It wasn’t a surprise when Daniel Ricciardo was confirmed as Red Bull’s new driver, but it wasn’t long before his signing was causing considerable debate, either.
Already, many fans are wondering whether Red Bull have made the right choice in selecting the 24 year old Australian as Mark Webber’s replacement for 2014. Some have accused Red Bull of taking the soft option to avoid upsetting the harmony within the team.
They argue that Vettel will be the clear number one, and that Ricciardo won’t be able to challenge a driver who is likely to be a four times champion by next year.
In many ways though, it is an unfair judgement, particularly as Ricciardo has never had a car good enough to show what he is capable of. The fact of the matter is we won’t know how competitive or otherwise Ricciardo will be till next year.
The issue Ricciardo faces is the inevitable comparisons against what Vettel achieved at Toro Rosso, before he was promoted to Red Bull. But again, it is unfair to level such expectations at Daniel.
Firstly, in 2008, Toro Rosso was allowed to use an Adrian Newey designed chassis. Ironically, that year, the Toro Rosso was actually a better car than the Red Bull (thanks to its Ferrari engine), but that is clearly not the case these days. The argument that Ricciardo should be regularly finishing in the top five, or even challenging for race victories as Vettel was, is therefore unrealistic.
Perhaps that is the problem with the Red Bull young driver programme these days. The bar has been raised so high after what Vettel did that it is hard for any of the youngsters, not least the likes of Alguersuari, Buemi and Vergne to seem good enough to earn promotion.
That is not to make any excuses for Ricciardo though. Make no mistake – he is a very talented young driver, and his performances in the Formula Three and Formula Renault 3.5 championships prove that he knows how to win races, and championships.
You don’t forget that as soon as you enter Formula One with an uncompetitive team, and even though Ricciardo says he hasn’t set himself any goals ahead of next year, it wouldn’t be unrealistic for him to be scoring regular podiums, and even sneaking a race win, before the end of the season. Of course, that depends on how competitive Red Bull remains, something Sergio Perez knows only too well at McLaren this year.
However, this year at Toro Rosso, he has clearly stepped up a level from 2012, even if it is hard to see it at times. The fact that he has managed to qualify in the top ten on several occasions shows he has the speed.
His detractors point to the fact that he hasn’t scored as many points as he probably should have, and that he seems to go backwards in the races after qualifying strongly. But put simply, this can be put down to several bad calls on strategy from the team, and Ricciardo flattering to deceive the car’s performance on a Saturday.
Just look at his performance at Spa. A bad strategy call from the team meant both he and team mate Vergne failed to even make it into Q2, but on race day he came through the field and took a well-deserved point with tenth place.
If nothing else, his signing at Red Bull is an investment for the future. Okay, he may not match Vettel straight away, and he may make some mistakes – but before long he’ll be increasingly competitive and will be learning from those errors. But should Vettel ever make his long-awaited move to Ferrari, he’ll suddenly be in prime position to lead the team forwards post-Vettel. That’s something that simply wouldn’t happen had Red Bull taken the decision to sign Raikkonen instead.
There was another dilemma for Red Bull had they not signed Ricciardo. There would have been rightful questions about the point of Toro Rosso, had one of their drivers not been promoted even with a vacancy at the big team. For that reason alone, the signing validates Toro Rosso’s place on the grid as a training ground for Red Bull junior drivers, and gives them something to aim for.
There will always be those who say that Ricciardo “isn’t ready.” But how does a driver become ready if you never give him the opportunity? Remember also that Ricciardo currently has more Grand Prix starts than Vettel did when he was promoted to Red Bull in 2009.
Was Sebastian “ready”? Hindsight is such a wonderful thing in motorsport, but perhaps not, given several high profile errors he made in 2009 and 2010. Even still, look how that eventually turned out.
There are those who have been quick to write Ricciardo’s chances off against Vettel already, but the sport has been in a similar position before. In 2007, a young British driver called Lewis Hamilton signed for McLaren. No-one gave him half a chance of matching Fernando Alonso, the double champion, but at the last round of the championship, both were in contention for the title.
Of course, the situation is different this time around, but the point remains. You should not count anything out at this point. Who knows, in a few years, we might even be talking about Ricciardo as a champion, and applauding Red Bull for promoting him in the first place.
Let’s wait and see.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Did Red Bull sign the right man? Let us know in the comments section.