Ricciardo exit exposes Verstappen feud?
THERE'S been no shortage of speculation Daniel Ricciardo's shock exit from Red Bull was in part due to the team's perceived favouritism of teammate Max Verstappen, and the Aussie's move to Renault may cause more headaches than first thought for the energy drink team.
Ricciardo's switch will have significant implications for the rest of the grid next year with several changes to driver line-ups expected, and talk has already turned to who will replace the 29-year-old at Red Bull.
Carlos Sainz is on loan at Renault from Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso and looms as a possible replacement for Ricciardo, who will partner Nico Hulkenberg at the French outfit in 2019. Earlier this year Red Bull boss Christian Horner said the Spaniard was the "obvious" frontrunner to partner Verstappen should Ricciardo quit.
But that option may not be so straightforward after a report emerged in Spanish publication Marca suggesting Verstappen isn't keen on driving alongside Sainz next year.
The two were together at Toro Rosso before Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull's senior team in place of Daniil Kvyat, and according to the Spanish report, he and Sainz endured a strained relationship during Verstappen's final months with the team in 2015 and 2016.
If Verstappen's alleged issue with Sainz sways Red Bull powerbrokers, it may open the door for Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly to take Ricciardo's place and at the same time pave the way for Sainz to join McLaren, who has indicated an interest in the 23-year-old.
"We think Carlos is an excellent race car driver," McLaren boss Zak Brown said at last week's Hungarian Grand Prix. "He's certainly someone that as you go down the shortlist of drivers you'd consider putting in a race car.
"If he was free, and if we had a seat, he would certainly be high up on the consideration set."
McLaren stars Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne are out of contract at the end of the year and Alonso's future in F1 is uncertain after a frustrating last couple of seasons that have been marred by repeated technical failures. Brown revealed McLaren was planning for the future by chasing Ricciardo's signature, saying it was "pretty close" to getting him before he announced his partnership with Renault.
"We had a couple of meetings and we are big fans of Daniel," Brown said. "I think he's a great guy, I think he's a great race car driver. How close we came to getting him, I think only Daniel knows the answer to that question.
"Had we been running more competitively (in the constructors' championship) I think that would have increased our odds.
"I think he had a strong desire to leave and I think it was probably pretty close between us and Renault, but ultimately Daniel would be best to tell you how close. But he was certainly someone that we rate very highly and think he's a great race car driver and a great guy."
Sky Sports F1 pundit Martin Brundle said recently he believes Sainz would be "talking very heavily to McLaren" and hopes he finds a seat at a strong team next year. But that seat may not be at Red Bull if Verstappen is blocking his path.
Last year Verstappen signed a lucrative new deal to keep him at Red Bull until the end of 2020, reflecting the faith the English-based team had placed in him to deliver a world championship.
No one doubts Verstappen has the raw talent to win a title but that Red Bull was paying him more money than Ricciardo was seen by many as a sign it was favouring the 20-year-old over his more experienced Australian teammate.
Ricciardo has repeatedly said he doesn't want to play second fiddle to anyone because he believes he's primed for a world title tilt if given the right tools - something he hasn't had at Red Bull, who has struggled to compete with Mercedes and Ferrari, partly due to troubles with engine supplier Renault.
F1 journalist James Allen believes Red Bull's commitment to Verstappen set Ricciardo on the course to leaving.
"The seeds of this move were sown in autumn last year when Red Bull signed Max Verstappen onto a big money contract extension to the end of 2021. This warded off attention from Mercedes and Ferrari and locked the Dutchman in," Allen wrote.
"The gesture towards his teammate gave Ricciardo a pretty clear feeling about where he stood in the thinking of (Red Bull motorsport director) Helmut Marko and the Red Bull management. He's liked and respected as much for his consistency and his joyful personality as for his speed.
"Ricciardo is one of the fastest drivers in F1, but Red Bull clearly felt that Verstappen has that extra half a tenth of pace as well as combativity that make him the driver to bet the farm on. They wanted to retain Ricciardo, but the premise and the terms were clearly not what Ricciardo wants."