After hitting his century of races for Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo opens up about his reasons for leaving Red Bull for Renault
Ricciardo brought the curtain down on his Red Bull career after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Photo: Red Bull
The final races of 2019 were always going to have an end-of-term feeling. Since missing out in Austin, Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his fifth world championship in Mexico, becoming by some measure the greatest driver of his generation. It meant Brazil and Abu Dhabi had something of a dead rubber atmosphere – although there was plenty to talk about at both.
But amid the Hamilton/Mercedes celebrations it is easy to forget that these were Daniel Ricciardo’s last three Grands Prix for Red Bull. If you’d asked him a year ago where he believed he’d be heading if he were to leave the team that had been behind his entire F1 career, he’d likely have said Ferrari, maybe Mercedes at a push.
Free to dictate his own destiny for the first time, that would have been the final career-defining deal, the big-money transfer to the team that was going to deliver him a world title. It hadn’t worked out that way of course; he was in contact with both those teams, but in the end there wasn’t room for a driver of his stature, a 29-year-old multiple GP winner who wasn’t going to be anyone’s understudy, who was ready for an immediate title campaign. So he was obviously going to stay at Red Bull, where a lucrative deal had been agreed with Dietrich Mateschitz – not someone who ever previously got involved in driver negotiations – at the Austrian GP. Except he wasn’t. Phoning Christian Horner from LA at the beginning of the summer break, it took at least three attempts to impart the news before the team boss realised he was being serious, that he really was leaving for Renault.
When it had been mentioned as a possibility earlier in the season, Horner had commented: “It would be a brave move. We usually lap those guys.” As a hard-hitting fact, it did the job. But Ricciardo had made that brave move. He gave the background to the story in a blog for The Players’ Tribune, describing the ‘crossroads with a big decision to make.’
“After the Hungarian Grand Prix at the end of July, I flew to Los Angeles. I wanted to get away. I needed space. I needed a nine-hour flight, free of WiFi and distractions. I needed to make a decision. After 10 years with Red Bull, the team had drawn up a new F1 contract offer for me. I’ve spent my whole professional racing career with Red Bull, but Renault had also offered me a deal. They both wanted me to drive for them, and they both wanted an answer soon.
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“Looking back now, the decision about my future in F1 had been all-consuming for some time, and it took its toll on me more than I had realised. It sounds a bit dramatic, but this was one of the biggest decisions of my life. Just as big as deciding to leave my friends and family as a teenager and go to Europe to pursue my dream of becoming an F1 driver. I know in terms of life decisions, people have to make far harder ones but, to me, this decision would be life-changing. And I have worked damn hard to get to where I am today.
“So I got on a plane. And about halfway through the flight, some 40,000 feet above the east coast of the United States, I turned off the movie I was watching, grabbed a glass of wine and had a real good think about my future.
“I needed to listen to my heart, I needed to go it alone and make my own decision. Change is scary — it’s f***ing terrifying! And I know the next part of my journey won’t always be easy, but I had to take this step to try to be the best version of me. That’s all it was. It was the next step, the next leap, a new challenge.”
Even though 2019 brings with it new aerodynamic regulations that could mix up the competitive order, realistically Renault is not going to make up a lap’s deficit on the basis of a good off-season. So these races would be Ricciardo’s last for some time in a top-line car.
Mexican Grand Prix
Pole in Mexico was followed by yet another retirement for Ricciardo, as Verstappen won Photo: Red Bull
Mexico was always on Red Bull’s list of races where it felt it could take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari: Monaco, Hungary, Singapore and Mexico. The exceptionally high altitude of the Mexico City track (a quarter of the elevation of the top of Everest) equalises the Renault engine in the back of the RB14, for one thing. Its smaller turbo can be more easily spun faster in compensating for the lower oxygen content than the bigger turbos of Merc and Ferrari.
Couple that to the fact that an air density 25 per cent lower than at sea level means a corresponding reduction in downforce and drag, so every scrap of the Red Bull’s extra downforce is more valuable than ever and the usual corresponding penalty of extra drag is reduced. So, with a competitive engine and the best aero for the track, the Red Bulls were fighting for pole – with each other, leaving the Ferraris and Mercs more than a tenth behind.
