Quick—when was the last time a Formula 1 driver move truly shocked you?
It’s been a while, right? The last one that I can think of is Fernando Alonso to McLaren almost four years ago, and even then that was when McLaren wasn’t in the midst of a full-blown rebuild in the wake of its Honda experiment. In other words, it’d be a lot bigger news if Alonso was headed to Woking now than it was just under a year removed from the team’s last double podium in Australia in 2014.
But to me, Daniel Ricciardo’s move from Red Bull to Renault genuinely qualifies as a shock.
With reports out of the paddock that a renewal from Ricciardo was all but done, the fact that he would leave one of the sport’s top three teams at all is a bit surprising at face value. The fact that he’d leave for Renault—the best of the rest behind Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, but still on a lower level than any of those teams—is even more of a shock, considering that he’s been linked with all three in recent months.
To me, it raises the question: just how badly did the Red Bull-Ricciardo relationship deteriorate over the past year for the Aussie to consider this the right move?
Sure, wanting to stick with the proven Renault engine could be a factor here, considering that most would be scared by Red Bull’s imminent move to Honda for 2019 after McLaren’s struggles with them. And Ricciardo’s quotes to the press about Renault’s ability to find success over time in F1 every time it’s entered the sport are certainly true, whether you’re looking back at the brand’s dominance with Williams in the 1990s or Alonso’s breakout years with the former Benetton team in the mid-2000s.
But the younger, if less consistent or charismatic, Max Verstappen landed himself the third-highest paying contract in F1 last fall, despite Ricciardo’s better results over the past two years. This year, Ricciardo is fifth to Verstappen’s sixth in points with nine races to go, having won in both China and Monaco; the only edge Verstappen holds is, surprisingly, in podiums, with four to Ricciardo’s two.
I think it’s a mistake to read too much into a driver’s effort and results on track based on their contract situation—I don’t think a protest by way of showing up and underperforming has ever benefitted any athlete in any sport. But I do think that, instead of maybe waiting for the driver market to open up at Mercedes or Ferrari and linking himself to Renault right now, Ricciardo has illustrated just how uncomfortable things can be for a driver at the top of his game who has nonetheless fallen out of favor with his team.
Issues like these have come up in F1 plenty of times before; in fact, Ricciardo’s place on Red Bull was previously held by Mark Webber, who fell to second driver status quickly when wunderkind Sebastian Vettel showed up. Current points leader Lewis Hamilton has dealt with this twice before, with Alonso in his first stint at McLaren and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, and come out twice on top. And anyone who has followed the sport since the days of Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, and Ayrton Senna probably knows of the constant contract drama surrounding that trio.
With Verstappen now paid like a leading man, Red Bull may have been the only “big three” team left in the paddock with any sort of question as to who its number one driver was. There’s no longer a question there anymore. But barring any surprise information about his health or attitude, Ricciardo was one of the hottest free agent prospects in years, and for Renault to land him is a major coup for the team.
What remains to be seen over time is if Ricciardo’s shock move is the work of a driver desperate to get out of a bad situation, or a prescient move to a team on the rise that keeps him toward the front of the grid. For the sake of good competition, let’s all hope for the latter.
The views expressed in Spinning Wheels are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any other entity.