Daniel Ricciardo shocked the F1 establishment and current employers Red Bull Racing by announcing that he will leave the Milton Keynes team at the end of the 2018 season after signing a two-year deal to join Renault.
Ricciardo will, in time, probably explain the true reasons for his decision to switch teams. A number of sources have suggested that the team’s upcoming switch to the still unproven Honda power units have been a factor, but more pressing perhaps is the perception that Red Bull Racing is steadily focusing more of its efforts around his current teammate Max Verstappen.
The Australian isn’t the first driver in F1 history to have made a surprise switch, but moving from a championship-winning outfit to a team still on a long road to becoming a front-running outfit carries plenty of risks for his career and reputation.
A number of his current rivals and predecessors have made bold – and sometimes unexpected – decisions to leave teams where, by all accounts, they felt secure and successful. For some of them – Fernando Alonso being a case in point since he claimed his two World Championship crowns in 2005-6 – it becomes a pattern of poor decision-making.
There are many factors that will compel drivers to jump teams. For some, it’s about the chance to build a team around them. For others, it’s about proving that they are more than a one trick (or one team) pony. With teams willing to pay top dollar for a talented and highly marketable driver, the lure of a hefty retainer is perhaps even more tempting.
Where will Ricciardo’s decision ultimately stack up? We’ll know in 2019 and beyond, but for now, let’s look at ten of his fellow drivers whose decisions to jump ship ultimately defined their careers…
10 Eddie Irvine joins Jaguar Racing, 2000
Two-and-a-bit seasons with the Jordan team saw Eddie Irvine mature and outshine teammate Rubens Barrichello more often than not, but when Michael Schumacher made his headline-grabbing switch to Ferrari (see below) it also came with the surprise appointment that the Ulsterman would be his number two.
Irvine was astute enough to accept that playing a subordinate role to the German while earning a very healthy retainer would actually improve his standing as a driver. In an environment where everything was set up around Schumacher, Irvine grafted a profitable niche with an air alternating between casual indifference and open defiance depending on his mood.
“Being a number two at Ferrari is better than being a number one at anywhere else, other than McLaren,” he quipped in 1998, his third of four seasons with the Maranello team.
Few anticipated that the 1999 season would see Irvine at the forefront of the battle for the Drivers’ Championship when Schumacher broke his leg at the British Grand Prix and was sidelined for much of the latter half of the season. In the end, he came up just short against McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen but earned a consolation prize of a multi-million-dollar deal to headline Jaguar’s Formula 1 adventure and the chance to emerge from Schumacher’s shadow and prove he could be a team leader.
Three seasons yielded a paltry two podium finishes as parent company Ford cycled through a head-spinning number of management changes. An overpaid and undermotivated Irvine was rarely able to overcome the cars’ clear design shortcomings and in the end, the Ford Motor Company opted to dispense with its highest-paid employee whose huge retainer had delivered so little return.
|Ferrari (1996-1999)||65||4||23||0||1||156||2nd (1999)|
|Jaguar Racing (2000-2002)||50||0||2||0||0||18||9th (2002)|
9. Jacques Villeneuve joins British American Racing, 1999
Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula 1 career bears many similarities to his former teammate Jenson Button’s namesake: Benjamin Button.
Unless you’re Lewis Hamilton, most drivers’ Formula 1 careers see them build up to a championship-winning car after several seasons in the midfield. Jacques Villeneuve, the son of Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve, spent his first two seasons in the best car on the grid and then saw his career and reputation slide down the grid.
He made his F1 debut in 1996 with Williams as the reigning IndyCar champion, blessed by an extensive testing programme to ready him for the cut and thrust of Grand Prix racing. He almost beat teammate Damon Hill in his first race and pushed the Englishman hard for the World Championship title. In 1997 he went one better, surviving a tense final race showdown with Michael Schumacher. He looked destined for a long and glittering career – the sort that his father deserved.
A raft of regulation changes, the departure of Renault works engines and design ace Adrian Newey, and the series’ unpopular switch to grooved tyres saw Villeneuve and Williams struggle in 1998, while McLaren and Ferrari returned as the sport’s dominant teams once more.
Rejecting an offer from McLaren, Villeneuve decided to join his manager Craig Pollock who had sweet-talked British American Tobacco into buying out the struggling Tyrrell team which would be shaped around its French-Canadian star driver.
