Daniel Ricciardo already in bed with Ferrari?
EVEN before his stunning Chinese GP win made him arguably the hottest property in the 2019 driver market, speculation in the Shanghai paddock had already suggested Daniel Ricciardo had signed some form of option with Ferrari.
Sky Sports F1 analyst Mark Hughes, writing in Motorsport magazine, believes the reports are correct and has locked both Ricciardo and Ferrari into an exclusive negotiating period until the end of June.
"There are many different types of contractual options, but this one is said to be on both sides up to a defined date (believed to be June 30). Up until that time, neither party can officially negotiate with another," reports Hughes.
"Because the driver is effectively locking himself out of the market for that time, discussions for his post-2018 services are contractually 'owned' by the team (in this case Ferrari).
"As such, he will be paid a fee. Between now and then he and Ferrari can negotiate about a future contract. This is all conventional F1 practice.
"Those privy to such matters at Red Bull are adamant that he has definitely signed something, somewhere but it's not with them and it's not with Mercedes. Logically, therefore, it must be Ferrari."
Red Bull has said multiple times it wants the Aussie star to stay put, but Ricciardo is yet to give any guarantees, repeatedly saying performance will dictate where he ends up.
If Red Bull can offer him the tools to win a championship he sees no reason to leave. But if - as has happened in previous seasons - the energy drink outfit falls behind Mercedes and Ferrari, the Perth-born driver may seek greener pastures.
Ricciardo said last week he does not want his next contract to tie him down for the next four years due to the uncertainty over the sport's future. Instead, he wants a two-year deal.
"I don't want to sign anything too long because I don't know where the sport's going," The Times newspaper quoted him as saying. "I feel like life is happening pretty fast.
"Each year something might change so I don't want to tie myself down for four more years and then I'm like, 'I don't want to do this any more'.
"Ideally I'd sign a two-year contract.
"I think two years I can definitely be comfortable with and then see it from there.
"That third year will be the rule change so I will probably wait and see what happens then."
VERSTAPPEN WON'T LOSE HIS MAGIC
Red Bull boss Christian Horner has backed Max Verstappen to refine his driving without losing the "magic" which has made him one of F1's most exciting talents.
F1 returns to action after a brief stop in Europe at this weekend's Azerbaijan GP in Baku with much focus likely to be on Red Bull's 20-year-old Dutchman, after Verstappen's clumsy collision with Sebastian Vettel in the closing stages of the epic Chinese GP.
Verstappen apologised to Vettel, dubbing the costly incident a "life lesson" as teammate Daniel Ricciardo won the race, and vowed to analyse his performance and return in stronger shape for Baku.
Horner, the Dutchman's team principal at Red Bull, has said: "I'm fully confident that he's a phenomenal talent and he's smart enough to recognise areas that he needs to work on and I have no doubt that he will address it."
Asked if any changes could dilute the "magic" associated with the three-time race winner's driving, Horner replied: "I don't think so. You know, his talent is extremely obvious, his bravery and racing instinct is not in doubt.
"His judgment (in Shanghai), he was too impatient. He will have for sure learned from that. I have no doubt of that."
Despite being in his fourth season of F1, Verstappen is the third-youngest driver on the grid and does not turn 21 until the end of September.
Horner drew parallels with Red Bull's experience of a then-inexperienced Vettel when the German drove for them at the start of the decade.
Vettel, then aged 23, was famously labelled a "crash kid" by former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh after crashing into Jenson Button at the 2010 Belgian GP.
"Yes, he's made some mistakes but I remember when we had Sebastian at a similar stage of his career, it wasn't uncommon that he also made some mistakes," added Horner.
"He will have learned an awful lot from [Shanghai] and put that to good use in the coming races because we have a very quick car."
Sky F1's Martin Brundle believes Verstappen will use the experiences of Shanghai as a turning point in his nascent career.
- with staff writers