Daniel Ricciardo’s charge to pole position in Formula 1 qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix on Saturday may have come as a surprise given the sport’s formbook, yet all of the signs we’ve seen so far this season pointed towards a Red Bull topping Q3.

Through pre-season testing in Barcelona and the Spanish Grand Prix at the same circuit two weeks ago, the RB14 car looked hooked up through the final sector, which has always acted as a decent indicator for how cars will run in Monaco.

Ricciardo’s run to pole was relatively straightforward, producing two laps that would have been good enough for P1 ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton taking P3 for Mercedes.



And while Red Bull was able to bask in the glory of its first pole position in two years - the last, and Ricciardo’s first, coming at Monaco in 2016 - there was a definite sense of disappointment in the team. In reality, it should have been a one-two finish.

It had been that way through all three practice sessions, with Ricciardo leading from teammate Max Verstappen. The difference between the pair had been just 0.001 seconds in final practice, giving Verstappen a real shot at becoming F1’s youngest ever pole-sitter. But everything changed when he pushed a little too hard, clipped the wall at the entry to the second part of the Swimming Pool chicane, busted the front-right wheel on his car and was left a mere passenger as he careered into the wall on exit.

It was a near-identical crash to the one he had two years ago, and, more concerningly, it marked a sixth straight race weekend (or in 2018, all of them) in which Verstappen has been caught up in some kind of on-track incident. And this was the most costly of the lot.

There was little stopping Red Bull in Monaco. Both Vettel and Hamilton admitted after the session that, even with perfect laps, they doubt it would have been enough to knock Ricciardo from his perch. Verstappen would likely have been up there with his teammate had it not been for his practice smash, with the resulting damage and a gearbox leak meaning he could take no part at all in qualifying, leaving him to start last on Sunday.

What was most surprising about the whole affair was the nonchalance of Verstappen’s answers in the post-session media roundtable. It was unsurprisingly packed with journalists keen to hear his thoughts after yet another crash, particularly in light of team boss Christian Horner’s comments on British TV where he said it hoped the incident would act as a real wake-up call to tighten up his driving style and avoid making mistakes.

“We’ve got a great car, he’s a phenomenally fast driver and would have been able to be competing for the pole position today, and for the whole team to only be running one-legged with such a strong car is frustrating,” Horner said.

“He’s in a car that’s capable of winning this grand prix and that will hurt him even more because you don’t get that many opportunities to win a Monaco Grand Prix. He needs to learn from it and stop making these errors.”


Instead Verstappen was on the defensive. His biggest point of discussion wasn’t the Monaco qualifying crash, but about the other incidents he’s been involved in this year, snapping back at suggestions what happened at all six races had been his own doing ever time. How could he explain the recurring incidents? “At the moment, I can’t.” Which ones were on his hands? “China and here.” What about the other ones? “It’s true, I had a touch with someone...”

All the while, his face told a very different story to the words that were coming out of his mouth. Clearly the pressure is building. But what will it take to really act as a wake-up call for one of the most talented drivers in recent F1 history? A lot of drivers go through these crash-y phases, but it’s getting more and more costly for Red Bull now.

The saving grace for Verstappen in this is that Red Bull doesn’t really look capable of disrupting the Mercedes/Ferrari lockdown on the top two positions in the constructors’ championship. Really, Monaco should have been a slam-dunk one-two for Red Bull; 43 points in the bag. Instead, Ricciardo is going to be left to fight alone at the front of the pack. While his pace may be good enough to defeat the Ferraris and Mercedes single-handed, it’s hardly a task he would want to shoulder - or should have to, frankly.

All of this contributes to the wider debate surrounding Ricciardo’s next move. He is by far the highest-profile driver out of contract for 2019, and has been linked with seats at both Ferrari and Mercedes for next year. Quite whether the big name stars already at Maranello and Brackley - Vettel and Hamilton respectively - would want Ricciardo to join their kingdom is up for debate. But in pinning Verstappen down to a new, extended contract last autumn, Red Bull appeared to signal where it saw the future of its team.

Ricciardo was on the phone just minutes after hopping out of the car at the end of qualifying, talking to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz. Ricciardo didn’t disclose what the conversation was about, only saying it was “nice” - but one would hope for Red Bull’s sake that a few hints were dropped about a nice new contract.

The truth is that Ricciardo is the one bringing home the bacon for Red Bull right now. Verstappen’s impatience in China cost him a likely race win and the team a one-two finish as he ran ahead of Ricciardo on the road before dropping back when he went off-track trying to pass Hamilton. His mistake in Monaco has left him not only facing an almighty challenge to fight his way back up the field to salvage anything from Sunday’s race, but it once again may end up costing Red Bull a one-two - big results needed whenever possible, given the pace advantage of Ferrari and Mercedes under ‘normal’ circumstances.

Risk and reward is the name of the game around the streets of Monaco. Everyone knows that. But it was Ricciardo who summed it up decently after his pole position charge.

“The risk and reward is very real and that was proven this morning,” Ricciardo said. “It’s there, but it is at the back of your mind, because to be fast you can’t think about those things. Knowing we had a great package all weekend, I don’t think we need to overdrive it. The car has been performing well. It’s just hitting your marks and trying to keep it clean.”

Yet overdrive it Verstappen did. It is something he has a habit of doing, whereas Ricciardo has been Red Bull’s ‘Mr. Dependable’. And if you want to plot a title challenge against the might of Ferrari and Mercedes with messers Vettel and Hamilton, you need someone you can rely on to seize every opportunity, no matter how brief, and bring home the points.

Barring a miraculous drive from Verstappen on Sunday, Red Bull will be leaving Monaco with a slight twinge of disappointment, even if Ricciardo can bag a second win of the season. This was an opportunity to strike and strike hard. And their protege has cost them the chance to do so to maximum effect.


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