The announcement this weekend from the Red Bull Racing team that their star driver – Daniel Ricciardo – is leaving the team at the end of the season, came as a bolt from the blue to the fans around the world. Subsequent confirmation from both the Renault Sport F1 team and the man himself only added to the shock. It even seemed like the team principal – Christian Horner – did not see it coming. The Red Bull management thought that Ricciardo putting pen to paper for another two-year contract was just a formality going into the summer break. But, it was not to be…
Red Bull Should Have Seen Ricciardo “Shocker” Coming
Daniel Ricciardo was quite open since the start of the season that he was looking for the best drive for 2019. But, there was complacency in the Red Bull team that he would eventually go nowhere. After all, he had come up the ranks from the Red Bull Young Drivers Programme.
The Initial Years in Formula 1
Ricciardo’s first taste of Formula 1 came with a test drive for Red Bull Racing in 2009 & 2010, followed by an active test driver’s role for the Scuderia Toro Rosso team for the 2011 season. He was then contracted out to Hispania Racing Team (HRT) in the latter part of the 2011 season. For 2012 & 2013 seasons, he drove full time for Toro Rosso impressing the Red Bull management and Helmut Marko in particular. That stint paved the way for a full-time seat with the senior Red Bull team from 2014 onwards when he was asked to fill in the shoes of his outgoing countryman – Mark Webber.
The Initial Years at Red Bull Racing
It was nothing short of a dream come true for the young Australian, joining a four-time championship winning team to partner a four-time WDC – Sebastian Vettel, in equal machinery. But, 2014 was the year that the new V6 hybrid-engine era was about to start, coinciding with the ascent of Mercedes AMG F1 team and the start of the decline of teams with other engines including Red Bull-Renault.
Red Bull was nowhere near their dominant form of the previous four years and even Vettel was struggling. But, Ricciardo gave a great account of himself, outscoring his illustrious teammate and being the only non-Mercedes winner in the whole season. He had taken opportunistic victories in Canada, Hungary & Belgium.
Rattled by his teammate, and seeing Red Bull’s decline, Vettel left to join Scuderia Ferrari, which made Ricciardo the lead driver at Red Bull from 2015. He easily dominated his new teammate – Daniil Kvyat – but could not outscore him due to reliability issues.
Partnership with Max Verstappen
Come 2016, and the misfortunes of Kvyat prompted Helmut Marko to promote Max Verstappen to the senior Red Bull team. In their first race together at the Spanish Grand Prix, a probable victory for Ricciardo looked to have been snatched from him and handed over to Verstappen due to a strategy error from his team.
Getting over that episode soon, Ricciardo clinched pole at the Monaco GP and looked set for the win, when the Red Bull team messed it up again for him in the pits. Two weekends in a row, he seemed to have been handed a raw deal by his team. The smile had been wiped off the face of the ever-smiling “honey badger” and a thought was beginning to set in his mind. With the arrival of Verstappen, his fortunes and the team’s priorities had started wavering.
The Final Nail
Ricciardo had got his redemption against Verstappen by outscoring him at the end of both seasons together. Though Verstappen was the rising star in the paddock with some prodigious drives, notably at a wet Interlagos track, Ricciardo had always looked the more mature and complete driver. He has established himself as one of the best overtakers on the grid and shown great racecraft since joining RBR. Notwithstanding all this, the Red Bull Management chose to place all their bets for the future on just one of their drivers, and it was not Daniel Ricciardo.
Verstappen was handed a lucrative deal by Horner to lock him in with the team until the end of 2020. Even the words from Horner, Marko and the rest of the management sounded like they wanted to rally around Verstappen. Ricciardo had started feeling that his home in F1 had been taken over by another young man hogging the limelight. Now, he was sure that the time was ripe for him to look out for fresher pastures.
The 2018 season so far…
This season started off relatively well for Ricciardo but was almost a disaster for Verstappen. While his teammate kept crashing almost every race weekend, Ricciardo got two super wins at Monaco and China under his belt. The driver market was abuzz with a move to either Mercedes or Ferrari in place of either of the Finns. But, both the Finns got their acts together and another young gun – Charles Leclerc – started looming on the horizon. Neither of the two front-running teams wanted to rock the ship by creating a potentially hostile intra-team rivalry by signing on Ricciardo.
With chances of a drive with Mercedes and Ferrari receding, McLaren and Renault expressed interest. But neither looked lucrative enough for Horner to lose sleep over. The words from both the team and the driver started sounding like a continuation of the status quo in 2019. But, deep inside Ricciardo was determined to take on a fresh challenge.
The Renault bait
The Renault team is not a race-winning outfit as yet, let alone being able to cater to the championship-winning ambitions of Ricciardo. But, the team is on an upward trajectory in a relatively short time since taking over a struggling Enstone unit. Ricciardo has chosen to take a leap of faith for the near-long term when the squad is expected to challenge for wins and titles. Even in the short term, Red Bull will be going with a yet unproven Honda engine from 2019, which might set them back. Renault is a works team and will not be short on investment. They have eventually won every time they have been in the sport.
The Last Word
Ricciardo has taken a smart and calculated risk in joining a works team on the rise. He takes his inspiration from a similar move by Lewis Hamilton when he left McLaren for Mercedes. His future teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, is a good benchmark and will make for a strong pairing. It’s a win-win scenario for both Ricciardo and the Renault team, as both have the pedigree and both need each other to reach the summit. May the fairytale come true!
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