Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo hoping to take Red Bull by horns

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Lewis Hamilton may go into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix as the overwhelming favourite to clinch a fifth world title, but away from his battle with Sebastian Vettel lies another thrilling duel with the Red Bull drivers.

The Milton Keynes outfit boasts perhaps the strongest drivers’ line-up on the grid this season in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

The charismatic pair have mutual off-the-track respect for each other, but with a more reliable car at their disposal, this could be the year we see fireworks as the pair tussle for the right to be Red Bull’s No1 driver.

While he has still not turned 21, Verstappen is in his fourth season in F1 and continues to emerge as a threat to Hamilton’s dominance, while Ricciardo – who is entering the final year of his contract at Red Bull – has made no secrets of his aspirations to be a world champion one day.

Consistent and aggressive, both drivers have the chance to improve on last season’s finishes in a far more competitive car – with Verstappen primed for a title assault if his car stays reliable.

The Dutchman is fearless and unintimidated – and an exceptional talent who can push it to the limit against all opposition.

Ricciardo, meanwhile, is the best overtaker on the grid but questions remain whether he has the bottle to be a world champion.

Though Ricciardo has outscored Verstappen in both their seasons together, the latter had a superior qualifying record in 2017 – 13-7 – but only finished on the podium four times.

In contrast, the Australian came third or better on nine of the 14 races he completed last season.

Despite retiring from seven of the 20 races due to engine failure, Verstappen – who signed a new contract in October until the end of 2020 – finished ahead of his team-mate every time both cars made the chequered flag.

And although he may reflect on 2017 as a mixed campaign, the 20-year-old showed terrific mental strength to bounce back and claim two victories in Malaysia and Mexico.

Four successive drivers’ championships between 2010 and 2013 may be a distant memory for Red Bull – with Mercedes dominating every year since – but a strong pre-season shows signs of them returning to the top.

A good chassis and a strong Renault-powered engine should put them in a position to challenge Mercedes more than Ferrari this season, but early wins and solid reliability are necessary before any signs of improvement are notably visible.

While Ricciardo heads into his home race in Melbourne hoping to kick-start his season on a positive note – despite receiving a three-place gird penalty for speeding under red flag conditions on Friday – he is facing an uncertain future at Red Bull.

With Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen entering the final year on their respective deals, a driver merry-go-round could take place at the end of the campaign with the Australian a front runner to secure one of the Mercedes or Ferrari seats.

Primed to be a world champion, Ricciardo, now 28, may need to move away from Red Bull to make this dream a reality, especially knowing only one driver can be a world champion from the factory. Special preference is bound to act in Verstappen’s favour if he continues to improve on the heights of the last two campaigns.

No matter how likeable Verstappen and Ricciardo are, or how their friendship is off the track, there’s only one winner at the end of the season.

Hamilton may lift the title for a fifth time in November, but this could be the year we see one of Verstappen and Ricciardo close in as a serious contender for the world championship.

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Mercedes boss Toto Wolff urges better deal to avoid breakaway series

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Mercedes boss Toto Wolff on Friday urged Formula One owners Liberty Media and the sport’s regulators FIA to come up with an improved deal to avoid a breakaway championship.

Formula One’s biggest teams Mercedes and Ferrari are questioning some of Liberty’s plans for the sport beyond the expiration of the Concorde Agreement – a deal which binds teams and stakeholders together until the end of 2020.

Disgruntled Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne has voiced dissatisfaction with Liberty’s proposed re-distribution of prize money, and the concept of a simpler engine.

Wolff, who has overseen the Lewis Hamilton-led Mercedes’ dominance of F1 for the past four years, supports Ferrari’s stance and did not rule out the prospect of a rebel championship formed by leading teams.

“We are all carrying the torch of a great series and a great brand that was built 40-50 years ago and has tremendous value,” he told a news conference ahead of this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

“Everybody is trying to position themselves, but all the time with respect for the series and comments that have been made by the Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne show that he cares,” he added.

“We all have a vision and perspective in Formula One and how we want to see it going forward and it needs to fit that opinion and that is why these statements are being made.”

‘Here’s the deal’

F1 bosses

Wolff said the teams owe it to Formula One to get things right and they have at least three more years together before the expiration of the current agreement.

“We just need to give our support in the best possible way to this great sport, regulated by the FIA and owned by Liberty, run by competent men, so we are not devaluing it,” he said.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said it was up to governing body FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) and Liberty Media to come up with a deal and present it to the teams.

“My view on this is very simple. Trying to get a consensus between teams of varying objectives and different set-ups is going to be impossible,” Horner said at a team principals news conference.

“So it’s down to the commercial rights holder and the FIA to get together, come up with a set of regulations, what is the financial framework, what is distribution that they want to have, put it on the table and it’s down to the teams whether they want to sign up to that or not.

“Of course, there will be a lot of positioning, the media will be used. It’s history repeating itself, it happens every five or six years every time the Concorde Agreement comes up for renewal.

“But my feeling is that Liberty Media along with the FIA need to get on the same page and say ‘this is what we want it to be, here’s the deal’ and hand it around to the teams.”

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Formula One's most memorable Australian Grand Prix moments

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The Australian Grand Prix marks the start of the 2018 Formula One season and if previous editions of the race are anything to go by, there should be plenty of action to sink our teeth into.

Here’s a look at some of the most memorable F1 moments from Down Under.

Up, up and away – 2002

Ralf Schumacher will always be remembered for this spectacular crash, producing some of the sport’s most iconic images.

At the very first corner of the 2002 Australian GP, he drove his Williams BMW up the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari and – if only for a second – F1 took to the skies. A total of eight cars suffered in the melee.

Ralf Schumacher gets airborne

Ralf Schumacher gets airborne

Brawn powers through – 2009

Brawn were facing extinction after Honda’s decision to pull out but equipped with a Mercedes engine, they secured a memorable one-two in Melbourne.

Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello dominated in qualifying and made no mistake on race day to cap an emotional few months for their team. They went on to win the Championship.

Jenson Button (C) celebrates with team-mate Rubens Barrichello (L)

Jenson Button (C) celebrates with team-mate Rubens Barrichello (L)

Fifth place makes the podium – 2002

It was a debut to remember for Mark Webber as he stunned on home soil. Having survived the first corner melee, he battled Mika Salo through the end in a struggling Minardi to take fifth place after starting 18th on the grid.

He was invited to the podium once the top three vacated it to receive the plaudits of the Melbourne crowd.

Mark Webber (r) on debut

Mark Webber (r) on debut

End of an era – 1993

The chequered flag at Adelaide in 1993 marked the end of an era. Alain Prost took second place to secure his fourth championship as he and Riccardo Patrese followed Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet into retirement.

Ayrton Senna secured what was to be his last win before his tragic accident the following season.

Alain Prost (l) and Ayrton Senna

Alain Prost (r) and Ayrton Senna

Controversy strikes – 1994

With the Championship on the line, an enthralling duel between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill was brought to an abrupt end.

The German slid off the track before reappearing ahead of his counterpart, resulting in a clash at the following turn. Both cars suffered damage and retired, controversially handing Schumacher his first title.

Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher do battle

Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher do battle

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