Phillip Horton  |    |   1  |  7 August 2018

Feature: Daniel Ricciardo's Renault shock and what it means

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know and there are things we think we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”

No-one yet knows how the Daniel Ricciardo-Renault deal that sent shockwaves through the Formula 1 paddock will play out – but it has created several major talking points as the sport heads into its summer break.

When Formula 1 departed Hungary there was assurances from within Red Bull that the ‘i’s were being dotted and ‘t’s crossed with the Aussie’s expected new contract, and that if a deal was not announced last week then it would be confirmed in the week leading up to Belgium. But just hours later pre-written Ricciardo / Red Bull confirmation stories were hastily being re-written as most of the paddock digested an unexpected and seismic shift in the axis of the driver market. The “Silly Season” suddenly got even more silly!

A new Red Bull deal was on the cards for Ricciardo

Predicting the future in Formula 1 is a game fraught with potentials, maybes, and unknowns. Michael Schumacher contributed to a dynasty at Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton joined a Mercedes team that perfectly adapted to the then-impending regulatory overhaul, but as for Fernando Alonso…

Ricciardo had previously described his decision as the “second most important” of his life, and gave off mixed signals about his future. Once the Mercedes doors were bolted shut and Ferrari ostensibly was a no-go area, it left Red Bull, Renault and McLaren as the viable options. Unless McLaren stumped up an unfathomably large chunk of money then it realistically left just Red Bull and Renault, an ironic juxtaposition given the deteriorating relationship between the respective organisations. 

“It is easy to think the grass is greener,” pondered Ricciardo in June. “And maybe it is. I also have it pretty good where I am. I don’t want to think it’s definitely better somewhere else. People do like a change. That’s always appealing. But just to make a change for the sake of making a change, that won’t be enough for me. I need to find some substance behind it if I’m going to jump ship.”

Ricciardo has now jumped ship – and until the circus reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August, and Ricciardo holds his customary press session, there will be no concrete answers as to why he has done so. 

“I thought that it was time for me to take on a fresh and new challenge,” a brief statement issued by Renault quoting Ricciardo. “I realise that there is a lot ahead in order to allow Renault to reach their target of competing at the highest level but I have been impressed by their progression in only two years, and I know that each time Renault has been in the sport they eventually won.”

Essentially, his decision boiled down to an array of factors: potential, form, status, and money, are ostensibly the crucial factors, not to mention environment. 

Renault confirmed Hulkenberg will stay on in 2019

Ricciardo was a little irked last year that Max Verstappen was given a lucrative long-term contract and sought assurances over his own status within Red Bull. Verstappen is very much the golden boy, of that there is no doubt. Was Renault willing to offer Ricciardo a greater sum of money than Red Bull? Potentially. Of that there can be no concrete evidence as yet. In terms of environment it is perhaps little surprise that, aged 29, and having been under the Red Bull umbrella through his career, he wants to take up a new challenge. 

Potential and form.

On the basis of 2018, Ricciardo joining Renault is a backward step, exchanging a race-winning car for one that has yet to classify higher than fifth. His future team-mate Nico Hülkenberg is still awaiting his maiden podium. But those are the pure statistics. Red Bull has not fought for the title since 2014, and next year will switch to Honda power units. No-one can yet predict whether such a move will be the magic bullet or a repeat of the McLaren malaise. Toro Rosso’s season has been promising, but Red Bull is a different kettle of fish.

The Red Bull of 2018 will not be the Red Bull of 2019 – the current known is an unknown. Renault, meanwhile, is on the up. It finished ninth in 2016, sixth last year, and holds fourth this season – still substantially adrift of the lead trio, but the gains are there to see. It has financial backing – and Ricciardo’s acquisition is surely gold dust for sponsors – and it has recruited wisely and methodically. Enstone has proven before that it can win titles, and Renault is the manufacturer that the others fear long-term. 

The 2021 regulation changes have been pinpointed as an opportunity. If Renault can continue on its current trajectory then 2019 and 2020 could be increasingly fruitful, and as for 2021… Red Bull and Mercedes proved what can be achieved with methodical planning – but as ever, there is no guarantee that Renault will be able to fulfil its ambition. 

Whichever way Ricciardo went was ultimately a gamble, and he plumped for some yellow fever, believing that an alignment with a major manufacturer whose engine he has used since 2014 is the best choice. 

Who do Red Bull turn to? Gasly, Sainz...?

