Red Bull Racing recently announced they would be employing the Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo for next season, to replace his outgoing countryman Mark Webber. Having impressed in his first seasons in the sport, the affable Australian will enjoy a promotion to the senior team in the Red Bull stable opposite Sebastian Vettel for 2014. But was it such a no-brainer? Was it obvious? Or was it in reality a pedestrian choice?
On one hand, signing Ricciardo up was clearly the path of least resistance for the team. An opening had arisen, he has acknowledged speed, and is a product of the in-house driver programme. With a rejection of Ricciardo, what message would Red Bull have sent to all the young proteges on their books? He has F1 experience, has had the better of the highly-rated Jean Eric Vergne, and also is reportedly a clear and useful source of information to his engineers – to the end that the Red Bull engineers he’ll be working with won’t have to be schooling the boy. Then look at the other options. Raikkonen? Fast, but disinclined to do the even slightly more onerous of the sponsors’ chores. Alonso? A massive name, and potentially a massive distraction. And, looking it at all from a brutally practical viewpoint, why would you need another speed demon in the team? RBR have enough experience of two drivers being close enough to race each other, and it didn’t end well. No, Ricciardo is a safe pair of hands, and the default choice.
From the other point of view, some fans are sighing a deep sigh of resignation. There is all too much predictability about the opting for Ricciardo. He is clearly not going to challenge Vettel overmuch, especially in his first year. Why? Because he is not as good, the argument goes. Take 2008 (Vettel in an STR) vs 2012 (Ricciardo in an STR) with roughly comparable levels of experience. Vettel won a race and ended the season in eighth place in the standings. Ricciardo gained a measly ten points all year and ended the season in 18th place in the standings. For argument’s sake, variables are ignored but the point remains – no graduate of the Red Bull school has stood out like Vettel did, and Red Bull Racing know it. They want one more year with Vettel in his element, untroubled, with a fighting chance of an incredible fifth straight world title.
The reality is that Ricciardo makes sense for RBR the team, as distinct from Red Bull the energy drink. With the upheaval of the rule changes for 2014, bringing a Raikkonen or an Alonso in would be destabilising at best and at worst, would gift the title to the likes of Mercedes or Ferrari. It’s just a bit of a pity that the Austrian team didn’t live up to their brand’s risk-taking reputation. Presumably, Ricciardo’s recruitment was sanctioned by Helmut Marko with the tacit acquiescence of Dietrich Mateschitz. But is Vettel and his dominance, weirdly and ironically, starting to hurt the brand through his relentlessness? Time will tell, and maybe the rule changes will come at the right time to jazz it all up again and make RBR cool rather than boring. But it would have been even cooler to have Kimi Raikkonen in the other seat.