Max Verstappen appeared through practice to have the edge in this in-team contest, much as he has had throughout the latter half of the season. Ricciardo came close to admitting a few races earlier that Verstappen’s speed and how difficult he was going to be to beat over the coming years had been a factor in the thought process high above the American coastline. But Daniel’s a wily old fox behind the grins and jokes. When it came to it, on the final Q3 runs, Ricciardo aced the second and third sectors of the lap. “I’ve no idea where that came from!” said Horner in admiration afterwards. “He was suddenly way faster through there than he’d been all weekend.” It was enough to deny (by 0.026sec) Verstappen the chance of becoming the youngest-ever pole sitter. A furious Verstappen ran over the P2 bollard in parc fermé. How had qualifying been, he was asked. “Crap! The same problems as FP2 [in which he’d been fastest by 0.15sec).”
Ricciardo, by contrast, was milking it in his unique showman way, getting the crowd going as he stood on the track being interviewed. It looked like he may have been trying to rub it in. Certainly, that’s what Max’s father Jos – who was watching from back home – believed. “I spoke to [Max] before going to sleep,” he said. “I tried to calm him down a bit. He was upset because the car wasn’t right. He was irritated because he missed out on pole and because of the car, but also because of Ricciardo’s exuberance.”
Verstappen came to the track on Sunday morning after just three hours of tormented sleep. “I knew from the look on his face that there was only one person coming out of Turn One in the lead,” said Horner later. That’s how it played. In fact, the way it worked, with Lewis Hamilton getting a tow from Ricciardo, it was better to have started second and to be on the inside. Besides, Ricciardo had been just a little too sudden with his clutch release, triggering slightly too much wheelspin.
So Verstappen waltzed to a dominant victory, Hamilton sealed his fifth world title with fourth place. Ricciardo? He was running third when the engine lost all power. He pulled off and a small fire started around the exhausts. A marshal trained his extinguisher upon it. The extinguishant found its way into the turbo’s internals. Which meant it had to be changed for Brazil – incurring a five-place grid penalty. If there was any worse news than that from Mexico for Ricciardo, it was that Nico Hülkenberg’s ‘Class B’-winning Renault had finished two laps behind Verstappen…
Brazilian Grand Prix
Although Interlagos is the second-most vertiginous track on the calendar, at a mere 800 metres (compared to Mexico’s 2300), it’s not enough to give the Renault engine parity – and it was back to row three for Red Bull – with Ricciardo additionally penalised down to row five. But on race day the RB14’s ability to treat its tyres nicely turned out to be a more powerful asset than any engine advantage. Verstappen overtook the entire Ferrari and Mercedes teams on track to be leading until tripping over the Force India of old karting nemesis Esteban Ocon, who was trying to unlap himself. This gifted a struggling Lewis Hamilton the win. Ricciardo came through the midfield easily enough but spent a long time dicing with Sebastian Vettel’s fifth-placed Ferrari. He eventually got by with one of his patented late-braking moves, something he then repeated on Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes. So fourth place at the flag, but without the penalty, he’d arguably have been around to profit as the winning beneficiary of Verstappen’s incident.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
The emotions were running high in Abu Dhabi, every part of a Grand Prix weekend routine carrying with it an unsaid weight, of it being the last time. Red Bull’s car was again great on its tyres and easily fastest in the twisty last sector of the desert track, where the rubber tends to run too hot. But that wasn’t buying it as much time as it was losing to Mercedes and Ferrari in the power-demanding first and second sectors. So they were back to being on the third row, but Ricciardo this time was able not only to outqualify Verstappen but get through Q2 on the harder ultra tyre, unlike Verstappen who needed a hypersoft to make it. The implied strategy advantage for Ricciardo didn’t really play out, though.
Ricciardo ran the initial stages of the race in fifth place, but dropped behind Verstappen at the pit stops but both were then able to ambush Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes. But that took them only as far as third and fourth. After the disappointment had faded, there was one last love-in.
“Everything I have done in F1 is down to them and I’m incredibly grateful for that,” said the ‘Honey Badger’. “The moment before the race with everyone in the garage showing their love and appreciation was really cool and that’s certainly something I will never forget. I thank the team for the last five years and Red Bull for the last 10. I would have loved to drink out of my shoe and celebrate with the team one last time, but now I close this chapter with thanks and love for everyone in the Red Bull family.”