With a seemingly bottomless pit of funds and engineering know-how from Reynard, prospects looked good on paper. But the team failed to score a point in 1999 – Villeneuve saw the chequered flag just three times all year – and in his five seasons with BAR he managed just two attrition-assisted podiums among 15 points’ finishes. His career and his reputation never recovered.
|BAR (1999-2003)||81||0||2||0||0||39||7th (2000-1)|
8. Piquet joins Lotus, 1988
When Nelson Piquet joined Williams in 1986 it became clear that, although he was one of F1’s very top performers, his reputation and two World Championship titles (earned in 1981 and 1983) had to some extent been founded on superior equipment at Brabham.
A rude shock greeted him in the form of Nigel Mansell – who many expected Piquet would outpace – with the warring teammates conspiring to lose out on the Drivers’ Championship title to Alain Prost. Nelson was furious at Williams’ refusal to have Mansell defer to his alleged number-one status but exacted revenge in 1987 to win his third World Championship title by stealth and consistency.
At that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Piquet shocked the paddock by announcing he was moving to Lotus in 1988, replacing his McLaren-bound rival Ayrton Senna. The timing of Piquet’s announcement added to an intense political situation with engine supplier Honda, which was going to follow Senna’s move from Lotus to McLaren, but with a three-time (elect) World Champion joining Lotus, it instead opted to pull its engine supply from Williams.
“It was a masterstroke. In one move, he’s screwed Williams, he’s screwed Mansell, he’s screwed Senna – and kept Honda,” an unnamed Williams team member said at the time.
Piquet’s two seasons with Lotus were a complete disaster for all concerned. The Brazilian’s massive retainer – funded by the team’s title sponsor Camel cigarettes – was completely out of proportion with his on-track return. With the Honda-powered McLarens winning 15 of the 1988 season’s 16 races while the Lotus 100T could only scrape together three podiums, it was no surprise to see the Japanese engine-builder pull the pin.
The following year in the Judd-powered 101 started a steady decline that would lead to the eventual collapse of the team at the end of 1994. Piquet scraped a trio of fourth-placed finishes but also failed to qualify for the Belgian Grand Prix.
“All we can do now is to say: ‘We’re sorry, Nelson, but this heap of shit happens to be the best we can do. You are one of the best, and one of the best-paid, drivers in the world. Please do the best you can with it,” Lotus team manager Peter Warr said shortly before he quit the team. Piquet followed suit and jumped ship, along with Camel’s dollars, to Benetton.
|Lotus (1988-1989)||31||0||3||0||0||34||6th (1988)|
7. Niki Lauda joins Brabham, 1978
Having won the 1975 World Championship with Ferrari and come oh-so-close to repeating the feat the following year, Niki Lauda was quite possibly one of the world’s best-known sportsmen. His near-fatal accident at the German Grand Prix, which left him with horrific burns, forged a gritty hero who had become one of the sport’s great survivors.
But it was his withdrawal from the championship-deciding Japanese Grand Prix that ultimately cost him the Drivers’ Championship title to James Hunt and also irked team boss Enzo Ferrari.
The fiery team owner signed Carlos Reutemann to lead the team in 1977, so convinced was he that Lauda was no longer up to the task. A furious Lauda devoted countless hours to testing the car and thrashed Reutemann, claiming victories in South Africa, Holland and Germany en route to a second World Championship title.
His stock was high and so was his fury at what he perceived to be the betrayal by Il Commendatore, and so he negotiated a high-dollar deal to join the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham team.
“I was happy that my departure would be like a slap in the face for Enzo Ferrari. I really enjoyed turning down the most generous offer he has surely ever made,” Lauda reflected in his autobiography, Meine Story.
His two seasons at Brabham brought little success. Despite the design skills of Gordon Murray, the cars’ Alfa Romeo power was unreliable and unsuited to the burgeoning advent of ground-effect technology that Team Lotus had harnessed to such success. A consolation victory came at the Swedish Grand Prix with the controversial ‘fan car’, which was swiftly banned, and he won again in Italy.
“Everything would have gone like a dream if only we had had a different engine. There were problems and crises around the clock,” Lauda reflected, with the 1979 season delivering a string of DNFs and a meagre haul of four points. As Brabham opted for an early switch to Cosworth DFV power before the end of the season, Lauda abruptly retired midway through practice at the Canadian Grand Prix (pictured below right).
|Ferrari (1974-1977)||57||15||32||23||12||242.5||1975, 1977|
|Brabham (1978-1979)||19||2||7||1||4||48||4th (1978)|
6. Mark Webber joins Williams, 2005
An impressive rookie season with Minardi in 2002 saw Mark Webber drafted into Jaguar on a two-year deal as Eddie Irvine’s replacement. The team’s decision to dispense with the high-paid Irvine in favour of the hotshot Aussie didn’t dramatically improve its fortunes but under a revised points’-scoring system Webber still managed to finish tenth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings – thrashing teammates Antônio Pizzonia and Justin Wilson in the process.
