What led to Daniel Ricciardo’s decision?
Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to depart Red Bull Racing after five years in favour of the factory Renault team shook the F1 world on Friday. It was just 5 days prior to this that both he and team principal Christian Horner had stated that an extension to his existing contract was a ‘mere formality’ and just needed signing. So what made Ricciardo bail at the last minute?
Despite 7 wins with the Red Bull squad over the past few years, everyone’s favourite Australian has struggled to mount a formidable title challenge with RBR machinery in the latest era. It was a different story before he joined the Milton Keynes team. While he came up through the junior programme in Toro Rosso, RBR reigned supreme; with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber taking four straight drivers and constructors titles. Heading into 2014 he must have thought the world had landed at his feet; but sadly that would not be the case. Mercedes-AMG have been dominant in the new hybrid era; and while Ferrari have managed to take the fight too them, Red Bull Racing have struggled. The once-almighty Renault engines have caused numerous issues with Adrian Newey’s latest chassis’, with reliability plaguing Ricciardo and Verstappen’s recent efforts. It therefore seems strange that Ricciardo would be in favour of such a move, given that the engine supplier has been a major factor to his struggles, until you look into the situation more closely.
What has happened to Aston Martin Red Bull Racing?
The announcement that Aston Martin Red Bull Racing would be switching from Renault to Honda engine supply from 2019 has been met by much scepticism amongst the paddock. Following an abysmal spell with McLaren; Honda appear to have finally got on top of their woes this year with Toro Rosso, but no where near enough to reach the front-runners. At 29 years old, Ricciardo’s entering the final phase of his F1 career; so he cannot afford to have a spell in the mid-field like Fernando Alonso whilst they continue to develop the engine to a suitable standard. RBR are unlikely to challenge for race wins or the title next year; as it will be primarily be seen as a transitional year for the squad ahead of the major rule changes in 2021. Moreover, with the simplification of the front wing aerodynamics for 2019, RBR’s strong chassis may no longer provide such an advantage over it’s competitors, exposing its weaknesses even further.
Renault’s F1 comeback
Renault on the other hand, appear to be on a much more upward trajectory. Their performance has to be marvelled since re-entering the sport as a manufacturer. In 2016 they finished 9th. In 2017, 6th. As we reach the mid-point of the 2018 season, they currently sit 4th; albeit 141 behind RBR in third. However, if you assume that RBR are to have such a significant transition whilst adapting to the Honda engines, third place in the constructors is certainly on the cards. Ricciardo knows Renault engines, love them or hate them, he has been with them for the majority of his F1 career. With manufacturer backing and his acquired knowledge from RBR; there stands a great possibility to bring Renault back to its former glory. Every time Renault have entered Formula 1 as a manufacturer, they have become champion; so there is little reason to doubt their overall ability. You only have to look back to Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren Mercedes in favour of Mercedes-AMG to see how this gamble can pay off. But will it?
But what if Renault can’t continue this upward trajectory? You only have to look at Force India to see how volatile the world of Formula 1 could be. With Mercedes engines they looked to be the clear ‘best of the rest’ for the 2016/2017 seasons. Taking 4th in the constructors last year was their best effort to date; and yet it was announced at Hungary that the team has gone into administration. With Sergio Perez’s and Esteban’s Ocon’s futures in F1 looking uncertain, it demonstrates that you cannot rely on previous success.
How does Ricciardo’s move effect the drivers market?
Before Friday, the 2019 driver market looked set to be a stale mate. Ferrari and Mercedes are already likely to retain their existing line-up, so RBR’s newly vacated seat now become’s the most sought after property on the grid. But who are the likely and unlikely contenders to fill Ricciardo’s empty seat?
- Carlos Sainz – On loan to Renault for the 2018 season, Carlos Sainz is still technically under contract with the RBR/Toro Rosso family. The most experienced driver RBR have within their programme available, however previous relationship with Verstappen at Toro Rosso may hamper his chances. With both vying for the RBR seat, both resisted team orders and were less than friendly. Verstappen is likely to become the #1 driver for the team in 2019, so this fractured team dynamic is something the senior management will seek to avoid. Chances of seat: HIGH
- Pierre Gasly – The new RBR protege. Despite being in his rookie year in F1, we have seen flashes of brilliance from him similar to a young Max Verstappen at Bahrain. RBR are known for their home-grown talent and for taking risks with young drivers too, so a pairing of Gasly/Verstappen would show promise. Gasly also has experience with the Honda power unit, which could prove vital in 2019. Chances of seat: VERY HIGH
- Fernando Alonso – It’s well known that Alonso hasn’t been happy with McLaren in recent years. Trips to Indycar and a season in WEC are subsiding this distain for now; being thrown a lifeline from RBR could bring back his passion for Formula 1. With a vast knowledge from rival teams, he could be beneficial to RBR. However, his public opinion of Honda and his unlikeliness to play #2 to Verstappen could go against him. Chances of seat: LOW
- Charles Leclerc – 2018’s dark horse, Leclerc has dragged Sauber into he points multiple times this season. He shares similar skills to Ricciardo and Hamilton; but is unlikely to be a free agent as Ferrari will keep him close. Chances of seat: VERY LOW
- Sergio Perez – With Force India’s current difficulties Perez is likely to be looking for a new seat in F1. He has a number of years of experience on his side and has stood on the podium; so will be near the top of the pecking order. Despite this, although he had exceptional drives for Sauber in the early part of his career; these seem to have subsided. Chances of seat: LOW
What happen’s next?
With the summer break just starting, Ricciardo’s shock exit from RBR has certainly spiced up the 2019 driver market. It is unlikely we will hear a quick update on who will be taking Ricciardo’s empty seat; as RBR will seek to evaluate all options. My guess would be that we will find out by the Italian or Singapore GP’s; giving us 4-6 agonising weeks trying to predict who will take make the step up.
Who do you think will take Ricciardo’s seat at Red Bull Racing? Let me know in the comments!