THE SCRAMBLE for seats for Formula One next year is reaching its end and Australian champion Daniel Ricciardo seems likely to be stuck with a choice of one. PETER COSTER reports:
FROM being the “king of the market,” as described by Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, Daniel Ricciardo suddenly finds staying at Red Bull is his best option in his quest for a world driver’s championship
The German Grand Prix at the Hockenheim ring saw the Mercedes team sign Valtteri Bottas to another year with an option of a further year and Lewis Hamilton certain to stay with the Silver Arrows.
Ferrari already has Sebastian Vettel on a three-year contract and can either re-sign Kimi Raikkonen at the end of this season or promote Charles Leclerc from Sauber, who are dependent on Ferrari for their engines.
After the German race was won by Lewis Hamilton when Vettel locked up his brakes and skidded off the track, just how much pressure these drivers are under became apparent.
Vettel, who started on pole and looked as if he had the race won, skidded off the Sachs Kurve and into the barriers with 25 laps to go.
He was seen pounding the steering wheel with his fists, accompanied by the f-word and what sounded like tears of frustration.
“I’m sorry guys,” he lamented on losing the lead in the world championship.
On the Mercedes pit wall, the radio relayed the words of a jubilant Hamilton at the race’s end. “Love conquers all,” he said emotionally, later expanding on his life as a black kid at school who was different and made that difference a positive.
It was Hamilton’s second epic drive after finishing second in the British Grand Prix when he was hit by Kimi Raikkonen and had to fight from the back of the field.
At Hockenheim, Hamilton started in 14th place after a hydraulic failure in qualifying that saw him pushing the car to get back to the pits and then seemingly praying beside the car when he realised his chances of starting at the front of the grid were gone.
His drive to the top step on the podium handed Mercedes a one-two finish with Bottas after they were racing each other. The Finnish driver was told not to challenge Hamilton.
But what of Ricciardo? The kid from Perth who thought leaving Australia was the biggest decision of his life now faces another.
After starting at the back of the grid following electrical and mechanical replacements, Ricciardo was out of the race altogether when his engine lost power.
With other drivers staying with their teams and even Fernando Alonso considered as a possible replacement at Ferrari if Raikkonen moves on, Ricciardo may have nowhere to go.
Staying at Red Bull also has its problems. Max Verstappen signed a new contract with Red Bull at $10 million a year and while Ricciardo can expect the same money, is a Honda-powered Red Bull next year his best choice?
It may be his only choice after Red Bull decided to drop its long-time engine supplier, Renault, or was it a case of Renault deciding to stick with its own Renault team rather than preparing engines for different cars with different engine requirements?
Red Bull’s Christian Horner says the move to Honda means Red Bull becomes a Honda “works” team with the once-dominant Japanese engine supplier its sole customer.
McLaren dropped Honda after being painfully off the pace, but has done little better with Renault as a supplier.
This has caused Alonso to look around for another seat and for Ricciardo to question whether Honda can propel him to a world championship.
There can be no doubt Ricciardo is capable of reaching the heights, having outdriven Sebastian Vettel in his first season with Red Bull when he won three Grands Prix.
Vettel was winless and went to Ferrari. Ricciardo has won four more races, but Red Bull’s run at the top ended as Ferrari and Mercedes developed superior engine and aerodynamic packages.
Honda power is not going to help him if this year’s performance by Red Bull’s feeder term, Toro Rosso, is any indication.
Expectations were high when French driver Pierre Gasley was fourth at Bahrain.
“It wrongly raised expectations,” says New Zealander Brandon Hartley who at least scored points for the team at Hockenheim, which may help to keep him in the driver’s seat next season.
Hartley stayed out on the track when rain was falling instead of coming in to the pits for wet weather tyres.
Gasley was brought in for wets but had to change back to slicks a few laps later when the track dried, ruining his race.
Hartley has been given a second chance at F1 after a stint in endurance racing, which saw him win the world championship.
It came in a phone call from Red Bull’s driver development principal, Helmut Marko, who after being accused of disliking antipodean drivers gave Mark Webber his chance and now wants to keep Ricciardo at Red Bull. Disliking antipodeans, whatever could cause that?
Ricciardo is regarded by other drivers as the best overtaker in F1, but a problem for him if he stays, as now seems certain, is any possibility he may be expected to defer to the Dutch driver. Verstappen regularly out-qualifies the Australian, although Ricciardo’s race pace is mostly better.
This happens at Mercedes with Bottas and at Ferrari with Raikkonen.
Team orders have been ignored by Verstappen in the past, particularly at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this year when the Dutch driver baulked Ricciardo as he tried to pass, sending both cars off the track.
Red Bull is understandably indulgent with Verstappen, who became the youngest driver to race in a Grand Prix at Albert Park in 2015.
He was 17 then and only 20 now, whereas Ricciardo is 29.
Ricciardo must count the years as carefully as the string of noughts in a new contract and knows this is the time to make the second biggest decision of his life to secure a world championship.
The Honey Badger painted on the back of his helmet symbolises how Ricciardo sees himself, ferocious when roused and relentless
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.