As Formula 1’s annual ‘silly season’ slowly gathers speed, so has speculation surrounding the futures of three Red Bull-backed drivers.
Much has centred on the highly-rated Spaniard Carlos Sainz, particularly in recent days, but Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have also being linked with a move away from the Austrian energy drinks giant.
In all three cases, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner and motorsport advisor Helmut Marko have spoken about loyalty and how each driver will be staying as a way to repay the financial backing and support the company has shown during their careers.
The issue is that argument doesn’t really hold much weight. Of course, Dietrich Mateschitz, the big boss in Salzburg, has got his cheque book out and invested likely a few million Euros in each of them but since when was Red Bull so concerned on getting a return on that investment?
Think of the names that have come and gone at Toro Rosso in recent years, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Bourdais, Jean-Eric Vergne even Sebastien Buemi, though he remains as a reserve driver.
Multiple drivers that the company helped to grow through junior formulas, gave a year or so in the junior team, then dumped for the next shiny toy.
So already that argument can be torn to shreds and, ultimately, what this comes down to is not seeing that investment in creating world class racing drivers go off to another team.
The Carlos Sainz predicament is the most obvious example of this right now. Here we have a driver that Renault, Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren have all shown interest in, in the last 12 months.
The 22-year-old is more than ready to race for teams of that calibre and in Austria made it clear that his patience was running out and proclaimed it was either a promotion or he’ll look elsewhere for 2018.
Whether intentional or not, the timing of it, at Red Bull’s home race, was telling and quite a statement to make in front of the bosses.
The scramble to respond from Horner, who would effectively confirm Sainz as a Toro Rosso driver next year, was one of a man desperate to look in control of the situation and Red Bull are desperate to avoid seeing that talent go to a rival team that could come back to hurt them in the future.
There's another very significant reason Red Bull won’t let him go, should either Verstappen or Ricciardo somehow force their way through the door, in the minds of Marko and Horner, there is no-one within the Red Bull family right now they consider fast enough other than the Spaniard.
Of course, there’s Daniil Kvyat and Buemi as possible options but given their prior status of rejects, it wouldn’t look good if the hierarchy had to eat humble pie.
There is nothing that says Red Bull can’t ignore Sainz’s wishes to leave, after all he does have a contract for next year, but if they can’t meet the demands of what another team could for the second generation driver, why risk hurting the relationship now if he does earn a promotion in a year or two's time?
That then brings us on to the two current senior team drivers, Ricciardo and Verstappen. According to reports, the Australian has been linked to Ferrari should Sebastian Vettel leave and now the Dutchman could also be eyeing Maranello but in 2019.
For Ricciardo, the loyalty claim absolutely doesn't apply because he has certainly paid his dues. He took Red Bull over after the departure of Vettel and he has won in three of his four seasons with the team and finished third in the championship in two of the three full years, all in cars that were far from the best on the grid.
That alone should be enough for Horner and Marko to acknowledge a desire to go to a team that could potentially offer a world championship.
The only driver that may need to repay some loyalty is Verstappen. Yes, he’s been with the Red Bull brand for the shortest time but he has signed a longer-term contract to the company and, while any team would have the 19-year-old, to snub that commitment, at least for now, would be wrong.
That being said, he and his father Jos are quite the negotiators and, though this might sound harsh, they don't always come across as the loyal type.
While Red Bull will continue to claim that the status quo shall remain in place for next year, it is likely to be a story that rumbles on for the duration of the summer if not longer. It's a situation the team hasn't been in before and it will be very interesting to see how it plays out.
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