When it was announced that Max Verstappen would be promoted to the senior Red Bull team in place of Daniil Kvyat, interest immediately surrounded the teenager’s talents and how far they would take him against the well-established Daniel Ricciardo.
Of course, hype has followed the Dutchman ever since he made an impact in the European Formula 3 series which subsequently led to a contract with the Red Bull junior programme, but his biggest test came at the Spanish Grand Prix in his first outing with Red Bull Racing.
Verstappen stunned everyone, winning his first Formula 1 race on debut with a new team, becoming the youngest ever winner in the history of the sport.
After an average outing in Monaco where he found the barriers on two occasions throughout the weekend, Verstappen again impressed the paddock, making two podium appearances to Ricciardo’s one, as well as outscoring the Australian three times in four races.
While not being completely outclassed by his new, younger team mate, Ricciardo was yet to be out-qualified by a team mate in 2016 until he was beaten for the first time this season at the British Grand Prix.
Losing to Verstappen in qualifying became a turning point in the intra-team battle, as Ricciardo battled to get on top of his tyre degradation issues that had plagued his past two races.
“I wanted a perfect season with qualifying, so I am a little bit pissed off with that,” Ricciardo said after being out-qualified by Verstappen for the British Grand Prix.
“But it happens. I will just stab someone tomorrow! No, seriously, I will!”
Not losing his jocular personality, Ricciardo quashed the heartbreak of missed opportunities undergone in 2016 through no fault of his own, and continued his faultless performances to a double podium finish before the summer break. The Aussie finished behind the Mercedes in third position at the Hungaroring, then came second the following week in Hockenheim which saw the intra-team gap to Verstappen close from 13 points down to five. [RIC 97 102 VES]
While some will say Ricciardo has been outperformed by his teenage teammate, one can argue had Red Bull not botched his pitstop at the Monaco Grand Prix, he would be two points ahead of Verstappen instead five behind.
A chance at victory also went begging at the Spanish Grand Prix when Red Bull made the strategical call to cover their position against an early-pitting Ferrari, pitting Ricciardo who still had plenty of life left to run on the more durable medium compound tyre.
The strategy cost Ricciardo – who had led the race for a combined total of 30 laps – chance at victory, handing the win to his new team mate Verstappen.
The position Ricciardo finds himself in isn’t one that’s too unfamiliar, as it was only two years ago that Ricciardo was the new boy at Red Bull, showing up then number one driver and four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel.
“I guess that there have been some similarities at times,” said Ricciardo.
“I can understand a little bit I guess. I think it is like anything, even when Danny [Kvyat] beat me last year a few times it was like, you don’t like getting beaten but at the same time if you can understand if it was just that he was better on that day, or worked better with the engineers and set the car up better, then you just have to take it on the chin and move forward.
“But if they are consistently doing something better, then sure you want to try and work it out. But for now he [Verstappen] has obviously done very well, but I think once I get the ball rolling it will be okay.”
Together, both drivers have amassed a total of 199 points since the Spanish Grand Prix which has helped Red Bull claw back the deficit to Ferrari in the Constructor’s championship, surpassing the Scuderia at the German Grand Prix.
Ferrari started the year strong and looked like the team to mount a challenge against the dominant Mercedes, as the prancing horse came close to matching the Silver Arrows’ race pace and even led the Australian Grand Prix, until a conservative tyre strategy cost Vettel a chance at victory.
This happened on two more occasions where Ferrari’s conservative approach cost them chances at victory. In Spain, the team pitted Vettel early to undercut the Red Bulls which ultimately saw him finish the race behind teammate Raikkonen in third. While in Canada, Vettel was brought into the pits seven laps earlier than scheduled due to a virtual safety car which forced him to run a longer stint on the soft compound tyre.
The call to come in early saw Mercedes change their strategy from a two stop to a one stop, which allowed Lewis Hamilton to take the chequered flag first with ease after Vettel still had to make his second mandatory pit stop.
While both Red Bull and Ferrari have failed to capitalise on opportunities for race wins, Red Bull has continued their successful development throughout the year, while Ferrari has fallen behind, partially due to the absence of technical director James Allison.
Throughout the month of July where Formula 1 hosted four races in five weekends, there was a Red Bull driver on the podium in every race – including a double podium finish in Germany – while Ferrari only managed third position in Austria courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen.
“We are reorganising the team first of all without panicking,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said in Germany.
“Taking that decision means that we are clear in mind what to do, and looking forward for the rest of the season we know as well bearing the difficulty where we have to work.”
Arrivabene concedes that Ferrari has dropped its game in the aerodynamics department since the Spanish Grand Prix in May, but is now confident that the team have identified the problem.
“If I look at the situation now and I go back, we don’t have great improvement in terms of downforce since Barcelona.
“That is the problem, this is why I say we clearly know where to work now and we have to do it as soon as possible, even if it’s not easy.
“I spoke about downforce, there are two types – aerodynamic downforce, the other one is mechanical downforce. We have to work on those areas together and sometimes they talk a different language at the moment.
“There are many, many factors, we’ve done a lot of analysis, and now we’re quite clear about the reasons why.”
While Ferrari are playing catch-up in their aerodynamic development against a team known for their exceptional aerodynamic packages, Arrivabene highlighted Ferrari’s engine as the strongest part of their package and indicated that there’s more to be developed.
“The engine, we have something which is coming, I’m quite comfortable with that, but you know the aero development is going to be stopped by the FIA [for the mandatory two-week summer shutdown], so that’s no development time now, and after the stop we need to use it to solve in short term where the problems are.”
Given the next two races are at power venues rather than circuits suited to cars with superior aerodynamics, Ferrari has the chance to regain points lost to Red Bull in recent races.
The question is, can Red Bull hold off Ferrari’s charge in time for races like Singapore or Japan, where the Austrian team has traditionally excelled at.