The Red Bull Racing Dilemma

By The Way - Weekly Columns


I’ve changed my mind three times about this piece in recent weeks. After his retirement in Bahrain, the main subject I had in my head was how Daniel Ricciardo wasn’t quite having the rub of the green between the end of last season and the start of this. Then, after China, my thoughts were that Max Verstappen was back to being his own worst enemy. His move on Vettel at the hairpin (Turn 14) in Shanghai was always going to be a day late and a dollar short. Some might even argue, it cost the Dutchman a podium and Red Bull a seldom 1-2 finish. Sundays race in Azerbaijan though, was when it all reached boiling point. As you may have seen, on lap 40 after following each other closely down the main straight and in braking for Turn 1, the pair collide and take each other out. The podium looked unlikely for both drivers but more than a handful of points were wasted.

Daniel Ricciardo is a curious case. After joining Red Bull in 2014 from sister team Toro Rosso, ‘Danny Ric’, as he is affectionately known by fans and pundits alike, got the drive in place of Mark Webber who moved to Porsche to race in the World Endurance Championship. His win in China after pitting seconds after the safety car was deployed and fighting his way up from sixth with some impressive overtakes, not to mention the move on Lewis Hamilton, again, at the hairpin. ‘Danny Ric’ notched up his sixth career win in China and its safe to say all six have featured a fight through the top 6 or 7 in the dying laps. His maiden win in Canada in 2014 came after he passed Sergio Perez and race leader Nico Rosberg in the last three laps to take the chequered flag for the first time and his second win came in Hungary later that year which was in mixed conditions and the Aussie took the win after passing Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, again in the last three laps. Both of those wins coming with a margin of 5 seconds from the rest. Ricciardo followed up his Hungary win with a fairly dominant victory at Spa after the summer break in 2014 having to hold off Nico Rosberg for the second half of the race after passing the German as early as lap 8.

Over two calendar years later, Ricciardo took his fourth win of his career after it looked like Hamilton would ease to victory in Malaysia before his Mercedes engine blew and Ricciardo lead team-mate Max Verstappen home for the Milton Keynes outfits’ first 1-2 finish of the hybrid era. Fast forward to Azerbaijan in 2017 and Ricciardo took another win. In what most people are calling the most dramatic race of the hybrid era and in the race that saw Vettel and Hamilton have two incidents at the same corner behind the safety car, the Australian racer edged out both Lance Stroll and Valtteri Bottas who finished an almost dead heat for second. In short, for Ricciardo at least, there is plenty of determination, potential and the will to win is undoubtedly there he just needs more luck. His contract runs out at the end of the season and with a number of other seats up for grabs, could he be tempted into a possible change of car colour for 2019? He's already rubbished rumours linking him to a drive at Ferrari.

Almost two years ago to the day that Max Verstappen got the promotion to Red Bull from Toro Rosso taking Daniil Kvyat’s place after the Russian was demoted as a result of his collision with Vettel in Sochi the race weekend before the Spanish Grand Prix. Red Bull as a team clearly wanted to secure Verstappen’s signature amid talk of him going to a rival team for the 2017 season, possibly to go to Mercedes instead of Bottas after Rosberg’s shock retirement decision came just a few days after winning the World Championship in Abu Dhabi. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Verstappen’s maiden Grand Prix victory came, rather perfectly, in his first race for Red Bull. After the more than dramatic Turn 3 incident which saw both Mercedes take each other into the gravel and into early retirement from the race, Verstappen took the lead and brilliantly held off the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen when the Dutchman’s tyres were fading fast in the closing laps. Not bad for an 18 year old who had only just passed his driving licence at that stage.

2017 was a real up and down time for Verstappen but he still managed to complete his hat-trick of career wins towards the end of it. He may very well have been a World Championship title contender if it wasn’t for his rotten streak of five DNF’s in seven races including back to back to back non-finishes in Canada, Azerbaijan and Austria put pay to that a little bit. The last Malaysian Grand Prix saw Verstappen start from third on the grid which became second place thanks to Kimi Raikkonen’s power failure moments before the start. From second, the Dutchman passed Hamilton into Turn 1 on the fourth lap and then lead the Mercedes home by 12 seconds to more than make up for his retirement in the Singaporean rain two weeks earlier. Mexico City just one month later was where Verstappen completed his hat-trick of career wins. Having started behind pole-sitter Vettel and ahead of Hamilton on the grid, the three of them went into the first corner side by side with Verstappen leading and Vettel clipping the rear wheel of the Mercedes which caused them both to stop. Verstappen was the comfortable winner ahead of the other Mercedes of Vatteri Bottas in second place.

Interestingly, all three of Verstappen’s wins have been of a different style, if you like. In Barcelona, he had a fight to the line with Raikkonen, In Malaysia he had to pass Hamilton and then spend most of the race trying to manage everything and in Mexico, he got the lead at the very start and left the field in his wake. If that’s not the makings of a eventual World Champion then I don’t know what is. However, Red Bull now have a dilemma on their hands post Baku. The lack of team orders and the seems to be a refreshing tactic but as we saw last time out, it does backfire. Having said that, it was always bound to happen when you’ve got two fiercely competitive drivers who have an equal desire to do well and both of whom feel like they could be winning races if given the right car.

As we saw with Force India in Canada in 2017 where team orders were given by the team but ignored by Sergio Perez to let his teammate Esteban Ocon who was behind yet faster than the Mexican whilst battling with Vettel for 4th place. Vettel eventually got past the two Force India’s to take 4th but Ocon felt the team missed out on a potential podium by not letting the Frenchman battle Ricciardo for the last podium spot had Perez let him by, but I digress. Two entirely capable and eventual World Champion driver in the same team – The Curious Case of Red Bull.