Marc Marquez rightfully stole the headlines when he tested a Toro Rosso liveried Formula 1 car at Red Bull Ring this week, but behind-the-scenes our colleagues at Speedweek reported an interesting tete-a-tete between Mercedes F1 chairman Niki Lauda and his Red Bull counterpart Helmut Marko.
The pair of F1 heavy-hitters were discussing the future of their drivers Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, with Lauda insisting, “Lewis will sign, there are only minor issues to discuss, it’s not about money, it’s about promotions and other little things, so Lewis stays safely with us and that’s all solved.”
In the energy drinks camp, Ricciardo is out of contract at the end of this season and an extension beckons. But before the Australian inks any deal to keep him with the team he appears to be biding his time to see what Hamilton does before committing to the Blues again.
In October last year, Red Bull hedged their bets by handing Max Verstappen a deal until the end of 2020. With it implying that he is their man for the future and saying as much. All no doubt duly noted by Ricciardo.
However the team’s young Dutchman has been somewhat incident-prone and wayward this season, while he will no doubt recover, the team realise they need stability and experience in the other half of the garage – Ricciardo brings it to the team.
Hence Marko’s reply to Lauda’s certainty on Hamilton’s future, “I hope it finally gets signed because Ricciardo says that, as long as Hamilton is not confirmed, he also does not want to sign. It’s a bit strange. I hope it all comes to an end soon.”
Marko clearly believes that the Australian has some sort of agreement with Mercedes for a move to the team in the unlikely case that Hamilton decides to take a walk.
Lauda, a rival and friend of Marko, relishes the predicament that Red Bull find themselves in at the moment with regards to their senior driver.
The three times F1 world champion could not resist a dig at Marko, “Ricciardo is blackmailing you with Hamilton. So: We have not made [Ricciardo] an offer. He should rather sign with you now.”
Marko countered by suggesting that Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is doing the driver deals, “But there is someone at Mercedes who might say otherwise…”
But Lauda was quick to assert, “No, me I am the boss!”
To which Marko retorted with a smile, “From your lips to God’s ears. Luckily then for us it does not look so bad.”
Potentially three seats are up for grabs with Formula 1’s top three teams but the smart money is on the box that says there will be no big changes among the drivers.
In all likelihood when reigning F1 World Champion Hamilton decides to put pen to paper he will trigger a flurry of contract signatures.
Hamilton is intent on staying at the pinnacle of the sport until at least the end of 2020, Mercedes is the only logical and realistic option for him to continue his streak of success in Formula 1.
Ricciardo may have (or had) a Ferrari option at some point, but it is looking increasingly likely that the Reds will keep Kimi Raikkonen alongside Sebastian Vettel for another year.
Mercedes is expected to also maintain a steady ship by retaining Valtteri Bottas alongside Hamilton, this would leave Ricciardo no option but to remain at Red Bull, perhaps with a substantially larger retainer than he is on right now.
Until then Hamilton holds the key, “I’m taking my time. I tell my people not to rush. If it’s not ready this week, or the week after, I’m not going to stress about it.”
In parallel with the driver uncertainty, Red Bull are also at the decision-making point regarding their future engine supply. The question is: remain with Renault or partner up with Honda?
Marko confirmed, “The internal timetable provides for a decision on the engine issue and possibly also on the driver question by the Austrian Grand Prix.”
Grand Prix race day at Red Bull Ring this year is on 1 July.