Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull Racing for the works Renault team is arguably the most surprising F1 driver move since Lewis Hamilton switched from McLaren to Mercedes.
It might prove just as inspired and well timed as that switch, too. Or it could leave Ricciardo was egg on his face, severely harming his career prospects. It's a proper gamble.
On first impressions, it seems a backward step. Ricciardo has won seven races and scored 29 podiums since joining the main Red Bull team in 2014. And even if Red Bull has regressed somewhat since winning four straight titles with Sebastian Vettel from 2010 until 2013, it’s clearly been the third-best team behind Mercedes and Ferrari in recent years.
With Mercedes sticking with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari having the pick of Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc to partner Sebastian Vettel next year, there’s no obvious forward step for Ricciardo.
Instead, it seems Ricciardo has taken a step back. Red Bull has outperformed the works Renault team since the latter rejoined the grid in 2016 – using a customer supply of Renault power units. And the displeasure of Red Bull management with those engine is clear; they are adamant it’s the powertrain that’s been holding the team back from matching Mercedes and Ferrari.
Renault hasn’t taken too kindly to that view, so it’s little surprise that the strained relationship will end this year. Next year, Red Bull will use Honda engines – a move that, well, could prove inspired or leave Red Bull bosses with egg on their faces.
Since returning to the sport with McLaren in 2015, a Honda-engined car has yet to score a podium. For Ricciardo, then, even staying at Red Bull meant considering a big unknown factor. And there was the known factor: team-mate Max Verstappen. The 20-year-old Dutchman was fast-tracked into the Red Bull team and is likely viewed by the team as a better long-term prospect than 29-year-old Ricciardo.