AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Australian Daniel Ricciardo could be the hottest property on the Formula One driver market next year and talk of a move to Mercedes for 2019 is gaining traction.
The Red Bull driver fuelled the speculation at the U.S. Grand Prix by expressing a desire to measure himself against Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes driver who is on the brink of becoming a four-times world champion.
“I’ve said for a long time (McLaren’s double world champion Fernando) Alonso or Lewis would be the guys I’d love to see myself against,” Ricciardo told ESPN.
”Alonso’s getting towards the tail of his career so Lewis at the moment is more desirable for me to go up against. So I would like that.
“Obviously I had the chance with Seb (Vettel), I’ve had it with Max (Verstappen) and I‘m going to have it again with Max for at least one more year. But while Lewis is in his prime I would like to challenge and see.”
Red Bull announced on Friday that Verstappen, 20, had agreed a new contract keeping him at the former world champions until the end of 2020.
More telling in the statement announcing that move was a comment by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner declaring the Dutch youngster to be “in the best place in the sport to build a team around him to deliver our shared ambition.”
Ricciardo, 28, will be out of contract at the end of 2018, as will Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
“For me, it tells us that they (Red Bull) know Ricciardo is off,” said former racer and Sky Sports television commentator Martin Brundle of the Verstappen announcement.
“It tells me Ricciardo will be in a Mercedes in 2019.”
The Australian is also highly rated by Ferrari but repeating the old pairing of Ricciardo and Vettel at Red Bull might not be to either driver’s taste.
Ricciardo beat four times champion Vettel over the 2014 season, a year when the German -- who joined Ferrari in 2015 -- was reigning champion but strangely below par.
Vettel now has a contract with the Italian team until the end of 2020, while Hamilton’s is up for renewal at the end of next season.
Ricciardo said he would take his time to decide what to do and ultimately having a winning car was what mattered.
“I like the (Red Bull) brand a lot and obviously I like the team a lot. We’ve always been a good fit for each other so from that side it’s all been really good. But for sure the performance is the number one box to tick,” he said.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge