Daniel Ricciardo, known for his last minute, late braking and breathtaking overtaking moves, made a similar move off-track while announcing his departure from Red Bull Racing a day after the Formula 1 circus set-off on its annual 'summer break'. Like most of our peers in Motorsport media, we too are compiling this Ricciardo-Red Bull-Renault special sitting on a beach in Southern Europe!
— Kunal Shah (@kunalashah) August 3, 2018
It was at the 2011 British Grand Prix when Ricciardo made his Formula 1 debut with the Hispania Racing Team (HRT) replacing none other than India’s favourite driver of the yesteryears, Narain Karthikeyan. After being promoted to race for Toro Rosso in 2012 and 2013, Ricciardo partnered Sebastian Vettel in 2014; beating the quadruple World Champion in a straight fight that season. Ricciardo quitting the Red Bull Racing camp comes almost a decade after they forged a partnership, through his junior formula days.
Ricciardo-Renault: The timing
First things first, the timeline of the Ricciardo-Renault partnership is of extreme interest. It was only a fortnight ago that Renault indicated interest in extending Carlos Sainz Jr’s contract with the team for next season. This piece of news was followed by a rumour (at last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix) that with the growing troubles at Force India, Mercedes was negotiating with a Renault a cockpit for 2019 for their junior driver Esteban Ocon.
Similarly, on the Red Bull Racing side of things, Ricciardo told the media (on 8 July, 2018, during the British Grand Prix) that after Ferrari and Mercedes, Red Bull was the only other attractive option and made it sound as though an extension of services would only be a formality.
In fact, it was only on Friday that Red Bull Racing released a promotional video starring Ricciardo. Apart from suspecting that the Ricciardo-Renault decision was made only in the last few days, what could have prompted the Australian driver to risk leaving Red Bull Racing and join Renault for the next two seasons?
While publicly denying it, Red Bull Racing does favour Max Verstappen and maybe rightly so. The young Dutchman is impatient and error-prone, but when he keeps his racing clean, Verstappen definitely seems more than a match for Ricciardo; who without a doubt is one of the most consistent and error-free drivers on the grid. We’ve seen Ricciardo make almost no contact with his rivals while engaged in wheel-to-wheel combat.
Ricciardo not wanting to be Verstappen's Webber
However, in the Red Bull Racing scenario, a talent such as Verstappen comes only once in a decade or less and they are right in holding on to him and placing all their eggs in the Verstappen basket. Despite all his early season mistakes, Verstappen has recovered to the sixth position in the Drivers' Championship (behind Ricciardo in fifth) and the hope is that as time passes and Verstappen gains both experience and maturity, he will be Red Bull Racing’s main driver to fight for the Drivers’ Championship.
In which case, Ricciardo maybe keen not to become a Mark Webber in Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing team. Apart from the Red Bull-Verstappen scenario, Ricciardo, who is 29-years-old this season, would have been wary of Red Bull’s choice in using the fourth-slowest power unit on the grid, Honda. While taking a risk with Honda power would not do much harm to Red Bull Racing’s overall business operations in Formula 1 (they would still be paid handsomely by Formula 1 for lining up on the grid every season plus a sponsorship fee by Honda, plus free engines), losing two years to possible blown up power-units and fighting in the mid-field could mean loss of time and reputation for Ricciardo.
Let’s remember, most driver contracts end by the 2020 Formula 1 Season (including that of Formula 1's top three stars – Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Verstappen) and Ricciardo would be one among many hunting for a good drive. In the world of sport, you are only as good as your last performance and Ricciardo is in the prime of his. After Hamilton and Vettel, Ricciardo is the driver with the third-highest number of wins this season. So, there’s little doubt he wants to make the most of his present, rather than waiting to see how the future could unfold.
Ricciardo: Trading GP wins for money?
A few weeks ago, Ricciardo expressed disappointment at not receiving enough interest from either Ferrari or Mercedes. Did Red Bull Racing use this as a negotiation tool while discussing Ricciardo’s remuneration? And was the remuneration offered lesser or on par with Verstappen’s – who is still settling down in Formula 1? It does seem likely that money could be one of the primary reasons for Ricciardo to jump ship from Red Bull Racing to Renault and it could also be argued that Ricciardo’s ask from Red Bull Racing could have been out-of-bounds.
That said, one wonders what the differential amount could be – given that Renault (in their own words) are interested in running a lean ship and not throw money to beat their rivals. And if Ricciardo has traded race wins, podiums and a shot at the Drivers’ Championship in the immediate future for a higher earning? Going by current form, the Red Bull Racing-Honda package may not offer Ricciardo those very performance opportunities in 2019 either; so encashing while your stock value is high can’t be that bad a move. In which case, is Renault the correct move for Ricciardo?
Going by Ricciardo’s own words, Red Bull Racing would have been a better bet after Ferrari and Mercedes. However, given the power that manufacturers are yielding in Formula 1 in the last few seasons, aligning forces with a former World Champion team and a works team might not be a bad idea altogether. If Red Bull Racing’s Honda decision is a surprise and out of no other option, so is Ricciardo’s decision to switch to Renault.
"A known devil is better than the unknown" might have crossed Ricciardo's mind as it seems that his belief in Renault could be far more than in Honda. Can Ricciardo use the next two seasons to build a team around him at Renault and lead the team into the yet-to-be-decided 2021 regulations era?
Ricciardo faster than Hulkenberg?
