AUSTRALIAN ace DANIEL RICCIARDO may have a number of opponents in his own team, as PETER COSTER reports:
DANIEL RICCIARDO stood on the podium at the Japanese Grand Prix for the ninth time this season, but he was third behind teammate Max Verstappen, who started behind him on the grid, and thereby hangs the reason why the Australian driver may not be sitting in a Red Bull after next year.
Expect the 28-year-old Ricciardo to be driving for either Ferrari or Mercedes in 2019. Verstappen has retired from seven races this year, not always from trying to drive through places where no other driver dares to go, and won at Malaysia before the circus moved on to the Suzuka track at Japan.
Ricciardo, who has kept Red Bull near the top of the constructors’ championship behind Ferrari and Mercedes, won the Azerbaijan race around the streets of the medieval walled city on the Caspian Sea in June.
On those results, it is Ricciardo who has proved reliable and Verstappen often impulsive, but Verstappen is fast and fast drivers are what Grand Prix racing is about. There are other factors, such as the Renault engine in the Red Bull cars.
The Red Bull chassis is one of the reasons the cars are so highly placed, but the engine just doesn’t have the sheer grunt of the Mercedes and Ferrari engines on the straights, where the Red Bulls are at a 15km/h disadvantage.
Verstappen and Ricciardo are two of the best drivers in F1 and youth and speed is intoxicating. Verstappen won at Malaysia the day after his 20th birthday. Ricciardo also has years in front of him, but there are unmistakeable signs that Red Bull may be looking elsewhere. The key to this is their own driver development program, which has produced both Ricciardo and Verstappen.
Team principal in charge of driver development Helmut Marko had 10 races in F1 before a stone thrown up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus went through his visor and blinded him in his left eye. He went on to win at Le Mans in endurance sports car racing.
Marko has been outspoken in his comments about Ricciardo’s future with Red Bull and apart from possibly firing up the Australian driver to greater efforts has done no-one any favours.
Ricciardo’s contract with Red Bull runs out next year and declaring that Ricciardo is “on the market” sounds as if Red Bull is not interested in signing him to a new contract.
Red Bull’s other team principal, Christian Horner, who is the man in charge on race days, says Marko “likes to state the obvious” and Ricciardo will technically be out of contract.
Horner is applying the lipstick but someone is telling porkies. While Ricciardo does not have a contract for 2019, neither do Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who has been stuck in a McLaren with an under-performing Honda engine, which will be replaced by a Renault power plant for 2019.
There is nothing to stop Red Bull re-signing Ricciardo but Marko’s comments will ensure the Australian, who has won five Grands Prix, will look around as he becomes a free agent.
There are already signs that Mercedes is looking at Ricciardo as a possible replacement for one of its drivers. Lewis Hamilton is likely to win his fourth world championship this year after his victory at Suzuka, which puts him 54 points ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
It’s interesting to note that Vettel left Red Bull for Ferrari after the end of the 2014 season when Ricciardo brought in better results, having won three races.
Verstappen is the faster starter and the faster qualifier. In Japan, he was less than three hundredths of a second from Ricciardo’s time, so Marko’s rude remarks might have stung.
During the race, Ricciardo was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, who had shot past him at the start. Red Bull’s Christian Horner was in the commentary box with Martin Brundle as the Australian stormed up behind the Mercedes driver with his DRS open.
“Be brave, Daniel,” said Horner as Ricciardo slipped smoothly past. Like Marko’s comments, it could have been taken the other way. Was Horner questioning Ricciardo’s commitment? Horner was a race driver, but realised he was not quick enough to reach F1 and turned to management.
“Give that man a pay raise,” said Brundle, who is a former GP driver, to which Horner responded, “He’s paid enough already.”
How much is he paid? According to F1 driver contracts, $6.5 million a year, about double that paid to Verstappen, but well short of the $31 million paid to Lewis Hamilton and the $50 million a year paid to Sebastian Vettel. All in US dollars, of course.
Sitting above Christian Horner and Helmut Marko at Red Bull is the German multi-billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, who said earlier this year that he wanted to see Verstappen become the youngest world champion in F1 history.
Ricciardo, who enjoys a joke, phoned Mateschitz and said, “I’ve read your comments and unless you pay me $10 million, I’m leaving.”
Ricciardo’s big boyish grin masks a mind as sharp as his race pace. “I don’t take those kinds of comments from my bosses personally at all,” he said later. “I know I have a good relationship with Red Bull and I’ve always been loyal to them as well.
“They’re never unfair to me in any way and from their point of view I understand why it’s so much about Max. He’s the youngest driver in history and as a brand it makes for pretty good headlines.” Verstappen was only 17 when he entered F1 driving a Toro Rosso at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.
“In the end, I know this is also a business,” said Ricciardo.
Ricciardo says he is “100 per cent, well, 99.999 per cent sure” he will be lining up in a Red Bull at the opening race in Melbourne next year.
Marko dug himself further into a hole when he said Ricciardo was the number four driver in F1.
That must mean he puts Lewis Hamilton at number one, Sebastian Vettel at number two and Max Verstappen third in front of Ricciardo.
The results say differently. It will be Red Bull which is the loser if Ricciardo does leave. The Australian has been seen shaking hands and flashing that toothy smile at Mercedes boss Toto Wolff around the pit lane.
Wolff is executive director of the Mercedes team, of which he owns 30 per cent, and made a point of welcoming Ricciardo to join in a pit lane interview as Ricciardo walked past before the Suzuka race.
The first person to shake Ricciardo’s hand in the cool-down room after the Japanese Grand Prix was wearing a Mercedes team shirt. That was before he patted Lewis Hamilton on the shoulder.
Body language says more in the edgy world of Formula One than comments from Marko, who appears to have a one-eyed view of Verstappen not shared by the thousands of fans who cheered louder for Ricciardo than for Verstappen and Hamilton.
Ricciardo had the last laugh, picking up Hamilton’s mobile as Hamilton raised the winner’s trophy and putting selfies of himself on the phone for Hamilton to find.
Ricciardo also revels in taking down up-themselves interviewers such as the tosser who asked was he “courting” other teams. “How’s the courting process going?” asked Simon Lazenby.
“What is courting?” responded a grinning Ricciardo.
Lazenby: “It’s just a kind of a posh British expression…. flirting.”
Ricciardo (putting on a British accent): “Well, one would say one doth like to flirt.”
We like it when Ricciardo tosses off the champagne he pours into one of his driving boots or has F1 become too posh for that, one wonders.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.