Daniel Ricciardo faces a new challenge from within his own Red Bull Racing garage this weekend when F1’s top teenager Max Verstappen makes a surprise debut for the team at the Spanish Grand Prix.
The 18-year-old Dutchman, promoted from the Toro Rosso outfit to replace demoted Russian Daniil Kvyat, has made a sensational impact since arriving last season as the youngest F1 racer of all time.
A series of strong performances proved he is mature beyond his years and that he possesses huge talent and raw speed – and will be a fresh stimulus to the in-form Australian as he seeks a return to the points after the unfortunate collisions in Russia race on May 1.
There, at the Sochi circuit by the Black Sea, his run of three successive fourth place finishes was ended when he was caught up in an opening lap multiple crash, caused by Kvyat, which wrecked the team’s race as well as that of four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel, now of Ferrari.
Within days, the Russian was told – in a 20-minute phone call to his Moscow home where he was interrupted while catching up on ‘Game of Thrones’ – that he was to be replaced by Verstappen. Kyat, understandably, was stunned and on Thursday said he did not understand the team’s move to drop him.
For Ricciardo, it means a new team-mate and a ‘ new' start that coincides with the arrival of warm Spring sunshine in Europe, albeit that rain is forecast for Sunday at the sprawling track situated half an hour’s drive inland from Barcelona.
“Barcelona always marks the start of summer,” said the Perth racer. “The weather is starting to get better and we usually go pretty well at the Circuit de Catalunya so I’m looking forward to it.
“I know the track well as we spend quite a lot of time here in testing, but there’s always things to learn. I don’t want to say I know it all, but having had a few races I just want to put it all together and have a strong weekend.”
Dan ‘the man’ was given no warning of his team-mate’s impending swap and was as surprised to hear of it as his Russian namesake. Understandably, he kept out of the limelight when the F1 circus arrived on Thursday and tried to focus mainly on the race ahead.
“It’s a relatively high down-force circuit so we can strap most of the things on the car that make it go faster,” he explained. “It’s quite hard on tyres and, as we are normally a bit stronger than some other teams in that area, it could provide a good opportunity for us to get close to the podium.”
To ensure he is not distracted by the nightlife in the Catalan capital, Ricciardo stays at the circuit. He understands the decision, if he has regrets.
“I stay in a motorhome for the whole race week as it’s just a lot more convenient, but I would love to spend more time in the city, to be honest,” he explained. “I really like Barcelona. It has a cool culture and some awesome Tapas places….”
He is likely to have his work cut out resisting Verstappen’s challenge, even if the Dutchman will need his advice as he settles into the team. Team chief Christian Horner believes the pairing will become the strongest in the sport.
“I think you always want to put your best foot forward and have the most competitive driver line-up that you can have,” said Horner. “For me, this line-up is potentially one of the strongest for the future.”
As to the immediate future, this weekend’s contest in the industrial hinterlands of Barcelona is likely to see Ferrari pushing Mercedes close in the scrap for victory.
Championship leader Nico Rosberg won from pole last year and will be favourite to do that again, chased by defending three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, but the German and his English team-mate are not likely to have an easy ride – and will have Vettel in their rear-view mirrors.