So what are the repercussions? 

For Renault, this is a statement that it is here to be reckoned with in Formula 1 and craves to be a major player in the championship once more. It was close to a deal with highly-rated young gun Esteban Ocon but Ricciardo is a multiple race winner, and that will apply renewed pressure on the team to keep to its development trajectory. On a political level it is also a win for Renault, which has swiped Ricciardo’s services from Red Bull – the two parties’ relationship currently “sour” at best – and has nixed plans for Mercedes to use Renault as a training ground for Ocon. 

And for Nico Hülkenberg it is an opportunity to prove his worth against a multiple race winner and one of Formula 1’s best talents, and show that it is he – and not the new signing – who should be Renault’s main man.  

It also gives Red Bull a dilemma. Unless it deviates from its long-standing strategy of promoting from within then it is left with either Carlos Sainz Jr. or Pierre Gasly. Red Bull has an option on Sainz Jr. until the end of September and effectively owns Gasly, giving it time to mull over its decision. There are pros and cons for both. Sainz Jr. did not aid his standing when he pushed through a move to Renault, has been put in the shade by Hülkenberg.

Plus his relationship with Verstappen (and his management team) at Toro Rosso was sketchy, to say the least. His stock has undoubtedly fallen. But he has the capacity to put in stunning turns of speed and is an erudite figure who has matured since those days. Gasly, meanwhile, has a strong relationship with Honda courtesy of his Super Formula stint and his current spell with Toro Rosso, and has grasped every opportunity that has fallen his way in 2018 – a character trait admired by the ruthless Helmut Marko, who stood by Gasly during his well-publicised win-less streak in junior formula. 

Gasly has had an impressive season – but remains a rookie, and there is naturally a risk if he is promoted too quickly. Should Sainz Jr. get the nod it would surely keep Gasly at Toro Rosso, while Brendon Hartley’s days would surely be numbered, amid the rise of Dan Ticktum – or could it be Lando Norris? Toro Rosso has already tried to recruit Norris, and McLaren’s signing of James Key means the parties are currently thrashing out a deal – and the young Briton could be a bargaining tool. For his part, Norris has suggested he could envisage himself racing for a non-McLaren team next year, but astutely recognises that his long-term prospects are best-served by retaining his affiliation with Woking. 

Could we see a doubling up of Spaniard's at McLaren?

Should Gasly get the Red Bull nod then it leaves Sainz Jr. chasing a seat elsewhere, with a return to Toro Rosso unlikely – surely the Spaniard would scoff at the notion – and ostensibly leave McLaren as his primary target. But would McLaren want a driver rejected by both Renault and Red Bull? Or would its hand be forced into such a move if Fernando Alonso decides the MCL34 is not for him. And what of Stoffel Vandoorne? The struggling-but-talented Belgian is under pressure. 

Crucially, if McLaren is interested in Sainz Jr., it cannot act until the expiration of Red Bull’s option – and is it willing to wait that long? What initially appeared a basic Alonso / Vandoorne or Norris line-up for 2019 is now murkier than ever. 

Back to Ocon. He was a sure fit for Renault, but now faces another year at Force India, whose own future is uncertain amid the ongoing administration. Mercedes wanted to move him up the grid to continue his development but that is now no longer an option. Sergio Perez is a popular, and well-funded, figure within the Silverstone-based squad, and displayed his adoration for the team by his actions in aiding the administrative process. 

Would the team continue with Perez/Ocon for a third year, or could the heavily-funded Lance Stroll muscle his way in, leaving one without a ride? That then has ramifications for Williams, which fields Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin, and with whom Mercedes-backed F2 title leader George Russell has been linked. 

And then there’s still Haas and Sauber to consider, the rise of the latter making it a vastly more attractive proposition than 12 months ago. If Vandoorne finds himself ousted from McLaren, is Hinwil then an option? With boss Frederic Vasseur a big fan of the Belgian – though that door may be shut if the uber-talented Charles Leclerc stays as a result of the managerial changes at Ferrari denying him Kimi Räikkönen’s seat, and if Sauber’s owners retain their personal enthusiasm for the affiliated Marcus Ericsson. 

There is substantial rationale to a lot of what appears to be educated guesswork, but as of now it is practically impossible to accurately predict next year’s driver line-up – and that is as intriguing as it is exciting. After all, a week ago no-one (sane or otherwise) expected Ricciardo’s move to Renault…

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