The consensus in the paddock at Spa was that Daniel Ricciardo had already got the nod for the second Red Bull seat, and Mark Webber added fuel to the fire by telling Australian TV that it was a done deal.
However Christian Horner continues to insist that the team has yet to decide who will get the drive.
Ricciardo is signed to Red Bull Racing anyway, and in effect the team could call on his services at any time up to the start of next season. Even if the Aussie doesn’t get the RBR job he will be in a Toro Rosso with an identical powertrain/gearbox package to the RB10, and thus potentially in a competitive seat.
There appears to be no logical reason why Red Bull would not have announced Ricciardo if he had already been guaranteed the drive. Indeed from a PR standpoint an early announcement would be a show of faith in the junior programme at a time when other options were available.
The bottom line is that Horner wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t continue to explore other interesting options, given that Ricciardo isn’t going anywhere. Two World Champions are currently without a 2014 contract – Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button – while sources continue to suggest that Fernando Alonso is still not 100% committed to Ferrari.
When this writer asked Bernie Ecclestone if he thought that Felipe Massa would be staying at Maranello, he replied: “They should be more worried about hanging on to Alonso…”
The value of having two experienced, proven winners on board for what will be a complicated season for all the teams is obvious, and at the same time if RBR takes a second top driver it will in turn damage a rival.
“There’s plenty of speculation about, but nothing has been signed yet,” said Horner at Spa. “So the situation is still as I said before the race, we’ve got time to contemplate who we’re going to put in the other seat, and there will be no announcement certainly before Monza.
“Mark obviously isn’t privy to all of the discussions with drivers. When there’s something to announce, we’ll certainly announce it. It will probably go on beyond Monza.”
Elaborating on Ricciardo’s situation, he said: “Both Toro Rosso drivers are on Red Bull Racing contracts. They’re on loan to Toro Rosso, so at any point they are available for us to call upon. So we don’t have to worry about those two, because they’re products of the Red Bull junior team, and the reason we’re taking the time is to look at what other options are about.
“Obviously they are very big shoes to fill next year. We want to field the strongest possible team that we can, so therefore it’s absolutely prudent to look at all the options that are available. It’s actually surprised us the options that are available that perhaps we didn’t think were.”
It’s widely assumed that it would be impossible for Sebastian Vettel to operate alongside a proven superstar, but Horner says that’s not an issue.
“To be honest with you Sebastian has no input or veto or requirement for any blessing over that second seat. He wants obviously to have a competitive team mate, because he wants to be pushed, as Mark has pushed him. He hasn’t voiced any opinions, strongly or otherwise, in any way. He sees it very much as a team position, and that’s very much the way it is.”
While many observers struggle to understand why Alonso might want to leave Ferrari, it may well be that he simply has fears about the competitiveness of the 2014 powertrain package.
It remains unclear in what circumstances Alonso might be able to walk away from what appears to be a solid Ferrari contract, unless it contains a generous performance clause that works in his favour – for example something that relates to driver and team having failed to win a World Championship over their four years together.
Of course as ever there are some potentially some games in the background, and it’s easy to suggest that Alonso is simply finding ways to motivate his current team, while Horner is destabilising the likes of Ferrari and Lotus by keeping the driver debate open.
However, it’s worth remembering that it’s dangerous to second guess what Alonso might do. Not many people expected him to leave his home at Renault for McLaren, or indeed walk away from an ultra competitive McLaren at the end of 2007 – even allowing for the rather awkward way that season unfolded, and the breakdown of his relationship with the team management.
As someone close to Fernando said at Spa, “At McLaren he finished a point behind the champion, and he still quit…”