Very few saw the Ricciardo-to-Renault story coming. But now that it’s here, this bold move says as much about the climate at Red Bull as it does about Daniel’s wish to take on a totally new challenge with Renault.
The seeds of discontent were probably sewn when Red Bull became nervous this time last year over approaches to Max Verstappen and offered a deal Max would have been daft to refuse – assuming he ever wanted to leave the Marko mollycoddle zone in the first place.
A predictable knock-on effect (no pun intended) came in Baku this year when the absence of any intervention from the pit wall in response to serious wheel-banging meant a points-consuming collision was inevitable.
Post-race comments from both drivers were straight from the PR handbook but a persistent and growing niggle was clearly evident five races later when Ricciardo was quietly critical of the towing strategy during qualifying in Austria.
This was at the beginning of July and Ricciardo’s uncharacteristic public display of disapproval, coupled with what we now know, suggests he was thinking very hard about moving on. But where?
The chances of joining either Mercedes or Ferrari were becoming increasingly limited to the point where Red Bull felt they held all the decent cards. A discussion with McLaren was no more than that. Renault was scarcely mentioned.
Ricciardo weighed up the fact that, after Mercedes and Ferrari, Renault is the next – and only – fully works team; something that Red Bull will never be. This is clearly a long-term gamble since the current Renault chassis and aero are some way short of the Adrian Newey’s creation. But Daniel will have noted on-going expansion of the Renault factory and the unpretentious racing ethos that was born in Enstone three decades before.
It’s also probably no coincidence that Renault’s technical chief is (for the time being) Bob Bell, the man responsible for playing a part in persuading Lewis Hamilton to make what appeared to be a risky move from McLaren when, in a similar role, Bell knew exactly what was in the technical pipeline at Mercedes.
There may be a considerable difference between the status, both financial and practical, of Renault and Mercedes at these comparative moments but it would be no surprise if Bell applied his quiet and genuine enthusiasm to the job of helping land such a prized catch for a team that is making gradual but effective progress.
Ricciardo will also have considered the prospective chemistry with Nico Hülkenberg, another hard racer of roughly the same age and with a similar easy-going disposition. In the absence of team orders and No 1 status, the new partnership will keep both drivers sharp and, along the way, raise Hülkenberg’s game even higher, a fact Danny Ric has doubtless registered.
Being aced by the Hulk would effectively end the Honey Badger’s rise as a prospective champion, either with Renault or with Mercedes or Ferrari should seats become available in the future.
The only downside for Renault is the impending loss of Carlos Sainz, described by one insider as ‘the real deal; hard to fault’ and genuinely liked by this compact team. It must be even more difficult for Sainz father and son as they contemplate a move to McLaren where one of the few plus sides is an engine Sainz junior is familiar with and the thought that the only way has to be up for a team with such facilities and misdirected potential.
Speaking of engines; you’d think Ricciardo, with Red Bull’s seven power unit related failures in the last nine months, might be wary of getting even further into bed with the French company.
Perhaps he’s noted just three such failures for Hülkenberg and none for Sainz in the same period; which says either the works product is better or the shrink-wrapped Red Bull may present similar problems for the Honda. Who knows?
The only certainty is that Renault Sport F1 set off for their summer break with a spring in their collective step and the need to practice drinking champagne from a sweaty racing boot.