In the week leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix, something changed that breathed a whole new life into the 2016 F1 season. Kvyat was ruthlessly pulled out of the Red Bull team and demoted to Toro Rosso, while the 18 year-old prodigy, Max Verstappen, was promoted in his place.
Suddenly, we were provided with a battle that most of us thought we would not see until 2017 at the earliest. Would Ricciardo, the driver who humbled a 4 time world champion, also provide the same service to one of the most highly rated youth talents that we’ve seen in the history of F1? Or would Verstappen, continue the trend in the Red Bull driver program, of knocking the incumbent number one driver off their pedestal?
Personally I sided with Daniel Ricciardo. He was peerless in qualifying, he had the home advantage and nearly a decade more experience in single-seater racing. Even if Verstappen could eventually overcome Ricciardo, it wouldn’t be in 2016.
The Flying Dutchman’s maiden voyage
So imagine my surprise when Verstappen became the youngest ever race winner in his debut for a new F1 team. Admittedly, the opportunity for Ricciardo to win the race was squandered when his strategy was compromised by Ferrari’s undercut, but Verstappen showed confidence and maturity by preserving his tyres and holding off Kimi Raikkonnen until the end of the race. More importantly, his race pace looked very competitive and it appeared that Ricciardo could have been holding him up before the first round of pit stops.
I remember after Verstappen’s victory, seeing an interview with Ricciardo who had been abandoned by his team while they cheered at the podium ceremony. He was dejected and angry (or at least as angry as you will see him) about being put on the sub optimal strategy. He must have been questioning Red Bull’s commitment to him as a driver at this point, all too aware of how another Australian driver had fared in a similar situation.
Fortunately for Ricciardo, Monaco was only a week away, and he set the track alight in qualifying. Providing the first pole position ever for the Red Bull team in the V6 turbo era. Not only was his pole position spectacular, but also his Q2 performance, where he intelligently put in a fast lap on ultra soft tyres, but managed an even faster lap on the super softs. Giving him a tactical advantage on race day. In contrast, Verstappen went out in Q1 when he clipped the wall and went into the barrier.
There was no better way for Ricciardo to bounce back, and if it wasn’t for an uncharacteristic mistake from the Red Bull pit wall, he would have had pocketed Red Bull’s 2nd win in as many weekends. This mistake turned what should have been jubilation, into two extremely difficult weekends for Ricciardo to deal with.
Verstappen seals the deal
The following races in Montreal, Baku and Spielberg seemed to reveal a pattern. Ricciardo was outperforming Verstappen in qualification, but a combination of Verstappen’s race pace and Ricciardo’s poor starts meant that Verstappen had a better Sunday. Although he finished behind Ricciardo in Baku, he had also started a lot further back on the grid. The implication was that Verstappen was faster over a race distance.
At Silverstone, Ricciardo was out qualified by his team-mate for the first time in 2016. It seemed that now Verstappen could out qualify Ricciardo, then there may be no saving grace left for the Australian and Verstappen could gain defacto number one status by the end of the year. However, in hindsight, it appears Ricciardo was seeking to improve his race pace over a weekend and probably had a different approach to qualifying as a result.
Ricciardo regains form
In Hungary and Germany, Ricciardo managed to out qualify and out race Verstappen for the first time since Monaco. Although it must be said that Verstappen did co-operate in Hockenheim to allow Ricciardo past. Possibly this was down to the groundwork laid down in Silverstone, or perhaps it was a shift in Ricciardo’s form and mentality. Either way, the fight is back on for the 2nd half of this season.
Whoever wins, Red Bull does too
The biggest benefactor of this fight apart from the fans is Red Bull. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Red Bull have out performed Ferrari since Max Verstappen joined their ranks. I believe that if Kvyat had raced in Spain, he would not have been following closely behind Ricciardo as Verstappen did. The fact that Ferrari had to deal with two competitive Red Bull’s meant that splitting the strategies couldn’t gain them track position over both cars. It is also important to remember the roar of delight Ricciardo let out on the radio after he out qualified Verstappen by four tenths on the Catalunya circuit. I don’t recall Ricciardo being so animated when fighting Kvyat and I believe it’s because Ricciardo wasn’t being challenged. Ricciardo needed to push and take the extra risk because Verstappen was forcing his hand.
Verstappen’s performances on race day also led to Ricciardo questioning his setup, something that probably wouldn’t have happened had he continued to routinely beat Kvyat for most race weekends. And I’m sure Verstappen’s side of the garage are looking at Ricciardo’s data to get the most out of qualifying. Although the Renault engine’s upgrade and Red Bull’s development is a big part of Red Bull’s recent resurgence; it has almost certainly been aided by the competition between these two stellar drivers as they push each other forward to the front of the grid.
Meanwhile, Ferrari’s pairing leaves Vettel relatively unchallenged and left with very little inspiration on setup changes that he could explore within the current package. I think this is hurting Ferrari, along with their other misfortunes; including the loss of one of their key personnel, James Allison.
Lastly, Red Bull have managed to extract a team order from the previously rebellious teenager, who infamously refused the same request when Toro Rosso had asked him to move aside for Carlos Sainz. Perhaps it’s a sign that Verstappen is happy to be within a top team and is confident that his credentials are already well established. Or perhaps Red Bull have more political clout than their Italian based counterparts. Either way, if Red Bull continue to persuade both Ricciardo and Verstappen to play the team game, then I will agree with Christian Horner when he said that these two could provide the best ever driver line up in F1. But I imagine that will all come crumbling down if that Red Bull car starts to compete for race wins and perhaps even a World Driver’s Championship next season. Bring it on.