There’s little doubt that the hottest topic of conversation in Formula 1 before the Azerbaijan round is Daniel Ricciardo. The Perth, Western Australia, born Red Bull driver is understood to have signed a document that effectively precludes any team negotiating a contract for 2019 with him. Any team except Ferrari.
Noted F1 scribe, Mark Hughes, has said: ““There are many different types of contractual options, but this one is said to be on both sides up to a defined date (believed to be June 30). Up until that time, neither party can officially negotiate with another,” reports Hughes.
“Because the driver is effectively locking himself out of the market for that time, discussions for his post-2018 services are contractually ‘owned’ by the team (in this case Ferrari).
“As such, he will be paid a fee. Between now and then he and Ferrari can negotiate about a future contract. This is all conventional F1 practice.
“Those privy to such matters at Red Bull are adamant that he has definitely signed something, somewhere but it’s not with them and it’s not with Mercedes. Logically, therefore, it must be Ferrari.”
Given the form the co-driver in the team, Max Verstappen, hasn’t shown in the three rounds so far, including driving standards decried by other drivers, Ricciardo is in a better position after his Shanghai win to have Ferrari sign him for next year. With a somewhat disillusioned Kimi Raikkonen off contract at Ferrari at the end of this season, pundits are tipping that this lock out period will see the 28 year Ricciardo and the Italian hero team announcing later in the year their joint signing.
Red Bull however are saying that they want him to stay and Ricciardo himself has said he would if the team can provide him a car capable of winning this year’s championship. But his superb win in China wasn’t without dramas prior to the race, with the car barely making qualifying after an engine swap being performed, and qualifying just sixth. It’s also fair to say that had there not been a safety car, the win may not have come his way.
Azerbaijan and its capital, Baku, on the south western corner of the once mighty Caspian Sea, and lying directly east of Turkey and Armenia, will play host for just the third time. Ricciardo won the 2017 round after a masterful display on the 6.003 circuit, and in its debut event in 2016, Sergio Perez stood atop the podium. It has Mercedes coming in with no wins this season and no wins since the Abu Dhabi round of 2017.
This is a source of concern for the team as prior to this run the Silver Arrows had claimed the prize in all but 14 of the races held in this hybrid engine era, an era that started in 2014.
And although Raikkonen may be looking for a new home next year, he’s off to a great start in 2018, with the three races held so far having the Finn on the front row. Should he gain pole at Baku, he’d be the oldest driver to do so since since a 41 year old Nigel Mansell in 1994.
Of the other teams, it’s Williams that have the most to lose. In 2018 the team hasn’t seen their cars get past the first qualifying session.
Tire choice, as always, will be critical for the Azerbaijan round, with the soft, super soft, and ultra soft the three compounds being made available. With the forecast for Saturday and Sunday reaching 24 degrees Celcius, the teams will need to be watching track temperatures intently to see which of the three looks best suited to pay dividends.