They may have only been partnered together for five races so far, but Red Bull boss Christian Horner believes his current driver line-up is the best he has ever had.
Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have managed three podiums in the last five races since the Dutchman’s transfer from Toro Rosso, including a race victory in Spain, and look to be dragging the Tilbrook team towards the sharp end of the grid after 18 months in the doldrums.
But they have huge shoes to fill if they are to be deemed the best line-up ever seen in Red Bull overalls.
Despite being in F1 since 2005, it wasn’t until 2009 and the arrival of another youngster in the form of Sebastian Vettel that people began to take the team named after an energy drink seriously.
Vettel won on his third outing for Red Bull, and in tandem with Webber, won six races to take the championship battle to the penultimate race.
In 2010 though, Red Bull were the class of the field and so they remained for the next three years. With Vettel and Webber at the wheel, the team celebrated 47 race wins, four driver’s world titles for Vettel and four constructors’ championships. It was an era of dominance.
Webber’s retirement at the end of 2013 saw Horner replace one Australian with another in the form of Ricciardo, and he took to the team like a duck to water, not only winning three races in his debut season, but blowing world champion Vettel into the weeds, prompting the German to move to Ferrari for 2015.
While Daniil Kvyat was called upon to replace Vettel, his card was marked after a mixed start to 2016, making way for teenager Verstappen to take over at the wheel of the RB12.
Red Bull has always tried to give off a fun, young, alternative feel to the corporate world of F1, and it has been reflected in their driver line-ups. With Vettel and Webber, they had the youthful exuberance, charisma and light-hearted nature that made people naturally like the squad, while both had a steely determination to win at all costs behind the wheel. Both were outspoken, especially when it came to talking about each other, That led to several clashes, on and off the track, between the pair.
In Ricciardo and Verstappen, Red Bull give off a similar vibe again. Verstappen’s potential, at just 18, is still almost limitless, while Ricciardo brings an experienced head, despite only recently turning 27. The Australian has one of the most popular Instagram accounts on the grid, regularly posting karaoke videos or joking around with fellow drivers on the grid. Verstappen gives off a more serious demeanour, but is still finding his way in F1, trying to carve out a niche that isn’t just as “hot-shot teenager trying to prove himself.”
ON THE TRACK:
It’s difficult to compare the two line-ups. For Vettel and Webber, they were given machinery that was comfortably the class of the field at Red Bull. Vettel had already proven himself as a race winner with Toro Rosso before making the step up to the senior team in only his second full season in F1, but Webber never looked like challenging for a win until he was given the RB5 in 2009, winning his first race in Germany that year, after making his debut in 2002.
Despite challenging for the title in 2010, Webber was never able to keep a lid on Vettel as the German went on to dominate the sport between 2011 and 2013.
The partnership of Verstappen and Ricciardo though looks to be considerably more balanced. Neither appear to have the upper hand over the other yet, but it is still early days. Kvyat, while beating Ricciardo on points last season, didn’t attract the same media hype as Verstappen has, despite being F1’s first Russian driver, and was prone to too many high-profile mistakes.
Verstappen proved wrong so many doubters during his debut season as a 17-year-old with a swashbuckling style which won him many plaudits, overtaking cars where many thought it impossible.
His arrival in Tilbrook has made Ricciardo raise his game too, and but for some bad strategy calls from the Red Bull pitwall, he should have won two races this season - one at the expense of Verstappen. The Australian struggled last season after an excellent 2014, he looks back to his fastest and most hungry too.
WHO IS BETTER?
As an overall package, it is easy to see what Horner means when he describes his current line-up as the team’s ‘best ever.’ While Red Bull’s success from 2010 was undeniably dominant for four years, it came largely from one side of the garage, with an extremely capable second driver in tow.
With Ricciardo and Verstappen, while they don’t have the machinery to launch them to a world title bid yet, the pairing is far more evenly matched. Both have their eyes firmly on a world title, both have long futures ahead of them in the sport, and most importantly, both have the talent to make it work. No eyebrows would be raised if either were to win the world championship in 2017 when the new regulations kick in and the field gets reshuffled.
But Horner’s words will only ring true if Red Bull can deliver them a car capable of racing at the front. Only then will Verstappen and Ricciardo be given a fair crack at being the best in Tilbrook’s history.