Redemption was the word on Daniel Ricciardo’s lips following his stellar performance to cap off a weekend of domination with a brilliant maiden Monaco Formula 1 win. 

The redemption Ricciardo cited was in reference to the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix, in which the Red Bull driver was cruelly robbed of what looked to be certain victory from pole position following a botched pitstop.

This time around, Ricciardo’s driving was as flawless as it was commanding, as he topped every single on-track session seemingly at ease before taking pole and the win around Monte Carlo. But there was nothing easy about the manner of the victory. Like in 2016, the famous streets of the principality were set to test Ricciardo in more ways than one. 

Driver Ratings - Monaco GP

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For the majority of Sunday’s 78-lap race, Ricciardo was forced to make do with just six of his eight gears and remarkably ran without 25 percent of his engine, after a failure on his MGU-K shortly after the end of the first stint. To make matters worse, he had Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari breathing down his neck. Despite the problems he faced, Ricciardo calmly and expertly managed the situation with a steely determinedness to claim a win that acted as payback.

His ability to manage a series of ongoing problems (including but not limited to severely overheating brakes) while not once locking up a brake or glancing the barriers, led Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to draw comparisons to Michael Schumacher’s brilliant drive to second at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix while stuck in fifth gear, and claim the Australian could have been onboard the Apollo 13 mission that miraculously landed safely back to Earth days after an oxygen tank exploded in 1970.

Ricciardo’s dominant Monaco Grand Prix performance, which he described as his “best weekend” in F1, might have been two years in the making, but it represented much more than just redemption.

It has thrust Ricciardo into title contention, with current championship leader Lewis Hamilton stating the title race is “definitely” a three-way battle after the Red Bull driver drew level with both Hamilton and Vettel on two wins apiece from the opening six rounds. 

Just 38 points now separate Hamilton and third-place man Ricciardo, and as Horner alluded to, the landscape of 2018’s championship fight could have looked very different had Ricciardo not retired with mechanical trouble in Bahrain or been wiped out in a clash with teammate Max Verstappen in Baku

“Daniel is really the complete article now,” Horner said in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s race. “You can hear this composure in the car when something goes wrong. There was no panic. There was no raise of voice.

“Daniel has continuously raised his game and I think he is in a purple patch of his career now at 28 years of age. He’s got the experience, he’s got the speed and today was a great example of problem management under pressure.

“I think it’s important he’s now on the same amount of victories as Lewis and Sebastian six races into the season. I think in Bahrain he would have been a genuine contender had he not had a reliability issue and we all know what happened in Baku.” 

Ricciardo’s ever-improving position in the title race also boosts his standing with regards to his future, given that his Red Bull contract is set to expire at the end of the year. F1’s current hottest commodity on the driver market is evaluating his options, with potential openings at both Ferrari and Mercedes for 2019. 

At the age of 28, Ricciardo has racked up seven wins and finished third in drivers’ standings on two occasions, while his Monaco podium lifts him just shy of 30 rostrum appearances as he heads into his eighth year in F1 and his fourth at Red Bull. 

But being an occasional winner and runner-up is simply not good enough for Ricciardo anymore. Although he has openly admitted he has no desire nor realistic expectation of breaking F1 records in the ruthless manner Schumacher displayed in the early 2000s (or Hamilton currently), he wants and needs competitive machinery to give him a fighting chance of winning that as-yet elusive world championship trophy. 

Speaking earlier in the season, Ricciardo insisted he would always show Red Bull loyalty and clarified his contract situation, revealing he would begin talks during the European leg of the season, now well underway. 

“There will always be loyalty for Red Bull, I’ve been in the family 10 years. They set it a lot for me, to make it all happen,” he said. “But at some point you have to look out too. But I’ll always show a lot of loyalty towards them. In Red Bull there’s always been clarity and fairness, so I expect that from whatever environment I go to.”

When asked if he felt his stock has ever been higher following his win in Monaco, Ricciardo replied: “I guess. We’ll see. We’ll see what the others think! I can’t pay myself, but for sure I feel like I’ve done a good job first six races.” 

