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28 Jun 2013

As we all know Mark Webber's Formula One career will come to it's conclusion at the end of the season.  The tenacious Aussie has laid bare his plans to compete with Porsche in the LMP1 category next season marking the German manufacturer return to the top flight of WEC.   Webber's F1 career spanned 12 years with stints at Minardi, Jaguar Racing, Williams and then back to the old Jaguar fold as the team changed to Red Bull Racing.  With 9 race wins under his belt the 36 year old has decided it's time to move onto other things and who can blame him when the media have done nothing but elevate tensions between him and Sebastian.

From the outside looking in, the Red Bull team always seem to favour their younger protege but Mark's relationship with Christian Horner has always kept his anguish from spilling over.  Their connection through Arden Motorsport allowed the pair to remain grounded where others may have lost their head.

So with Mark Webber's future now clear, this leaves a gaping hole at Infiniti Red Bull Racing for 2014 and the candidates list doesn't make the decision any easier.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi and Sebastian (Vettel) already have a close relationship and could even be considered to be good buddies with the two often hanging out during their time away from the race track.  We all know Kimi's credentials having already driven for 3 of the other top 5 teams currently on the grid.  Christian Horner has also already made clear his desire for the Finn now Mark has departed but is he a good fit?  We all know that Kimi is a fantastic and quick driver but does he fit the Red Bull mould?
In the early years Red Bull Racing were seen as the party team, with their energy station and constant tom foolery they made light of what can be an intense environment.  However as time has progressed and the challenge of continually producing race/championship winning performances has enveloped the team some of that has made way for a more driven approach.
A certain ethos has arisen where only the best is now good enough and with such fantastic facilities and personnel around the pressure is on the drivers.
Kimi however is what I would consider to be an old school driver, he refuses to see the merits in driving in the Simulator or doing track walks ahead of the race BUT he has an edge when it comes to finding margins in his setup.  This is the mark of a driver that can find that little extra that is perhaps being honed out of the younger generation.
Lest we forget though that Kimi also has recent history with Red Bull as his time in rallying was at the wheel of a car liveried with the energy drinks logo's and so a certain synergy does already exist.
The question remains though is the move right for Kimi? Yes Red Bull have effectively dominated the sport since the regulations changed in 2009 but with the new regs being introduced next season there are no guarantees Red Bull will sustain their dominance.
Lotus on the other hand have been there and there abouts over the last few seasons and have had success many times over down the years as the team has changed hands at Enstone.  The financial backing the team have just secured from Infinity Racing also looks set to give the team a boost for the foreseeable future.
One thing is for sure, Kimi will drive the wheels off of anything you give him, making him an ideal candidate for both teams seeking his services.

Red Bulls Young driver programme

Sebastian Vettel emerged as a starlet from the programme setup by the Red Bull brand to nurture emerging talent.  His win in 2008 whilst piloting a Toro Rosso STR3 at Monza cemented the young Germans talent who'd made his mark whilst testing with BMW Sauber in 06/07.  The programme although successful at nurturing Vettel's talent has also laid waste to what many would see as great drivers: Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Sebastian Bourdais and Jaime Alguersuari.

The young driver programme therefore should be where Red Bull are looking for Webber's replacement especially with Kimi now 33 only having maybe 1 or 2 seasons left in him in reality.  But who deserves the promotion?

The yardstick left by Vettel is a bad place for anyone in the driver programme to try and measure up against but what many don't think about is that the STR3 was essentially an RB2 with bells and whistles on.  This gave Vettel and Toro Rosso an opportunity rarely seen in F1 to improve on a car that had already seen development from it's sister team resulting in a substantial points haul and Vettel's first victory.  Since 2009 Toro Rosso has had to become a Constructor in it's own right leaving it the poorly distant cousin in terms of technical endevour when compared to Red Bull Racing's might.  Comparing the achievement that Vettel had whilst with Toro Rosso would be foolhardy, nevertheless this happens and has been the downfall for a string of drivers