At Renault, Nico Hulkenberg has been leading the charge since 2017 and has been doing a stellar job of leading the team through its current phase of transition. However, it is the second car that has troubled the team ever since their return to the sport as a full-time constructor. Jolyon Palmer partnered Hulkenberg last season but was dropped mid-way to make way for Sainz Jr, who has also complimented Hulkenberg’s drives to help Renault remain fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
While the Renault package (chassis plus power unit) might not be podium material, Ricciardo’s arrival will definitely boost the team’s motivation and morale for next season. Renault’s expectation would be that the presumably faster Ricciardo should be able to drag their package further up the grid than what Hulkenberg and Sainz have managed this season.
And of course, in the Renault versus Red Bull Racing battle, Renault’s ability to snatch Ricciardo from Red Bull Racing at the last minute might make Ricciardo’s existing employers wonder if they negotiated too hard with their top-performing driver. Also, Renault’s signing of Ricciardo brings to an end all hopes for Mercedes to have their junior driver Esteban Ocon racing elsewhere in 2019 at least.
Ricciardo-Renault a la Hamilton-Mercedes or Alonso-Mclaren?
All the Formula 1 cars Ricciardo has raced till date have been Renault-powered (which might explain his hope). In which case, the performance differential between Red Bull Racing-Honda and Renault in 2019 would have crossed Ricciardo’s mind while making a decision.
The assumption one would make is that Renault, which has been making steady steps since its return, should be closer to Red Bull Racing-Honda in 2019, if not ahead – with neither drive offering him a probable shot at the Drivers’ Championship. But this is where Ricciardo’s key challenge would lie – to lead Renault back to their podium-scoring and race-winning selves in Formula 1.
This is why fans are already asking if Ricciardo-Renault is akin to Hamilton’s move to Mercedes in 2013, or would it go down the Fernando Alonso to Mclaren-Honda in 2015? For those interested in statistics, Hamilton moved to Mercedes when it was only the fifth fastest team on the grid. In Ricciardo’s case, Renault is currently fourth fastest.
Formula 1 has announced a change in aero regulations for 2019 and there has been chatter on social media, and various forums, of these regulations actually working against Red Bull Racing – who are perceived to be relying more on aerodynamics to remain ahead of the rest.
However, the rules for 2019 are to reduce dependency on the aerodynamic grip by a certain margin and not eliminate it altogether. In which case, such a regulation might not have necessarily Ricciardo to opt out of the Red Bull Racing camp. If anything, one could trust Red Bull Racing to claw back this loss of aerodynamic grip before most of the other teams.
Also for Renault, Ricciardo is possibly the biggest name they could have attracted towards their team and that they have managed to do so bears well for their confidence and the direction they have taken as a team.
However, a high-profile signing like Ricciardo will only add to Renault’s pressure to get the formula for their cars right starting 2019 itself.
Ricciardo’s two-year contract means that if the partnership doesn’t work out, he could well be on his way to another team (Ferrari or Mercedes) once either Vettel or Hamilton call it quits. It would have also crossed Ricciardo’s mind that at a few races this season, Renault’s cars were lapped by the winning driver with the hope that 2019 would be much different.
Who will partner Verstappen in 2019?
For Red Bull Racing, choosing a partner for Verstappen for 2019 could be dictated by which driver in their illustrious junior line-up is ready to step up to Formula 1 duties. Brendon Hartley’s Formula 1 career isn’t going as per plan and is the most-discussed driver in terms of a possible replacement. Pierre Gasly’s strong performances in Bahrain and Hungary could put him in contention for a Red Bull Racing promotion.
In which case, Red Bull Racing will have to fill two seats at Toro Rosso and for the first time since inception, their junior drivers don't seem ready for a promotion for Formula 1. Would they loan a seat to McLaren junior Lando Norris or would they risk promoting Daniel Tickum from Formula 3 ahead of his time? They might also offer one of Honda's not-so-ready junior drivers the other seat. But all of this might seem like a compromise for Toro Rosso’s capabilities and intentions of grooming future talent for Red Bull Racing.
In which case, bringing Sainz Jr back to the Red Bull Racing camp might make sense. The Spaniard, who partnered and was believed to have matched Verstappen in Toro Rosso in 2014, could be a part of a direct swap between Red Bull Racing and Renault. The other rumour has linked Sainz Jr to McLaren for 2019.
For a driver of Sainz Jr’s talent and calibre, it is only unfortunate that he is discussed as "second preference" as he will certainly make his third team switch in five years of racing in Formula 1. It could well be that Red Bull Racing might hire a Renault-discard for their team next season.
Somehow Carlos Sainz Jr.’s #F1 career has been one where all teams wanting him have kept him as “second preference”. There he goes out of favour once again! He’ll be racing in his 3rd team in 5 season. But will it be the race-winning Red Bull Racing? Or the struggling Mclaren?
— Kunal Shah (@kunalashah) August 3, 2018
Sainz Jr or Pierre Gasly?
Given Red Bull Racing's new relationship with Honda in 2019 and 2020, the energy drinks funded racing team would have hoped that Ricciardo’s experience has helped them nurture their new technical partnership with the Japanese manufacturer. In a similar thought, Sainz Jr would bring the experience of additional years of racing in Formula 1 than anyone else in the Red Bull camp, while Gasly would bring with him the experience of racing a Honda engine in 2018. This driver decision is going to be one of Red Bull Racing's toughest ones in recent times.
Equal driver status for top teams
With Ricciardo off to Renault, there are six cockpits yet to be confirmed for 2019, the key ones being Ferrari's second cockpit occupied by Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s by Alonso. While the teams will employ their drivers eventually, one key worry is the loss of equal driver status among the top teams from next season.
With Vettel, Hamilton and Verstappen expected to lead the charge for their respective teams, will their team-mates be restricted to wingman status, thereby reducing the joy of watching the top-six races without team orders? For Formula 1 and our sake, let's hope not.
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Updated Date: Aug 04, 2018 10:44:07 IST