By mid-2003 he was already being courted by Williams to join for the 2005 season, where the potential of emulating the feat of his hero Alan Jones (who won the Grove team’s first World Championship in 1980) was stacked against an attractive counter-offer from Renault to join its line-up as Fernando Alonso’s teammate.
Webber’s hesitation to join Renault came with worries about how he and Alonso would work together under team principal Flavio Briatore, who also managed both drivers’ contractual negotiations. The more no-nonsense manner at Williams – and its cars being armed with ultra-powerful BMW engines – ultimately swayed his decision.
“I called [signing for Williams] ‘the most significant milestone in my career to date’. As a result I endured the lowest time in my entire F1 career,” Webber later reflected in his autobiography, Aussie Grit.
The team was caught on the hop by major regulation changes introduced in 2005 and by the end of the season, BMW opted to pull the pin and forge on with plans for its own team by buying out Sauber. Team leaders Frank Williams and Patrick Head told Webber that would be happy if he left the squad, but with no one wanting to replace him for 2006 he stuck around for a second season of torture.
The Cosworth-powered FW28 delivered just seven points for Webber and a catalogue of retirements, while over at Renault Alonso swept to back-to-back World Championship titles with 14 wins and 29 podium finishes.
|Jaguar Racing (2003-2004)||34||0||0||0||0||24||10th (2003)|
|Williams (2005-2006)||36||0||1||0||0||43||10th (2005)|
5. Sebastian Vettel joins Ferrari, 2015
Sebastian Vettel won four World Championship titles on the trot with Red Bull Racing between 2010 and 2013, but the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo as his teammate in 2014 and the series’ impending switch to new turbo-hybrid regulations saw Vettel’s form fade dramatically.
There was also lingering criticism that Vettel was just a one-trick pony, a driver who could only win races starting at the front of the grid in Adrian Newey-designed cars. A little less than 20 years previously, his compatriot Michael Schumacher made a bold decision to leave comfortable surrounds at Benetton and join an in-the-doldrums Ferrari. It ultimately yielded the German five successive World Championship titles in a record-breaking career.
Hours before the opening practice session at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel announced he was quitting Red Bull Racing and joining Ferrari. The Italian team hadn’t won a World Championship since 2007, but it gave a platform where Vettel could once again take centre stage and form a structure around him.
Perhaps Vettel also saw the writing on the wall in the Red Bull Racing / Renault partnership, which saw the Milton Keynes team slip from World Champions to ‘also-rans’ in the current turbo-hybrid era. Ferrari, meanwhile, has steadily improved its competitiveness, allowing Vettel to challenge for the 2017 and 2018 championship titles. Whether Vettel can emulate Schumacher or his current rival Lewis Hamilton by winning championship titles with two different teams remains to be seen.
|Red Bull Racing (2009-2014)||113||38||65||44||24||1577||2010-2013|
|Ferrari (2015-2018*)||71||12||40||10||10||996||2nd (2017)|
* Statistics correct to the 2018 Hungarian Grand Prix
4. Lewis Hamilton joins Mercedes, 2013
In September 2012, Lewis Hamilton surprised the world of Formula 1 by announcing he would leave McLaren and join Mercedes on a three-year contract. The British driver had been associated with McLaren since he was signed to its academy as a 13-year-old, and his six years with the Woking outfit saw him peak with the Drivers’ Championship title in 2008.
Hamilton had won races every season he’d raced with McLaren and was jumping ship to a team with one race win in the three years since the Silver Arrows returned to F1 as a full factory effort. On paper, it seemed like a crazy decision, but Hamilton argued that he couldn’t stay at the same team forever.
The history books will prove the brilliance of Hamilton’s move. He has gone on to break multiple records and win the Drivers’ Championship title a further three times, with Mercedes dominating the turbo-hybrid era from 2014 onwards.
By contrast, his former employers McLaren slid into a seemingly inexorable decline. The Woking team has finished on the podium at just one race since Hamilton’s departure, while a bid to recapture its former glory days with a highly publicised switch to Honda power ended in embarrassment for all concerned.
|Mercedes (2013-2018*)||110||46||77||51||27||1910||2014-15, 2017|
* Statistics correct to the 2018 Hungarian Grand Prix
3. Jack Brabham forms his own team, 1962
Jack Brabham claimed back-to-back World Championship titles with the Cooper team, which pioneered the switch to the rear-engined layout still in use today. His first title came in dramatic style, pushing his car over the finish line to claim fourth place after it had run out of fuel on the final lap.
