Today’s announcement that Mark Webber is to leave Formula One at the end of the season has put the so called “silly season” into overdrive. Already, motorsport forums are thick with rumours and speculation as to who could be the man to replace him, and partner Sebastian Vettel for 2014.
The obvious candidate for many is Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn never looked like he’d been away when he won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last season, and has followed up his strong 2012 form with an equally impressive start to 2013. The rumours about a switch to Red Bull started after the 2007 champion won the season opening Australian Grand Prix earlier this year.
Raikkonen is no stranger to the drinks company, and indeed was sponsored by Red Bull during his brief spell in the World Rally Championship. Kimi’s laid back approach to pretty much everything other than racing would suit Red Bull’s brand image well, and he would be able to pick up where Webber left off – scoring points regularly – if he signed for the triple World Champions.
There is just one possible problem though.
Does Red Bull really want to have two number one drivers in their team? No matter what they have said over the years, it has been clear to see at times that Webber has been the number two driver to Vettel. With no disrespect to Webber intended at all, it is also likely that Raikkonen would be closer to Vettel’s pace, and be able to challenge him for victories more regularly than Mark has.
Would that cause more friction within the team? It is well known that Vettel and Raikkonen get on well away from the race track, but it is hard to see how that friendship would last over a season if both were in title contention.
Ultimately, it is up to Kimi to decide. It is very likely that if he hasn’t already been offered a contract with Red Bull, he will be very soon given today’s events.
The other options open to Red Bull, should Kimi decide to remain with Lotus, would be either of the current Toro Rosso drivers.
Ever since Ricciardo and Vergne replaced Buemi and Alguersuari at the start of the 2012 season, the jury has been out on their potential. It is widely regarded that Ricciardo possibly has the edge over Vernge, and indeed, has scored in the points more frequently than his team mate. He also has a stronger qualifying record.
But Vergne, when he has finished in the top ten, has scored more points than Ricciardo. The Frenchman has also had two strong races at Monaco and Montreal recently to put him back in contention for a Red Bull drive.
Ultimately however, it is difficult to get a true reading on how they’d do at Red Bull.
Certainly, it is unfair to compare their results to the results Vettel achieved when he was at Toro Rosso. Firstly, Vettel is clearly an extremely talented driver – arguably a one of a kind. But it is important to remember than when he won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, he was driving an Adrian Newey designed chassis.
Neither Ricciardo nor Vergne currently have that luxury.
The uncertainty that surrounds their potential means that Raikkonen is undoubtedly the safer bet. Plus the struggles that Sergio Perez has endured at the start of his McLaren career (albeit in an uncompetitive car) may well put Red Bull off from taking a punt on either of them.
But if that is the case, you’d have to wonder what the point in Toro Rosso even existing is.
Perhaps neither would challenge Vettel, nor even be able to score as consistently as Webber has been able to. But it would certainly keep the peace within the team, with a clear number one and number two driver. It would also be an investment for future, when Vettel ultimately signs for Ferrari.
The other candidate that people are talking about is Nico Hulkenberg.
The German youngster is highly rated within the paddock for some impressive performances, not least of which when he led the Brazilian Grand Prix last year for Force India.
He has so far been unable to show his true potential this year thanks to an uncompetitive Sauber, but he is still touted for greatness by many.
It seems unlikely that Hulkenberg could end up at Red Bull though, given his switch to Sauber is seen as a long term move to Ferrari, should the out of favour Felipe Massa be replaced at the end of this year. But should Red Bull come knocking, he may well change his mind.
It is clear then that Red Bull is faced with a difficult task, and one that is not quite as clear-cut as some may like to believe.
Who would you choose?