Red Bull Racing’s dynamic duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo is the accepted answer to the question, ‘What is the best driver line-up in Formula 1?’.
Ever since Daniil Kvyat’s career with the top team was brought an abrupt end by the squad’s Austrian overlords, Red Bull’s young Dutch prodigy has flourished in the company of the similarly reputable Aussie. To the credit of the comparably aged Ricciardo, he has not been destabilized by the arrival of the boisterous Verstappen.
Their very first qualifying session as a pairing in Barcelona last year serves as a snapshot of how their partnership developed in 2016, with Verstappen brashly upping the pressure on Ricciardo throughout practice only to provoke a mega-lap from Daniel in the dying seconds of qualifying. For many drivers, the audacious incursion of such an acclaimed young-gun would have proven disruptive and infuriating.
Certainly, Sebastian Vettel looked rattled in 2014 once he clocked the pace of the incoming smiling assassin. However, with the boot on the other foot for 2016, Daniel’s sunny, good-humoured demeanour (which has since evolved into his strange, but charming brand of surrealist interview humour) defused any potential for internal acrimony and instead resulted in one of the most respectful and believable friendships in the pitlane. Indeed, the pair currently resides in the same building in Monaco! On-track, Ricciardo would consistently use the most formidable challenge he has faced from a team-mate to date (and that includes Vettel) as a springboard to develop his own level of performance.
For many onlookers – Read Motorsport included – Daniel Ricciardo was the star performer of 2016, a season which reached its peak with a truly exceptional performance to claim his first pole in Monaco, followed by an equally phenomenal performance in the wet on Sunday – a win scuppered only by pitlane pandemonium at Red Bull. However, in 2017, Ricciardo has unquestionably come under pressure by the ominous trajectory of Verstappen’s inexorable development.
2017 was a season where Red Bull had hoped to be title contenders, and Ricciardo was many a knowledgeable onlooker’s pre-season title tip. A pace deficit, that would prove the undoing of Red Bull’s championship hopes, arguably became clear as soon as Melbourne qualifying, a session that Ricciardo ended in the barriers in a bold attempt to make up some of the team’s shortfalls. Before Red Bull’s late-season developments would see them catch the Mercedes’ and Ferrari’s, the Red Bull duo were isolated in single-combat, unable to catch the faster cars ahead and well clear of the chasing midfield runners.
The standings suggest that Ricciardo emerged from this tussle the victor, however just as reliability woes artificially put Daniil Kvyat ahead of Ricciardo in the standings in 2015, a hefty seven retirements for Verstappen – four through unreliability, and a further three due to contact in Barcelona, the Red Bull Ring and Singapore – massively distorted the picture.
Perhaps more representative of the inter-team battle is the fact that of the meagre seven occasions when both Red Bulls finished, Verstappen generally took the flag first. Ricciardo would outrace his team-mate in 2017 on just two occasions: in Monaco and Monza.
However, arguably more worryingly for the Aussie was the bruising 13-7 defeat he suffered on Saturdays in 2017. For a man who exerted an extraordinary 12-7 Saturday victory over a quadruple champion in 2014, for a man reputed to be among the out-and-out fastest on the grid, this was a surprising plotline. Especially surprising was the fact that Verstappen outpaced Ricciardo in Barcelona, Monaco and Singapore: circuits where Daniel is among the accepted maestros. Unquestionably the lowest point of the Australian’s season was qualifying in Mexico, where he was mired in seventh on the grid, more than a second slower than his pole-contending team-mate, and baffled by tyre warm-up woes.
It has by no means been a bad season for Ricciardo; his eponymous brand of ‘Dan-dare’ outbraking manoeuvres could always guarantee him a place in the weekend’s highlight montages, and the fact that he looked set to outscore the Ferrari of Raikkonen in the standings before his retirement in Abu Dhabi was a mightily impressive scalp. And yet, in a season that all but confirmed Max Verstappen’s fated stardom, Ricciardo arguably couldn’t keep pace with the Dutchman’s rate of development.
There were perhaps some stylistic consequences to the regulation change too. Ricciardo has an infamous knack for the slow corners, a natural flair for slow-speed rotation that has consistently borne itself out on circuits like Monaco and Singapore. With the added downforce in 2017, the apex speeds increased and the need for the Aussie’s level of slow-speed finesse diminished because the mid-corner, rotation phase was so markedly compressed.
Versus his form in the comparable wayward cars of 2014, Ricciardo has perhaps looked less comfortable leaning so heavily on the chassis grip in 2017 and not on his own extensive powers of car control. That said, a brief glance at his opening lap in the slippery conditions in Shanghai hardly suggests Verstappen is lacking in that department. Indeed, throughout 2017, it has become increasingly difficult to find a chink in the Dutchman’s armour.
And that’s the Aussie’s biggest problem: he’s not driven badly in 2017, he’s simply been found wanting versus a likely generation-defining young talent. To make matter worse, 2017 has been the season where Max has not only grown a taste for winning, but set his sights on dominating races in the future. Should Verstappen’s imposing trajectory continue into 2018, it would not only do further damage to Ricciardo’s reputation but it would probably result in a title assault from the 20-year-old. But equally, Daniel should not be intimidated into thinking that the Dutchman is unbeatable. Should the Renault-powered Red Bull prove a more reliable and competitive package in 2018, the Australian will have a more stable platform to launch a fightback against Max.
Whilst the ever-smiling Aussie has already looked fairly impervious to the pressure, going forward his confidence will also be bolstered by the fact that he is a wanted man up and down the paddock. 2018 – a season originally scheduled to host a bidding-war for Verstappen’s services, before Max signed a lucrative contract extension – may, in fact, see a scramble over Daniel’s signature.
The affable, marketable, fast, technically-literate Aussie would be a good fit at either Mercedes or Ferrari; team’s who both need to make decisions about the future of their respected Finns. In a season where he is set to write many headlines off-track, Ricciardo just needs to ensure that he is delivering on-track in 2018. Verstappen may have stolen some of his thunder this season, but Daniel Ricciardo unquestionably remains one of the grid’s most elite performers, and the paddock knows it.