Although it was widely acknowledged as a mere formality in the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix, Monday’s confirmation that Daniel Ricciardo will drive for Red Bull for the 2014 season was met with murmurs of discontent in some quarters.
Fans, naturally, want to see the best drivers in the best cars. Red Bull’s decision to overlook 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari’s double world champion Fernando Alonso in favour of the young Australian is understandably frustrating.
Confirmed via a brief statement and video on their official website on Monday, when much of Europe was fixated with football’s transfer deadline day, the timing of announcing a transfer of their own seemed somewhat bizarre, as though it was intentional for it to slip under the radar.
Indeed, the subdued contribution from the team’s chief engineer Adrian Newey in the aforementioned video suggests, as rumoured, that he is not fully behind the decision to pick potential over the finished article.
"We could have taken, possibly, an experienced driver—someone who would be guaranteed to deliver," Newey said. "Or, equally, we could take on a very young driver in the hope that he develops to a very high level."
The key word “equally” is uttered with a cynical smirk, but his PR-savvy partner Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, is more convincing with his input, suggesting Ricciardo “deserves this graduation on merit.”
Like the fans, it’s only natural for Newey to want the driver of the car he spends day-and-night developing to have proven pace. But with Horner the key word is “graduation”—and herein lays the philosophy and blueprint for Red Bull’s continued dominance of Formula One.
It’s easy to forget that triple world champion Sebastian Vettel also graduated from Toro Rosso, the sister team of Red Bull, with the German being the first of what they expect to be many success stories of the feeder-team relationship the pair have.
Granted, Vettel already had a race win and "Rookie of the Year" award from Autosport to his credentials before he took the step up, but the youngest ever Formula One world champion is, as it turns out, a phenomenon—and Ricciardo does not have to be a phenomenon to be a success at Red Bull.
One of the problems which has hampered the relationship between Vettel and Mark Webber, who Ricciardo will replace at the end of the season, is the German’s apparent lack of respect for his Australian teammate, who only joined the team courtesy of a favour from Flavio Briatore back in 2007, when Red Bull were yet to become major players.
Having earned his drive at Red Bull through taking his chance at Toro Rosso, Vettel made the grade the hard way, and so too has his 2014 teammate Ricciardo, who will no doubt have earned the respect of the team’s main man having taken the same route to the top.
It's not as if Vettel would have been devoid of respect for Raikkonen or Alonso, but he may well have felt threatened by the presence of either in the same paddock, a possibility which would have caused Red Bull more harm than good.
With Ricciardo, such a tense environment is unforeseeable, though the 24-year-old should possess enough speed to keep Vettel on his toes but without keeping him awake at night. If he fulfills his promise, the youngster should do a better job of taking points off Vettel’s rivals than his compatriot Webber has managed of late.
Proof of Ricciardo’s potential pace came at this season’s Young Driver’s Test in July, when the Australian got his hands on the wheel of an RB9 and steered it to a personal best that clocked in at just under 0.3 seconds slower than Vettel’s time (senior drivers were allowed to test at this year’s event due to the well-documented Pirelli tyre problems).
This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Vettel’s lap time was registered on medium compound tyres, with Ricciardo’s effort coming on hard tyres, so the narrow gap could have been even slimmer had they tested on identical rubber.
Moreover, Ricciardo’s record in qualifying is vastly superior to that of his Toro Rosso teammate Jean-Éric Vergne, who to date has made Q3 on just two occasions in his career, while the Australian consistently makes the cut for the final session, with this season’s 5th-place start at Silverstone a career best.
Statistically, Frenchman Vergne has actually outperformed Ricciardo in 2013 season with 13 points to his teammate’s 12.
But the latter has been displaying excellent tactical awareness in race situations since his first full season, most notably when he became the first to switch to slick tyres in damp conditions in Malaysia, allowing him to climb to 12th position in the field, sparking mass imitation in the process.
Cynics will point to the fact that the number two is likely to be displayed on his car next season, with Red Bull well on their way to another Constructors’ title despite Ricciardo having never finished a race inside the top six, and also argue that Red Bull are putting all their eggs in Vettel’s basket.
However, in the words of Horner: If you don’t give someone a chance, how are they going to make those achievements?
It’s true Horner promised the team would target the best possible candidates, and that’s not how things have panned out, but at Red Bull it’s ultimately their Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz and his compatriot Helmut Marko who call the shots.
Mateschitz and his advisor are firm believers in the Toro Rosso programme and who could blame them given the success of Vettel? Incidentally, Red Bull paid Spanish minnows HRT to give Ricciardo a drive in 2011 to aid his development, effectively sowing the seeds for this week’s announcement.
Of course, not all drivers will come through the system successfully—Jaime Alguersuari springs to mind—but there’s no point in having a feeder team if the parent team is unwilling to give the process the chance of an end product.
Despite their wealth, Red Bull are unique in that they do not need to fork out enormous amounts of money in compensation and wages for a top-class, proven driver because they already possess top-class, proven cars designed by the best engineer the sport has ever seen.
You could compare Red Bull's philosophy to that of FC Barcelona, who largely nurture and produce their own world-class footballers and give them a home for the duration of their career, unlike, say, Manchester City, who attempt to buy success with absurd spending sprees on ready-made pros.
The Red Bull-Toro Rosso programme is working. Let it roll and, who knows, it could be the most successful conveyor belt since Henry Ford’s Assembly Line.