Sebastien Buemi

Buemi is another product of the Red Bull young driver programme that found his F1 career stunted at the end of 2011.  Although his departure from Toro Rosso was not as difficult to swallow as Alguersuari's the Swiss driver now only finds himself on the fringes, completing some demo runs but the bulk of his experience being used on the Simulator.  He does complete the duties of being Red Bull's third driver (on hand if the main drivers have an issue) whilst also putting some effort into Le Mans etc.
Having sat in reserve for the Red Bull team for two seasons the Swiss driver may find himself a little race rusty and having not blown anyone away during his time at Toro Rosso his candidacy seems a little diminished.  However one of the important factors which we aren't privy to is the overlay of information available from time in the Simulator in comparison to other drivers in the Red Bull stable that could see him vying for the 2nd seat.

Daniel Ricciardo

The Aussie with the mile wide smile has been with Toro Rosso now for 2 seasons and was placed with HRT at the start of his F1 career by the Red Bull powers that be.  As previously mentioned the pre 09 Toro Rosso share of technology skews the perception of the drivers coming through the Toro Rosso team and their potential to step into a seat at Red Bull.  Daniel represents for me the better option in terms of the 2 current Toro Rosso drivers as and also has the better record.  He is a pragmatic and consistent driver that warrants a shot at machinery that has the ability to give him better results.  Is he a Champion like Vettel? We do not know, but in terms of giving the team a consistent level of points whilst Vettel looks to challenge for the Constructors title he has to be worth a shout.

Jean Eric-Vergne

JEV as he affectionately known has a years less experience than Daniel in Formula One but has shown on many occasions that he has what it takes to be in the mix.  His most memorable performances have been in the wet showing his tactile ability to extract mechanical performance from the car.  Although I've already given my opinion that Ricciardo is best placed of the two to succeed Webber from the current Toro Rosso pairing, we must also think about the challenges of 2014.  The increased torque that the 2014 engines will produce represent a different challenge to their current counterparts, armed with this knowledge we must therefore also think about the way JEV is able to command the current car when mechanical grip is at it's least.

Antonio Felix Da Costa

The eldest of the current crop of talent in the Red Bull junior team, Da Costa has impressed since joining the Red Bull fold and although he'd represent a huge leap of faith to join the Red Bull team, it's no stretch to see him behind the wheel of a Toro Rosso soon.  Holding the record for the youngest driver to wield an F1 car (Force India at the Young Drivers Test) Da Costa perhaps represents the next swath of talent that will make it's mark on F1.  Should Red Bull take that leap of faith on Da Costa it represents the same level of commitment to his future that McLaren made with Hamilton in 2007.  Would it be disastrous for his career throwing him in at the deep end? Well it's one of those sink or swim scenarios and with the new regulations levelling the playing field in 2014 it may not be such a huge ask.  Whichever team the management decide i think we will see Da Costa grace F1 with his presence in 2014.

The rest of the grid...

I've already discussed the possibilty of Raikkonen making the switch to Red Bull but with many more drivers available for 2014 who else could Red Bull lure to take Webber's seat?  Force India have already made a statement that they won't stand in Paul Di Resta's way if he is offered a drive with a lead team.  The Scot has seemingly impressed many with his consistency but it's yet to see if has the killer instant to take victories at the sharp end of the grid.  Nico Hulkenberg has seemingly driven for everyone on the grid, the Peter Crouch of Formula One.  However unlike Di Resta, Hulkenberg has put some of the machinery he's driven in situations he shouldn't be able to, which is usually the sign of a great driver. 

One things for certain the decision made by Red Bull will either make or break the Young Drivers programme with the Red Bull and Toro Rosso line up for next year being pivotal in many drivers careers.  Taking on another driver outside of the programme signs the death knell for Ricciardo and Jean Eric-Vergne and will likely leave either one or both of them looking for drives in 2014 as the young drivers programme serves up it's next batch of talent.  


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