The battle for the F1 world championship is beginning to hot up, with Lewis Hamilton’s back-to-back victories dragging him back into the title race. But in Tilbrook, another battle is beginning to hot up.
For nearly two years, Daniel Ricciardo has been the leading man at Red Bull Racing.
Since his promotion from Toro Rosso, the accepted pathway to Red Bull, Ricciardo has been on top of his team-mate, and that is no mean feat considering he was stepping into the lion’s den with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in 2014.
The Australian though adapted to the changes brought into the sport far sooner than the German, who soon lost motivation and departed for Ferrari come the end of the season. Ricciardo won three races in his first year with Red Bull, and had eight podium finishes. Since then though, he has mixed it with the top three just three times. A lot of it was down to the team’s struggles last season as they battled with an under-powered Renault engine, crippled with reliability problems.
Despite finishing twice on the podium though compared to his team-mate’s one, Ricciardo finished behind Daniil Kvyat overall in 2015. They were separated by three points come the final standings, thanks largely to the Australian’s struggles in the second half of the season, failing to score points in five of the last 11 races.
Ricciardo’s stock was still high going in to 2016, though countless problems outside of his control has denied him, and arguably, gifted a win to his new team-mate. A puncture while leading in China denied him a podium, ironically promoting Kvyat to third, a poor strategy call in Spain allowed Max Verstappen to take his first win, while a pit-stop catastrophe denied Ricciardo victory in Monaco, prompting the 26-year-old to declare he’d been ‘screwed’ by his team.
Verstappen, who replaced Kvyat in the Red Bull after the Russian Grand Prix, drove faultlessly in Spain to take victory, but was brought back down to Earth with a, frankly, poor drive in Monaco, twice smearing his car against the barriers to qualify at the back and then retire from the race in disappointing fashion.
The Canadian Grand Prix last weekend though provided the first time Ricciardo and Verstappen could go head-to-head without an excuse. In Spain, Verstappen followed his team-mate for almost half the race, but he was still getting used to his new surroundings. In Montreal, he at least knew what all the buttons on the steering wheel did.
As the pair raced around in third, Verstappen leading Ricciardo, the Dutchman was ordered not to hold up his team-mate, but a challenge never materialised. In fact, Ricciardo began to fall back, off the pace of Verstappen and into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen.
Verstappen would go on to finish fourth, battling and defending brilliantly against Nico Rosberg’s late charge, while Ricciardo had to settle for a disappointing seventh - a far cry from the two victories he was robbed off in the previous two outings.
At 18, questions continue to swirl around Verstappen and whether he is ready to be mixing it at the front of the pack. While his swashbuckling style has been lauded, his consistency, as shown in Hungary and USA last season when he dragged the Toro Rosso to fourth place finishes, are somewhat overlooked. Monaco did him no favours, but Canada righted the wrongs, mixing solid pace with that brash boldness that stole him all the headlines in 2015.
So far, Ricciardo has shown better one-lap pace in qualifying over Verstappen, beating him 3-0. Verstappen though has a win to his name this season, and has beaten Ricciardo twice. The potential for a real ding-dong battle is on the horizon.
This weekend, the pair will be on a level playing field as they take on the new street circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan. The tight, twisty street circuit has vague similarities to Monaco, but should provide more opportunities for overtaking than in the principality. And it means the battle between them will be very intriguing: Ricciardo will be keen to quash the hype around the young hotshot, while Verstappen will be looking to continue his rise through the ranks, starting with beating his team-mate.
The European Grand Prix might be the eighth race of 2016, but it’s the opening round of the fight at Red Bull Racing.