THE AUSTRIAN Grand Prix has left Daniel Ricciardo with some serious thinking to do about his future, as PETER COSTER reports:
DANIEL Ricciardo might be the “king of the market,” but will he go, or will he stay at Red Bull, that is the question. Before the Austrian Grand Prix, it was a no- brainer the Australian driver would go to either Mercedes or Ferrari.
Mercedes second-stringer Valtteri Bottas is out of contract at the end of the season, as is Ferrari’s No. 2, Kimi Raikkonen.
But a smooth and superlative Bottas was on pole at the old Osterreichring circuit and might have won the race except that he and teammate Lewis Hamilton were forced to retire with mechanical problems.
Bottas is not only fast, he is disciplined and can be counted on defer to Hamilton to protect his lead in the drivers’ world championship.
Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda believes Bottas and Hamilton, who is also out of contract this year, will stay with the German team.
Kimi Raikkonen, who is second banana to four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, is a compliant No. 2 at Ferrari.
In any case, Raikkonen is likely to retire at the end of the season as Formula One’s oldest driver at the age of 39.
Just as likely is that he will be replaced by Sauber driver Charles Leclerc, a Formula Two champion and under contract to Ferrari.
The Monaguesque is on loan to the Swiss team to gain experience without the pressure of over-expectation as a Ferrari driver.
There has been an offer of $20 million for Ricciardo to drive for McLaren when Fernando Alonso moves on, as he is expected to do at the end of the year.
The double-world champion has complained bitterly at McLaren’s lack of performance and may pursue Indy Car racing.
The Indianapolis 500 would be the third jewel in motor racing’s triple-crown. The Spanish driver has won the Monaco Grand Prix twice and won the Le Mans 24-hour classic at his first outing on the Sarthe circuit only last month.
But why would Ricciardo go to the once-dominant McLaren team, which is riven with internal disputes and on the back end of the grid in spite of having switched from Honda power to Renault this year?
Ricciardo has already said it’s not the money, it’s the chance of winning a world drivers’ championship that drives him.
Helmut Marko, who is in charge of Red Bull’s driver development program, believes Ricciardo is close to signing a new contract with Red Bull after saying earlier in the season that the Australian driver was likely to go.
Ricciardo seems to be coming to the same conclusion, but there are issues for him that are becoming increasingly obvious.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won at Austria and has now been on the podium at the past three GPs.
The Dutch wunderkind started fifth and was lavished with praise in Austria by Red Bull principal Christian Horner for his mature drive on blistering tyres.
Ricciardo, who started seventh, was forced to retire when his engine gave out earlier in the race.
Driving alongside Verstappen next year will require delicate management if Ricciardo is to stay with Red Bull.
It must be a race between equals but a situation similar to that experienced by Mark Webber at Red Bull has emerged.
The Australian driver believed the team favoured Sebastian Vettel and that it affected his chances of winning a world drivers’ championship, particularly when he was leading in the points and Vettel deliberately drove into him as he tried to pass the German in the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix.
In qualifying at Austria, Ricciardo left the pits in front of Verstappen who would not pull back to give Ricciardo clear air when it became his turn to set a hot lap.
Ricciardo slowed, but so did Verstappen with the Australian calling on the pits to tell Verstappen to go ahead.
The Dutchman’s answer was immediate and clear over the radio: “No.”
Ricciardo said he was merely “punching a hole in the air” for Verstappen to get a tow to a faster qualifying time.
“It could have been more fair,” said an obviously angry and frustrated Ricciardo.
Verstappen said it was his turn to get the tow from Ricciardo, who had gone out first to set a qualifying time at the French Grand Prix the previous week.
This is exactly the sort of argy-bargy that went on between Webber and Vettel.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner later said it was an arrangement that had been part of Red Bull’s qualifying protocol for seven years, so in spite of the order to let Ricciardo go to the front, Horner then sided with Verstappen.
That is likely to continue. Ricciardo is currently paid $6 million a year at Red Bull whereas Verstappen is being paid $10 million a year on a new three-year contract.
Red Bull can be expected to match that, but for the rest of it, Ricciardo may just have to put his head down and get on with it. His options now seem to be limited.
The Australian has been contracted to Red Bull since the age of 18.
Whatever he decides, and there is also Red Bull’s change to Honda power to be considered, Ricciardo says the decision will represent the “second-most difficult” he will have made.
“The most difficult was leaving Australia and actually going to Europe when I still didn’t know what my talent was,” he said at the French GP.
“I didn’t really believe that I was good enough, so that was probably a trickier decision. So, this will probably be the second-biggest. It’s big enough.
“The priority is to get a car that can win the world title because I really believe I can. That’s the first thing in my mind. If there was no possibility, then you look into other things. As a driver, I feel like I’ve done enough now.
“It’s not about X amount of money, it’s just what you feel your value is and what you bring to the sport.”
This Sunday at Silverstone, in the third of F1’s European triple header, Ricciardo has a chance to influence attitudes.
At the moment, it’s Red Bull with its nose in front to retain the services of the Australian ace.
The toothy smile is not quite the same after Austria.
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.