As Max Verstappen surged down the home stretch to clinch his second win of the season at the Mexican Grand Prix last month, you couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s head.
The Australian had just suffered his eighth retirement of the season – more than any driver – and had not finished on the podium since securing victory at the Monaco Grand Prix back in May.
At that early point of the season, Mercedes and Ferrari were circling for his signature, but instead he raised eyebrows by opting to sign for Renault in August.
Apart from the opportunity to challenge for a race win, there was no real upside for Ricciardo remaining at Red Bull, racing alongside the team’s undisputed number one driver, in Verstappen.
Although the 21-year-old has had more success than Ricciardo in his four seasons in F1, he has only really started to show a run of consistency in the championship in the second half of this season – after retiring twice in the first four races.
The Dutchman has out-qualified Ricciardo in 14 of the 21 races this year and holds a 79-point lead over his teammate in the drivers standings (Verstappen is fifth, one place above the Australian). Both drivers have enjoyed two wins each in 2018, but Verstappen has been on the podium eight more times.
Red Bull may not be genuine championship contenders now, but in Verstappen, they possess one of the most popular and talented drivers on the grid, a man looming behind Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton as a future world champion.
The 21-year-old is already being paid more than Ricciardo, reportedly $10 million against the Australian’s $6m – despite racing in 69 less Grand Prix than a teammate eight years his senior.
Ricciardo, who turns 30 next July, wanted a big payday and got it, with a reported $70m deal over two years from Renault.
Whether escaping the shadows of the emerging Verstappen is a promising move for his ambitions of being a future world champion, it is unlikely he will taste much success at the French outfit, a team who have not secured a podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011.
There is no guarantee either that Ricciardo will slot straight into the Renault and be able to challenge the big three, especially with his new teammate Nico Hulkenberg producing some solid performances this season and still unable to threaten a top-three finish in a mediocre car.
Without a podium since May, adding to his litany of retirements due to an unreliable car, Abu Dhabi is the last chance for Ricciardo to walk on top of the steps and celebrate a top-three finish in his 100th and final Red Bull race.
You rarely see the Perth man make a driving error, which is down to his experience behind the wheel, but a middling car like the Renault can only do so much to help his chances of challenging the Mercedes, Ferraris and, from next season, the Red Bulls.
Verstappen, meanwhile, has two more years remaining on his contract at Red Bull, by which time he should be at a stage to genuinely challenge for the championship. And if the Red Bull is struggling, he is sure to have the option to join a potential winning team in Mercedes or Ferrari.
His five race wins and 22 podiums at the age of 21 speak volumes for a driver who is brimming with confidence and has aspirations of reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
He has aggression, confidence, superb race craft and a ruthless attitude needed to secure podiums on any given day. His talent is peerless but, at times, can be pushed into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. He clashed with Hamilton in Bahrain, hit Vettel in Shanghai and then forcibly shoved Esteban Ocon in Brazil two weeks ago.
Mistakes are bound to happen along any journey and the only way for the young driver to improve is through racing. Verstappen is his own man and practice will help his steady improvement on and off the track. He loves to speak his mind and doesn’t ever hide his emotions after a race, traits that are admirable in an era of media-trained sports stars and are sure to stand him in good stead for a future title tilt.
When Verstappen and Ricciardo leave Abu Dhabi for their base in Monaco on Monday, they will no doubt reflect on this long season and what lies ahead for them in 2019.
Verstappen is young, fearless and improving each season, but for Ricciardo, the opportunity to challenge for glory looks to have passed with his move to Renault.
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