If anyone held any doubts about Brabham’s skills, however, he romped to the 1960 crown thanks to a run of five successive race wins. The 1961 season saw new 1.5-litre engine regulations introduced and Brabham reunited with his friend and accomplished engineer Ron Tauranac to secretly formed their own production team. Motor Racing Developments was born.
It was a massive gamble to form a start-up concern. The first Brabham made its debut in 1962 and before the end of the year, it was a points’ finisher. Brabham hired Dan Gurney as his teammate and in 1964 the American helped took the team to its first World Championship level Grand Prix win at Rouen.
After stepping back in 1965, Brabham returned to the cockpit in 1966 and claimed his third World Championship title, becoming the first and only driver to do so in his own team.
2. Emerson Fittipaldi joins his brother’s team, 1976
If ever a driver serves as a warning of how a change of teams can go cataclysmically wrong, it’s Emerson Fittipaldi.
The Brazilian had a rapid rise to Formula 1 and in 1972 he became the youngest ever World Champion for Team Lotus.
After finishing runner-up to Jackie Stewart in 1973, he joined McLaren and won his second World Championship title in his first season with the team. Mirroring his first title defence season, he was again runner-up in the championship standings.
Then came the bombshell. Emerson would join the team set up by his brother, Wilson, for 1976 to race the Brazilian-built challenger. Plummeting from stratospheric heights to the depths of despair with a struggling project, he occasionally broke into the top-six but achieved little else.
A magnificent second place on home soil in 1978 behind Carlos Reutemann’s Ferrari and an equally fine drive to third place at Long Beach in 1980 were isolated reminders of his former glory days. He moved from the cockpit to the pit wall at the end of 1980 and the team struggled on for two more years before closing its doors.
“It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life. I had offers from Ferrari, from Frank [Williams]… It was extremely demoralising for me, having won the World Championship twice. Sometimes I didn’t even qualify. It was terrible,” he admitted.
|Fittipaldi (1976-1980)||74||0||2||0||0||37||10th (1978)|
1. Michael Schumacher joins Ferrari, 1996
On the flipside to Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Schumacher’s change of teams from Benetton to Renault is the textbook example of how to get it right.
Having won the 1994 and 1995 World Championship titles for Benetton, the German surprised many by moving to Ferrari for the 1996 season. The Italian team had only won two races in the last five years and hadn’t won a title in nearly twenty.
Tempted by a huge-dollar offer, Schumacher ostensibly made the move for the challenge of rebuilding a once-great team. He did so by ensuring the entire operation was structured around him.
Ferrari headhunted Benetton designer Rory Byrne and technical director Ross Brawn – upon whom Schumacher’s two World Championship titles had hinged – and together the trio set about a seemingly insurmountable task of turning Ferrari’s fortunes around.
He hauled a recalcitrant car to three wins it did not deserve in 1996 and the following season saw him a contender for the Drivers’ Championship, losing out in controversial circumstances to Jacques Villeneuve when he deliberately collided with the French-Canadian’s Williams. He ran Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren close in 1998 and saw his shot at a title in 1999 dashed when he broke his leg at Silverstone.
The 2000 season saw it finally go right, where a record-equalling nine Grand Prix wins saw him clinch Ferrari’s first Drivers’ Championship title since 1979. His fourth World Championship title came the next year, with Ferrari dominating as their rivals self-destructed.
The 2002 season saw more records obliterated as the F2002 thrashed the field to the point that Schumacher equalled Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five championship titles by the mid-year. Schumacher’s fourth title in a row, his sixth overall, came off a much tighter fight in 2003 as Kimi Räikkönen kept the championship battle alive through to the final race of the season.
Schumacher’s seventh and final World Championship title – his fifth in a row – was the most dominant. With next to no opposition, he romped to thirteen victories that year and sewed it all up by August.
The FIA introduced rules changes for 2005 that finally stopped the juggernaut, but he still showed that on his day he and Ferrari could not be beaten. An eighth title almost came within reach in 2006 as he took his battle with Fernando Alonso down to the wire.
Images via F1-Facts, Getty Images, LAT, Mark Webber, McLaren, Mercedes AMG Motorsport, Pinterest, Red Bull Content Pool, Scuderia Ferrari, Sutton Images, Williams