Daniel Ricciardo exclusive: I want to partner Lewis Hamilton in his prime

By the time the F1 calendar ticks over into 2018 winter testing and the Australian Grand Prix, Daniel Ricciardo is going to be the hottest commodity on the grid. The Australian -- easy-going off the race track, phenomenally quick on it -- will be in a contract year at a time Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren are all likely to be facing big decisions about their line-ups for the following campaign.

ESPN caught up with the Australian in Austin to talk about why he feels more comfortable than ever now his destiny is in his own hands.

Daniel, Max Verstappen has a new deal at Red Bull but it's looking increasingly like you are going to be the star of 2018 Silly Season. Is that still the plan, to wait until next season to decide what you're doing?

Yeah, definitely. His announcement has come really early as far as that all goes, because he was already contracted next year -- he's done it early. I guess they didn't need to do it that early, but he has and that's that. Normally in the past people haven't pulled the trigger that soon, so the only surprise is the timing, but I'm not surprised he's stayed on because I know he likes the team a lot.

For me, no announcement is going to come any time soon, I think I've got time on my side to see how everything shapes up. It gives me time to not only focus on the end of this season but also the beginning of next year, put some emphasis on that. That's kinda where my head's at at the moment.

For the majority of your career, Red Bull has been in control of your next step -- whether it be which junior category to move up to or which team to join. This is the first time the ball has been in your court....

It's unique, definitely, something I've never experienced before. I'm kind of excited to see how it may play out, or how it may not. It's something new for me and something exciting, but I'll do it the right way in terms of what talks I have -- I'll be respectful and see where it ends up.

The positive with Max staying on is that it shows him and his team, him and his management, have a commitment to the team and see a good future with Red Bull. That's encouraging for me next year knowing we have a pretty good foundation for next year. That's why I'll take my time next year and see how the start of next year goes.

Max is only in his second year, you're coming to the end of your fourth -- it's fair to say each of those have fallen short of pre-season expectations. Is it still the case that the RB14 will determine your future?

I think so, yeah. If I can be in fast car, if I can be with a top team, that's the criteria. That would be the biggest thing. As far as the outside things goes with Red Bull -- I like the 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.

You drove against a four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, when you joined Red Bull, and now you're up against a man many think is a future world champion in Max Verstappen. The logical move everyone is talking about is Mercedes and 2019 -- presumably alongside Lewis Hamilton. Is he the ultimate yardstick to test yourself against?

Yes, absolutely. Forgetting the situation that he's at Mercedes, taking teams out of it... just putting drivers, absolutely. I've said for a long time [Fernando] Alonso or Lewis would be the guys I'd love to see myself against. 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, I've had it with Max 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 [him] and see...

Of course, discussions about joining Lewis at Mercedes or Sebastian at Ferrari could be pointless if Red Bull's car is up to the task next year. Recent form would suggest the team is on the right trajectory?

It's exactly what we need to be doing and we're doing it, so it's all moving in the right direction. Everything is super positive at the moment. But it's been like this before, also last year and towards the end of most seasons ... we've kinda gone up but then for whatever reason we've dropped a bit down for the start of following season. So I don't want to come out all excited like 'we're going to come out in Melbourne and win'.

But this is what we can ask for for now and we're doing it, so if we continue like that across the winter break then we'll be looking really good.

You've seen that same scenario play out a few times. Even ignoring the regulation change between 2016 and 2017, the team failed to build on the end of the previous season in 2015 and 2017. Is there a better understanding of why that progress isn't carrying over?

I'm sure there is. They haven't come up to me and said 'oh, we had too many holidays in December' or anything like that! I don't know the real reason but I'm sure they've found things.

When I talk to the aerodynamicists and all that, there's a lot more understanding and I guess the calculations were wrong and we committed the down one direction over the winter and that was the wrong direction. I know it's not down a lack of work ethic.

Is there an added incentive next season with McLaren moving across to Renault power? A chance to test Red Bull's resources against one of the other big budget teams?

Yeah, definitely, it's going to be a good test for us. With the Honda you never know how much of a deficit it is, but at Budapest when Fernando did the best lap of the race, there's been some parts where you think maybe the car is pretty decent.

If anything, it can only be a good thing. If they do start performing well against us it gives us a little bit of motivation we need to push the boundary a bit more so I don't see anything negative out of that. Obviously if we're quicker than ultimately that's good news for us!

[Red Bull chief engineer] Paul Monaghan recently said Exxon's latest upgrades have been worth an extra grid slot in terms of performance. Is it reassuring to see the team and its partners delivering like that?

Yeah, it has, and it is. It's great to have partners which are giving us performance as well. There's a performance side of things and we're getting a commercial side but also a performance gain. Every update we've had has given us something. When we came to Singapore we had new fuel and they told us 'you will see benefits from us', and you then see it on track.

It's not like we're testing stuff and then saying 'oh, put this in the car and it might work'. Everything we've put in the car is good. It's motivating... when you spend time working on something for a time period and then it doesn't correlate, it decreases in your motivation. So these are all good things.