RIGHT now, everyone in F1 is playing a game we like to call: “Guess who’ll be taking Nico Rosberg’s place at Mercedes next year.” After the world champion shocked everyone by retiring, all eyes are on the Silver Arrows as we wait to see who they’ll choose to partner Lewis Hamilton in 2017.
They’ve got the option of promoting a junior driver like Pascal Wehrlein or Esteban Ocon, while snaring an established star on the grid is also on the cards. Fernando Alonso’s name is one that won’t go away just yet, and Valtteri Bottas might also have a sniff.
Then there’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Earlier this week Red Bull boss Christian Horner tried to shut down any notion his star driver would be partnering Hamilton next season. “Our drivers are both on long-term contracts,” Horner told the UK Mirror.
That contract runs out in 2018. Of course, as we see all too often in professional sport, contracts get broken all the time. So if Mercedes really wanted Ricciardo and he really wanted to go there, there’s a chance that could eventuate.
Some of the most knowledgeable reporters doing the F1 rounds believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility the 27-year-old could fill Rosberg’s seat, and you can see why when they lay out their logic.
BBC Sport’s Andrew Benson’s theory is that an approach from Toto Wolff — the boss of F1’s most dominant team — would be tough to turn down, no matter how much Ricciardo enjoys being at Red Bull. Wolff might be interested because Ricciardo’s laid-back nature — although he’s still ultra competitive — would contribute to a positive dynamic with the sometimes abrasive Hamilton.
On top of that, Benson thinks a Ricciardo-Max Verstappen partnership isn’t a viable long-term option if Red Bull becomes a genuine title contender.
“The Australian was the choice of many observers as the driver of 2016, and Wolff is a big fan,” Benson wrote.
“The on-track battle with Hamilton (in the other Mercedes) would be intense, but Ricciardo is a laid-back character and would probably be easier to handle off it.
“But he is under contract to Red Bull until 2018. Red Bull says they have no intention of letting him go, but if Wolff approached them there is just the possibility that they may consider selling Ricciardo.
“Why? Because most accept that, long term, Ricciardo and Max Verstappen is not a sustainable line-up — if Red Bull become title contenders their relationship is very likely to become incendiary.”
Like we said, pretty logical. Just look at the frosty relationship that developed between Hamilton and Rosberg. It’s safe to say Mercedes would love to avoid that sort of tension in the garage again, and it’s hard to see the always-smiling Aussie being difficult to work with.
Benson rated Ricciardo’s chances of joining Mercedes at 6/10. To put that in context, he rated Sebastian Vettel (8/10), Bottas (9/10), Wehrlein (8/10) and Ocon (8/10) as more likely to make a move.
German F1 journalist Michael Schmidt reportedly raised the possibility of Ricciardo departing Red Bull even before Rosberg had retired. Again, it was the dynamic with Max Verstappen at the crux of his argument.
Verstappen is a world champion-in-waiting — few people would doubt that. If moments of recklessness got people off-side during the season, he went a way towards winning them back with an incredible performance in horrific conditions at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
The Honey Badger, while enjoying what he called his best season to date, did have issues with his team at different points in the season. A botched pit stop in Monaco robbed him of a grand prix win and he lashed a poor strategy in Barcelona for costing him at the Spanish Grand Prix.
In the season finale in Abu Dhabi, Red Bull went with a one-stop strategy for Verstappen, but Ricciardo headed in twice for tyre changes — something he regretted.
“The supersoft was pretty good, we lost out a bit at the start but we could hold our ground at the beginning,” recalled Ricciardo.
“Then we could see the ultrasofts on the Ferraris were starting to struggle, I saw Seb drop off a little bit behind me and Kimi I could see in front of me started to struggle.
“In hindsight we should have gone long on the supersoft and one-stopped, obviously it worked a lot better for Max. If we were in front of the Ferrari it made sense to try and hold position on them.”
So you can understand why Ricciardo would get frustrated when strategy errors saw him finish behind his 19-year-old teammate at times, a pattern Schmidt thinks could be enough to get him thinking about switching teams.
“(Red Bull) can face a lot of trouble next year. Ricciardo will not accept any more strategies which favour his teammate. He will make his point and that might cause trouble,” Schmidt wrote, per motoring.com.au.
Of course this is all speculation, but it’s certainly food for thought, especially when its coming from the well-informed minds of Benson and Schmidt.
Former Aussie F1 driver Mark Webber said Ricciardo was still top dog at Red Bull, and was slightly better placed for a tilt at the world championship than his Dutch comrade.
“I think next year both Daniel and Max will have a great chance to go for the championship,” Webber was quoted as saying by Fairfax media.
“I think he’s in great shape there. Daniel’s a cool cat. I still think he has the bigger picture a bit better at the moment.
“There’ll be another layer for Daniel to get used to and be on top of that, which he is more than capable of. He’s in the right window.”
Webber also said Verstappen’s presence has been a big motivation for Ricciardo in 2016 and was wary of what the youngster was capable of in the future.
“There’s no real downside for Daniel,” Webber said. “Does he want him (Verstappen) in his life? It’d be nice if he were a bit slower, but Daniel will lift and that’s what you do. He’s capable of doing that.
“For Daniel’s sake, we just have to hope Max doesn’t mature as fast as what could be possible because he’s obviously going to be pretty potent.”