (forget low) maintenance and a laser-like focus when the visor snaps shut. And then there’s his on-track body of work. For all of the hype about Verstappen, Ricciardo has finished ahead of the Dutchman in the world championship in both seasons they’ve been teammates, and he trounced four-time world champion Vettel when they were at Red Bull together in 2014. And in wheel-to-wheel combat? Ricciardo’s pass of three rivals in one corner in Azerbaijan last year – voted by the sport’s fans on social media as the best overtake of 2017 – was as unsurprising as it was breathtakingly audacious.
Early indications are that F1 2018 will be a familiar tale; Mercedes up front, with Red Bull and Ferrari squabbling for second-best status. Red Bull should be closer than it has been in recent years, but for all of the aerodynamic benefits of designing a slippery chassis, F1, since 2014, is an engine formula first and foremost. And of the options available, there’s only one you’d want.
In the 79 Grands Prix held in the past four years, Mercedes-powered cars have won 63 of them, and a subtle regulation tweak for 2018 will do little to raise hopes of stalling the silver stampede. Each driver now has just three new engines to complete the season in a calendar that has expanded to 21 Grands Prix. Given Ricciardo and Verstappen took multiple grid penalties last year for exceeding their pool of Renault power plants when more (four) could do less (20 races), it doesn’t bode well.
Vettel will keep Ferrari in the fight, but 2018 is likely to come down to Red Bull versus Mercedes as the clock ticks on Ricciardo’s future. Meaning he could be forgiven for applying the simple logic of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” as he ponders his next move.