On current form, Ricciardo presents an attractive proposition that simply cannot be ignored by Mercedes and Ferrari. But is a move to either team likely? 

Ricciardo finds himself at a similar career crossroads as Hamilton did back in 2012 and parallels can be drawn between them. Hamilton - then 27 - had endured a number of frustrating years at McLaren, where, for one reason or another, the Briton was unable to follow up on his maiden 2008 title triumph. 

Hamilton, whose decision to join leave McLaren for Mercedes at the end of 2012 ultimately led to three world championships in five years, voiced his opinion on the situation facing Ricciardo in Monaco as he played down the likelihood of the pair becoming Silver Arrows teammates.

“Ultimately he’s got a teammate [Max Verstappen] that from what I hear is making a lot more money than him, yet he’s more consistent, keeping the car together a lot more and more often than not pulling through,” Hamilton said. “It’s important in the team to always feel you’re valued or at your worth and your contribution to it. 

“I would imagine his future is there [Red Bull], but he’s one of the top drivers so I’m sure there will be options for him. Obviously in the top areas there’s only Ferrari and Mercedes he could ever consider. But currently here that’s unlikely. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think he’s just got to keep his head down, keep doing what he's doing, but he should definitely have a contract on his table and he should have his options ready.”

Realistically speaking, a move to Ferrari perhaps also seems unlikely, even with Kimi Raikkonen’s deal expiring at the end of 2018. Ricciardo previously denied he had signed a pre-contract agreement with the Prancing Horse, and Vettel has often talked about how happy he is alongside current teammate Raikkonen, who has enjoyed something of a resurgence in form, if not results, this season.

Aside from the Raikkonen conundrum, Vettel and Ricciardo have history. The pair partnered each other in Vettel’s final year at Red Bull in 2014 before he made the switch to Ferrari. Ricciardo recorded all of Red Bull’s three wins across his rookie year with the team and comprehensively out-performed Vettel in both qualifying and races.

It has been suggested that Vettel has a veto in his Ferrari contract that gives him preference over who his teammate is. If this is the case, it is hard to imagine he would want to be pitted in another direct face-off against Ricciardo. Following his victory in China and amid the links to Ferrari, Horner questioned whether Ricciardo would be as happy at another team.

“I think Daniel’s happy in the [Red Bull] environment,” Horner said. “If we can give him a car like we did today, why would he want to be anywhere else?” 

Much of Ricciardo’s decision will depend on whether Red Bull can emerge as genuine title contenders with more victories before the summer break, as well as Red Bull’s impending decision over the direction of its future engine supply, with its current deal with long-term partner Renault running its course at the end of the year. 

Renault has been associated with Red Bull’s F1 cars since 2007 and powered the team to consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles between 2010 and 2013 as Red Bull enjoyed its most successful period in the sport.

But four seasons spent playing catch up to rivals Mercedes and Ferrari in the V6 hybrid era is making Red Bull consider whether to take the leap of faith into pastures new and join forces with Japanese manufacturer Honda, which is currently on the path to rebuilding its reputation in F1 with Toro Rosso following a disastrous three-year tenure with McLaren. 

Red Bull is holding off a decision on its future engine supply until June at the earliest as it continues talks with Honda. Horner insists a new engine deal will accelerate driver negotiations and the Red Bull boss is confident of persuading Ricciardo to stay. 

“I think the reality is it’s finding a solution to conclude a deal with Daniel in the next couple of months. The first thing is to get the engine sorted and then very much follow on from there with driver,” Horner said in Monaco. 

“He knows the quality of this team, he can see how well he fits in this team and I’m hopeful we can move these things along in the next couple of months. You could say that it has made Daniel more expensive and put his value up or it’s made the team in a stronger position in terms of its value and potential to him."

If Red Bull can keep producing the goods as the year progresses, the matter should be a foregone conclusion. Red Bull’s next move on the engine side will be pivotal to those talks but a bumper new contract alongside competitive machinery might be enough to fend off the reported attentions from Brackley and Maranello and persuade Ricciardo to favour Milton Keynes. 

While his future for the time being at least remains uncertain, one thing is clear; Ricciardo is empowered both on and off the track heading to Canada.

 

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