DANIEL Ricciardo has opened up on the contract dilemmas ahead of the "most important" decision of his career, admitting "there's a lot at stake" as he ponders his Red Bull future.
The Australian only has a year remaining on his current deal with the team who have supported his entire Formula 1 journey, and is set to enter 2018 as one of the quickest and most sought-after 'free agents' on the grid.
After tying down Max Verstappen to a new three-year contract, Red Bull insisted they wanted Ricciardo to make a similar commitment - but the five-time race winner has detailed how he is no rush just yet.
"Next year is a big one for me," Ricciardo wrote in his Red Bull blog. "They're all big, but there's a bit going on other than just the driving.
"I'm not just going to settle on something because I want it to be off my mind, because there's a lot at stake. It's a big decision for me, so if I need to take time to make it, I will.
"I'm planning on being in the sport for a long while yet, but in saying that, if I was to sign, say, a three-year deal, that's a big chunk of the next part of my career. I need to get it right, so it's a big call - the most important one for me yet, I think."
Key to the talks and Ricciardo's plans are Red Bull's off-season improvements after the team underperformed in 2017. While Ricciardo wanted to battle for a first world title, the team finished in third place with only three race victories.
"I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box, if you like," he added.
"Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful - races, championships - that's the absolute priority. It's not even close."
Ferrari and Mercedes would appear to be his most likely suitors, and Ricciardo has previously claimed he would relish pitting himself against Sebastian Vettel, who he partnered and out-scored at Red Bull in 2014, and Lewis Hamilton.
Ricciardo is also taking inspiration from Hamilton as he makes plans for the future, with the Englishman having left a stalling but prestigious McLaren for an unknown quantity in Mercedes at the end of 2012.
Since then, Mercedes have claimed a succession of world championships, while McLaren haven't won a single race.
"I'm 29 next year and the next deal will take me into my 30s," Ricciardo explained. "So it's not like I'm the young unproven kid who'll sign anything just to get on the grid, or at the other end of my career when I'm hanging on and doing things year by year.
"You look at Lewis and when he did his Mercedes deal, he was the same age as I am now if I remember correctly. He was already doing very well where he was, but his career has really taken off since then. So, there's a lot to consider."
Ricciardo, who finished above Verstappen in the Drivers' Championship despite being heavily out-qualified by his younger teammate, insists his contract talks will not be a distraction for his "big" year
And the popular and vibrant driver is also looking forward to slightly more serious conversations...
"Being in the position to make the decision is something cool, something unusual, and something where I feel like I'll probably learn a lot," he said.
"No matter what happens, it'll be a growing experience for me because it's something I've not been through. It'll be nice to stand on my own two feet and make some grown-up decisions. Maybe even act like an adult! It's all part of the evolution, I'm told..."
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