AUSTIN, Texas — While Sebastian Vettel remains unable or unwilling to confirm his future beyond the next three races—his last with Red Bull—Daniel Ricciardo's is much clearer. In 2015, he will inherit the mantle of Red Bull's No. 1 driver from his soon-to-be-former teammate.
Just one year after his promotion from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, Ricciardo says he is ready.
"It's time now for me to take that role," the 25-year-old Australian told me Wednesday in Austin. "I'm not as experienced as Seb, but I feel I've definitely learned enough now that I can keep the team up at the front where they belong and help them out with developing [the car]. I want to be racing at the front, so I'll do what I can to keep it there."
Ricciardo won't find many doubters that he is the man for the job.
One of the big unknowns coming into the 2014 season was how he would deal with running at the front of the grid and battling with a teammate who had won the last four world championships.
Leading Vettel by 56 points in the current drivers' standings, he has answered any questions about him.
As Ricciardo takes Vettel's place at the head of the team, 20-year-old Daniil Kvyat will be playing the Ricciardo role next year. Although the Toro Rosso driver has just 16 Formula One races under his belt, Red Bull have already deemed him worthy of a race seat with the top team.
"I think Dany ... it'll take him a little bit of time, but he'll be able to offer some good knowledge, as well," Ricciardo says. "He is young, but he's quick and I think he's part of that new generation coming through. We shouldn't be underestimated. I think we'll be a strong team."
Of course, part of that also depends on the strength of the car. Ricciardo has won three races this year, but they have come when the dominant Mercedes duo have run into problems (or each other).
For next year, Red Bull has announced a works engine deal with Renault that they hope will help close the gap with the Silver Arrows.
"We will have a works team," Renault Sport F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul told Autosport's Jonathan Noble in September. "Our focus and target is to go back to a winning championship position with Red Bull Racing. Full stop."
"I think it will be a good thing," Ricciardo told me, sounding hopeful. "Red Bull's going to work a lot closer with Renault next year and get more involved ... have more input and get a bit more horsepower out of it. They know what they're doing. I'm sure it's going to be for the best. I just hope the results come soon, or sooner."
Still, a works deal is no guarantee of success. Ferrari builds their own engines and they have struggled even more than Red Bull this season.
Even now, despite Mercedes' advantage this year, Ricciardo is still alive in the championship.
"It's mathematically still possible," he laughs. Yet Red Bull have been reluctant to issue team orders in recent races to assist him. I have already written why I think this is the wrong decision, but Ricciardo insists it doesn't bother him.
"There haven't been any scenarios where I've really pushed and said, 'Come on guys, do something—give me a team order.' ... I think they've handled it well. I was behind Seb for a little bit in Russia, but then I boxed [made a pit stop]. We sort of tried a different strategy and that got me in front. There hasn't really been a standout point where I was frustrated.
"I told the team as the season went on, 'If there has to be some orders, OK,' but I want to beat the guy in front on track and not have to rely on them."
That is a noble sentiment, but one that won't help him if—however unlikely it may be—he were to lose the championship by a couple of points.
Finally, Ricciardo also spoke about Austin and the future of F1 in America.
"I love coming to America to race," he says with evident sincerity. "Maybe that's because I'm a big fan of NASCAR, as well.
"The last couple years coming to Austin, we've had an awesome response from the fans and from the city. Everyone seems to have gotten behind it and opened their arms to Formula One. ... As a race weekend goes, for me, it's the ultimate."
Still, he says, "America's a big place, and I definitely see more places for us to go in the future. I know New Jersey was talked about for a bit, so fingers crossed that could still happen, and there's a few other names popping up now, but Austin's great.
"I'm very excited about Mexico happening, as well. I know a lot of Mexicans come here for the race, so I hope we still get all of them coming—maybe they can do a double weekend. Hopefully it doesn't scare them off."
One way to keep the fans happy will be for Red Bull and the other teams to close the gap to Mercedes next year, as Ricciardo is hopeful they can. Whether that is actually realistic remains to be seen.
Based on his results this year, though, there is no reason to doubt that Ricciardo can help Red Bull make a seamless transition from the Vettel era. And maybe, a few years from now, we will be talking about the Ricciardo era.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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