The news that Sebastian Vettel will remain with Red Bull until 2015 raises an obvious question: who will partner the reigning world champion?
There’s a widespread assumption that Mark Webber will leave the team at the end of the season, particularly in the light of those Porsche rumours, although his future has been under scrutiny for the past few years. A race win at Silverstone, where he is traditionally strong, could change matters, but should the Australian decide to end his six year partnership with the team, who could replace him?
The leading name touted is Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen. Several leading outlets are suggesting that a deal between Raikkonen and Red Bull is close, and you can make a convincing argument that the Finn would be a perfect fit for the reigning world champions.
However, should Webber depart and Raikkonen eschew Red Bull’s advances, then that heightens the battle at Toro Rosso.
After a difficult 2012 season in a car that could infrequently challenge the midfield, Toro Rosso’s STR8 has allowed the team to show progress in 2013. Their advancement, combined with the regression of McLaren, Sauber and Williams, has allowed Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo to get in among the fight for Q3 and for world championship points. But two into one doesn’t go. One could be picked to line up alongside the world champion; the other rejected and left pondering an uncertain future. Red Bull, particularly Helmut Marko, rarely indulge in sentimentality. Just ask Jaime Alguersuari.
Over the course of their 27 race partnership, Ricciardo and Vergne have shown different driving traits, and therefore advantages and disadvantages, to Red Bull’s management.
Ricciardo’s smoother style contributed to his stellar lap in Bahrain last year, while he also impressed during his drive to seventh in China. Last season, he scored fewer points than Vergne but comfortably had the measure of the Frenchman in qualifying. It’s been closer this season in the dry sessions, but Vergne’s defter feel for the car has seen him gain the upper hand in damp conditions, most notably in Monaco and Canada. He used those qualifying results as a platform for strong race results the following day while Ricciardo floundered. Vergne’s more aggressive style benefited him in Canada, whereas in other races it has been Ricciardo’s style that has reaped the rewards.
Vergne’s style lends himself to tricky conditions but he has yet to replicate that pace during a dry qualifying session – something that will not have gone unnoticed by Red Bull’s management. Vergne has been closer to Ricciardo than in 2012, but frequently it’s been the Australian that holds the upper hand on pure pace alone. Vergne has scored better race results, but frequently finds himself needing to overcome a slight positional deficit. Ricciardo has rarely shown aggression but beneath his never-ending grin lays a steely determination. Vergne is flavour of the month courtesy of his strong drive in Monaco and achieving Toro Rosso’s best race result since 2008 in Canada. He's forced himself into contention for a seat that was potentially drifting towards Ricciardo. But it would be remiss to ignore Ricciardo’s drive in China and his greater one lap pace.
Who holds the upper hand? It's a very difficult decision to make. Both have been good enough for Toro Rosso: occasionally brilliant, but not consistently outstanding. Is it good enough for Red Bull? They have 13 races - a mid-season driver change at either team seems highly improbable - to convince the senior team that it is.
Red Bull’s decision will hugely impact Toro Rosso. If they do sign Raikkonen, where does that leave Ricciardo and Vergne for 2014? Would they seek a move to a rival team or would Red Bull retain them with a view to the future? How does it then affect the next batch of young drivers and what would it mean for Toro Rosso as a team if neither driver is promoted?
The next few races will be vital for Ricciardo and Vergne, and perhaps the future of Toro Rosso.