As the Sebastian Vettel/Red Bull juggernaut marches on towards a fourth successive title, much of the attention now switches to 2014. The sport will enter a new era consisting of modified regulations, the most significant being the 1.6 litre V6 power units. Teams will be eager to stretch out the miniscule of advantages over their rivals as if you get it right early on, it will make 2014, 2015 and even 2016 far more simpler to manage. Red Bull got it right at the start of 2009 and refined it in 2010. Ferrari and McLaren have been unsuccessfully playing catch-up.
There’s little reason to suggest that Red Bull won’t be contenders in 2014: they have a strong team at Milton Keynes and they retain the services of Sebastian Vettel. But alongside him in the sister car will not be Mark Webber. Instead it will be Webber’s compatriot, Daniel Ricciardo.
This isn’t to debate the merits of whether Ricciardo is the right man for the seat, but the fact is that Ricciardo will come under intense pressure and, as Helmut Marko has warned, will be expected to perform from the outset. He’ll get a period of grace, but once the sport returns to Europe the pressure will mount.
Webber has not enjoyed a strong season in 2013, with his only chance of a win coming in that race in Malaysia. His commitment to the sport has also waned, as he recently told F1 Racing magazine that “I’ve been on the edge with F1, motivation-wise, for the past couple of years.”
So, put two plus two together.
Why not put Ricciardo in the Red Bull for one of the remaining five races? Webber deserves a cracking send off and three of the next five races take place at proper drivers circuits: Suzuka, Austin and Interlagos. One races takes place at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Webber has never run well there and has been critical of the circuit.
By the race at the start of next month, Vettel and Red Bull will, at worst, be on the cusp of the championship. In all probability, Vettel will have clinched his title and Red Bull will have done enough to put the Constructors’ championship out of reach of Ferrari and Mercedes. The remaining races will be ‘dead rubber’ events, with nothing for Red Bull to lose.
Webber still gets to enjoy a ‘farewell tour’ in the USA and Brazil – and it would be fantastic if he could win one final race – while Ricciardo gets a weekend with Red Bull before ‘game time’ in 2014.
In turn, Ricciardo could be replaced at Toro Rosso for a single weekend by Antonio Felix da Costa. The Portuguese racer is next in line at Red Bull and has done enough to secure promotion. He hasn’t had the 2013 that people expected, but there have been mitigating circumstances and he has still won three races in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series. Form is temporary, class is permanent and da Costa oozes the latter.
Da Costa would get to enjoy a weekend with Toro Rosso ahead of a full campaign in 2014 and he wouldn’t be out of his depth, as Jaime Alguersuari was in 2009. He’d get an early understanding of the nuances of a full race weekend in Formula 1 as a driver (he has substituted as Red Bull’s reserve driver on a couple of occasions). Da Costa has completed almost four race distances at the Yas Marina Circuit, spread across the young driver test in 2010 with Force India and the 2012 running of the test with Red Bull. He also has experience of 2013 machinery, as he completed 101 laps of Silverstone in the Red Bull RB9 in July.
Even the best drivers can take a while to fully adapt to a new team and although it would only be for just one weekend in Abu Dhabi, Ricciardo and da Costa would have some experience of what 2014 will hold and could acclimatise early to their new teams.
It is, of course, all hypothetical. But in a sport where the tightest of margins can be the difference between success and failure, every little helps…