Why 2018 is so important for Red Bull Racing and their drivers

When Red Bull took over the Jaguar team for the 2005 season, little was expected of them. A fourth place finish by David Coulthard in their first race was nice, but come 2009 the team looked like real contenders. Sebastian Vettel claimed the team’s first pole and win in China that year, and we all know what he and the team accomplished from 2010 through to 2013.

Since the hybrid era started and Mercedes began to dominate, only 14 races have been won by non-Mercedes cars. Those races have gone to Vettel (seven), Daniel Ricciardo (five), and Max Verstappen (two), making Red Bull, its young driver program, and the graduates from it the only force in F1 that has stood up to the Silver Arrows.

Which is why this winter, and the run up to the 2018 silly season, are so crucial for the Milton Keynes outfit.

Championship expectations

The hybrid era has not been kind to Red Bull, with the pace of the Mercedes power units outstripping anything Red Bull can get in the back of their cars. Even a Red Bull-Ferrari team-up might not be enough to consistently stop Mercedes from dominating on Saturdays and picking up wins on Sunday.

However, since their domination at the start of the decade, Red Bull have come to expect race wins, podiums, and title challenges.

It seems odd in an era of sheer dominance by Mercedes that any other team would hope to compete, but Red Bull are still very much of the mindset that they can do so. We have seen them narrow the gap late in the season both last year and now this year, but it’s just not enough. And because it’s not enough, they may lose their latest crop of brilliant drivers.

The 2019 driver market

The top three teams will have the same driver lineup next year as they had this season, but come 2019 everything could change. Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo, and Fernando Alonso are all currently unsigned for the 2019 season. 

That’s two Mercedes seats and one Ferrari seat open to slide Ricciardo in, and while Max Verstappen is under contract for 2019, no driver's contract in F1 is iron-clad and unbreakable.

While Hamilton is likely to be retained by Mercedes, both they and Ferrari are going to be throwing offers at Ricciardo.

"it's our intention to retain both of our drivers, I would say until 2020." said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner to motorsport.com, but if Red Bull are unable to put forward a truly championship-worthy car next season will the ambitious Aussie be willing to turn down a chance to compete in a Prancing Horse, or the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Hamilton in a Mercedes?

Max Verstappen has already voiced his anger at losing several very good positions due to reliability, with his father Jos even openly talking about making a move.

Red Bull have a fallback option in Carlos Sainz and the up-and-coming Pierre Gasly; they survived the departure of Sebastian Vettel at the end of 2014, but to lose both Ricciardo and Verstappen, who have out-driven the machinery beneath them and stood up to the Silver Arrows, could be crippling.

Will they be able to keep one?

By 2019 I think that this current Red Bull pairing will be broken up, but that the Milton Keynes-based team will be able to keep hold of one of them. If I had to guess, they would be able to re-sign Ricciardo, and lose Max to their competitors.

The young Dutchman's frustrations for this year seem understandable, but the influence of his dad and his family is a wildcard in the entire relationship. Ricciardo on the other hand is much more of a carefree guy who seems to be very grateful to Red Bull for all the opportunities and belief in him they have displayed. His only point of frustration with the team was the pitstop error that cost him the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix, but that blew over fairly quickly and his overall pace, attacking mindset and light-hearted nature are a perfect fit for a team that, outwardly at least, has never been as super-serious as majority of the F1 paddock.

Do you think Red Bull can mount a title challenge next year to keep Ricciardo and Verstappen sweet? Where do you think these guys could end up if they do leave Red Bull? Let us know in the comments below!

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