Against all former reports, Daniel Ricciardo will leave Red Bull F1 at the end of 2018. The Aussie, whose contract negotiations have been a hot-button topic throughout the season, has signed a two-year deal with the Renault factory team as confirmed by the Enstone-based outfit on Friday.
Formerly, it was believed to be only a matter of time before Ricciardo re-upped his contract with Red Bull. However, after missing a past deadline to get the deal done and quickly approaching another, the seven-time Grand Prix winner has decided to pick up and join Nico Hulkenberg at Renault, leaving driver Carlos Sainz free to explore other options for 2019.
"It was probably one of the most difficult decisions to take in my career so far," said Ricciardo. "But I thought that it was time for me to take on a fresh and new challenge. I realize that there is a lot ahead in order to allow Renault to reach their target of competing at the highest level but I have been impressed by their progression in only two years, and I know that each time Renault has been in the sport they eventually won. I hope to be able to help them in this journey and contribute on and off track."
Renault Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul echoed Ricciardo's optimism by adding: "Daniel's signing underscores our determination to accelerate our progress towards the forefront of the sport. It is also a recognition of the work accomplished over the past two and a half seasons."
"Daniel's undoubted talent and charisma are a huge bonus and statement for the team," Abiteboul continued. "We will have to repay his faith in us by delivering the best car possible. We welcome him to our growing team in 2019 with a great deal of pride, but also humility."
This forces Red Bull into making a key driver lineup choice for next season as it decides who will race alongside Max Verstappen, who's been confirmed through 2020. Rumors suggest that Sainz, who is currently on loan to Renault for the season, may step up to the Milton Keynes team. Elsewhere, some believe that Pierre Gasly, the impressive Toro Rosso rookie who scored a P4 finish earlier in the year at Bahrain, could make the leap and give Red Bull a young and fresh outlook for the future.
On the other side of things, this shuts the door for a handful of prospective drivers who were reported to have had ties to Renault for 2019. Force India's Esteban Ocon headlined this field of up-and-comers, but as his current team goes into administration for major financial woes, his future has significant outside influence which may sway his decision after the season finale at Abu Dhabi in November.
In all, this adds flavor to the cumulative and on-going battle between Red Bull and Renault. With the former opting to switch to Honda engine supply in 2019 and leaving the latter after a long-term relationship, the two have been at odds with Red Bull's Team Principal Christian Horner expressing his displeasure with Renault's customer service and unreliability. Abiteboul fired back by saying Renault "have stopped reading what Christian Horner is saying about us since 2015."