It was many years ago when I first met Daniel Ricciardo. Karun Chandhok and I had just got off a plane at Dubai Airport and were heading for our connection when we bumped into a man that Karun claimed at the time, was a “future a world champion!”
It was the year after Daniel had taken the British Formula 3 title and for once in my life, I decided not to disagree with Karun’s bold prediction. On some things we don’t always see eye to eye, Duck Bhoonas for instance, I say that no trip to an Indian restaurant is complete without one. Karun, for some reason, still isn’t too keen – and just because he’s got his own menu in his local curry house that doesn’t make him right!
But I digress, and on the subject of whether Daniel is a future world champion or not, there’s certainly been plenty of evidence since to suggest that the Australian could and should be one day.
After all, this is the man who needed just a few laps to impress Dr Helmut Marko enough to sign him up to the Red Bull junior driver development programme. Worried that he wasn’t asked to drive on the second day of the test, apparently Daniel was rather surprised to hear his name called out as one of the lucky drivers to make the grade. I asked Helmut about it last year and he said that in a matter of minutes he knew the guy was the real deal so it made no sense to overwork him.
But after five wins, all from outside the top three on the grid, one pole and 27 podiums, is the Australian any nearer to winning a world title now and proving Karun and many others correct?
In many ways, of course he is. There’s no doubting his ability when it comes to racing. Some of his overtakes have been simply breathtaking and his ability to race under pressure without errors is absolutely top draw. But, and you knew there was a but coming, is that enough?
Sadly, he needs a championship winning car as well and for all their good work since Sebastian Vettel won his last world title, Red Bull Racing hasn't provided one. You could take the argument that a lot of that has been down to the Renault engine if you wanted to, but let’s just say for now, that the Australian hasn’t found himself sitting in a title winning machine and that more than anything needs to change for him sooner, rather than later.
That's why the first half of this season is absolutely vital for him. This is the final season of his Red Bull contract and whilst the signs are that the team would like him to stay, his desire to win titles, and he’s spoken openly about this, means he’ll only remain with them if they’re competitive. I don’t for one minute think that he feels intimidated by the presence of Max Verstappen as a teammate, theirs is a healthy rivalry. But I believe that he does feel that the team need to deliver a winning machine and it’s worth pointing out that Red Bull had more wins in the second half of the 2013 season than they’ve had in the four seasons since!
So you wouldn’t blame him if he’s looking around elsewhere. Both Mercedes and Ferrari have potential vacancies for 2019 and a man of Ricciardo’s calibre would certainly make their shortlist.
A move to Ferrari, despite the lure of racing for the Scuderia, might see him in exactly the same boat as he’s currently sailing, however. But a move to Mercedes, should they decide that Valtteri Bottas isn’t the right fit beyond the end of 2018, now that could tick plenty of title winning boxes.
For Mercedes, to have an experienced, winning driver, racing alongside Lewis Hamilton, would be an attractive proposition, especially if at the age of 33, Lewis is thinking more short than long term about his racing career. And whilst Mercedes have two young drivers in Esteban Ocon and George Russell on their books, would either be as appealing to Toto Wolff as a big name signing?
To see Lewis and Daniel going head to head in the same machines certainly has appeal for the fans, and the Australian's presence at Brackley would go down well with their sponsors too. It’s a move that on paper looks very possible. The man wants to be a world champion, pure and simple, and if Red Bull can’t deliver the opportunity – Mercedes seem to be the one team on the grid at the moment that can.