It was the move that no-one saw coming. Nine months after Daniel Ricciardo stunned the Formula One world with confirmation he was leaving Red Bull and joining Renault, it’s the issue that still divides fans.
Why give up a seat with a top three team, where he’d recorded all seven of his grand prix wins, and risk it all with a team that, while improving, was still a long way from the front?
Despite his trials through the first five races in 2019, the reality is Ricciardo hasn’t yet lost very much at all by joining Renault. In fact, when you take into account the reported $49m salary he’s earning, you can argue he’s better off at Renault than he would have been at Red Bull, despite the frustrating results so far this season.
The reality is, had he stayed at Red Bull, while he’d be a little further forward on the grid, he wouldn’t be challenging for the wins, and the championship he so desires. After five years in a race winning Red Bull, another year or two of MAYBE challenging for two or three wins a season isn’t enough to motivate Ricciardo.
Five races into the 2019 season, all that Ricciardo has lost so far is a string of fourth and fifth places, with maybe a podium thrown in if he was lucky. Overshadowed by Mercedes’ dominance and Ferrari’s failure to live up to their pre-season form is the fact that Red Bull-Honda hasn’t come close to upsetting the status quo at the front.
In fact, only the skills of Max Verstappen have kept the team within sight of the front-runners, a fact not lost on retired F1 star Mark Webber when he spoke to Wide World of Sports recently.
“Red Bull are even further off the pace than Ferrari, but Max has had a very boring, but impressive start to the season. He’s driven brilliantly. He’s getting the most out of the equipment, which is so impressive to watch,” Webber said.
“Unfortunately for him the car isn’t on the same level as Mercedes.
“But he’s matured so much. The first four races have been extremely mature for him, and that’s good to watch, but clearly he won’t win the championship this year.”
While the Red Bull-Honda alliance is still in its infancy, Verstappen has already conceded any chance of him winning a race this year will be restricted to tracks like Monaco, Singapore and Mexico. In other words, the same situation they’ve been in for the last five years.
It’s a situation that has left Verstappen frustrated.
“I am not satisfied,” Verstappen told Ziggo Sport in Barcelona.
“We went to Barcelona with updates, just like the other teams, but I am fourth (on the grid) again. How many times have I been fourth?
“There is nothing really wrong, we just need more grip.
“Everything has to be better. Engine, chassis. But there is no quick solution, otherwise we would have done it. I just drive what I have as fast as I can.”
While there’s no doubt Renault has underperformed in 2019, with the team currently languishing in eighth spot in the championship, Ricciardo has always been open in admitting he’s playing a long game.
Since returning to F1 three seasons ago, Renault has been on an upwards trajectory: 9th in the championship with eight points in 2016, 6th with 57 points in 2017 and 4th with 122 points in 2018.
It’s already clear that 4th place again in 2019 is the best they can hope for, and even that will be a challenge given the increased competitiveness of the midfield. But 4th place with Renault, compared to 3rd with Red Bull? Pretty sure that won’t be keeping Ricciardo awake at night. There’s a saying in motor racing: “Second place is just the first loser.”
The more serious concerns come further down the track. Ricciardo has a two year deal with Renault, which takes him through until the end of the 2020 season. There’s plenty of water to pass under the bridge before then, but both Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton (among others) are off-contract at the same time.
Even if Renault continue to underperform, Ricciardo has enough credits in the bank to justify a move back to one of the teams at the front of the grid. His problem is, as Webber pointed out to Wide World of Sports, there’s plenty of young talent also vying for those seats.
“It’s such a competitive business with so many young guys coming in,” Webber told Wide World of Sports.
“Daniel hasn’t forgotten how to drive, but the form guide changes very quickly in this sport. A driver’s momentum and his career can be challenged.
“Every few months, if the performances aren’t there, other managers and agents and young drivers are trying to muscle in, the sport moves on so fast.”
Therein lies Ricciardo’s issue. Not what he’s given up in 2019, or even in 2020, because a Red Bull driver winning the title next year appears a long shot given the gap that exists to Mercedes.
No, we won’t be able to judge the merits of the Renault move for two years. If Ricciardo is at the front of the field in 2021, either in a Renault or elsewhere, then these two years will quickly fade into the past.
In the interim, it’s time to move on from the weekly debate about what Ricciardo has walked away from.
Because based on Red Bull’s current pace, it’s pretty obvious what the Australian has foregone.
Not much at all.