Daniel Ricciardo took advantage of a collision between the two Mercedes cars on Sunday to steal a shocking victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. The Aussie has won three of the last six races and is 64 points behind Nico Rosberg, the championship leader.
After Ricciardo's first win, in Canada, it was clear that he had the makings of a future champion—but not this year; the Mercedes cars were still too dominant. And although their outright speed advantage still remains, a combination of reliability issues, bad luck and self-inflicted wounds has allowed Ricciardo to close the gap. In fact, with seven races remaining, he now has a chance to claw his way back into the title fight.
At the end of July, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner talked about the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, both run at high-speed circuits. "It will be damage limitation in the next two races," he said, per Autosport's Jonathan Noble. Had the Mercs been able to put even more distance between themselves and Ricciardo over those two races, they would have been virtually impossible to catch in the remaining six races.
Through the first lap of the race, it appeared Horner's assessment was correct. Sebastian Vettel qualified third and Ricciardo fifth, but they were two seconds slower than the Silver Arrows. By the end of Lap 1, despite a strong start from Vettel, both Mercedes were already over a second ahead, with Lewis Hamilton in the lead.
During the long run from La Source to Les Combes on Lap 2, Rosberg closed in on Hamilton. At Les Combes, as Hamilton turned left for the second part of the corner, Rosberg's front wing clipped the Brit's left rear tyre, puncturing it.
That was the defining moment of the race and Ricciardo—his car featuring a new, low-profile rear wing—was able to take advantage.
Although there are seven grands prix left on the calendar, there are actually eight races worth of points. Remember, Abu Dhabi, the last race of the year, is worth double. Technically, Ricciardo just needs to be within 50 points of the leader to keep the title race alive heading to Yas Marina (depending on tiebreakers, that figure could actually be 49). That means he needs to make up just 14 or 15 points over the next six races—certainly possible.
Looking at it from another angle, though, to actually pass Rosberg, Ricciardo needs to average over nine points more per race than the current championship leader. In the last six races—since Ricciardo's victory in Montreal—he has closed the gap to Rosberg by a total of four points.
At that rate, Rosberg will retire before the Aussie can catch him.
In the post-race FIA press conference in Belgium, Ricciardo said, "To come and steal some points on a circuit where let’s say we weren’t supposed to is nice but I think what’s important, looking ahead, is to capitalise on the circuits that we should be strong on and if we can take maximum points, let’s say, at a couple of those then it’s never over."
Even victories will not be enough for Ricciardo, though, if Rosberg keeps finishing second (as he has at two of the Australian's three wins). What Ricciardo really needs are a couple more Mercedes DNFs. Unfortunately for him, Rosberg has finished every grand prix this season, except for Great Britain.
If you want to quantify Ricciardo's chances of a comeback, Oddschecker shows that he is still a 33-1 underdog to win the Drivers' Championship. Not exactly the smart money.
So, could Ricciardo win the title? Yes. Is it likely that he will? Hardly.
But no matter what Mercedes bigwigs Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda say, it is not difficult to imagine their drivers taking each other out at a future race—even at Abu Dhabi. In that case, as long as Ricciardo keeps himself in the title picture, he could once again be the beneficiary of Mercedes dropping the ball. And he could scoop up a much larger prize.
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