• Daniel Ricciardo's return to the F1 grid with AlphaTauri complicates things for current Red Bull driver Sergio Perez and AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda.
  • It also creates a possible roadblock for promising Red Bull juniors like Liam Lawson.
  • “I’ve fallen in love with it again and I feel like I’m being myself again," says Ricciardo.

Daniel Ricciardo will return to Formula 1’s grid for the final 12 rounds of the 2023 season, starting in Hungary this weekend, but his presence has an influence on more than just his own long-term prospects.

Ricciardo’s odyssey to this point truly began in mid-2018 when he sought to seek a fresh start away from Red Bull’s organization, which was gradually building itself around Max Verstappen, during an era in which Red Bull occasionally picked up wins against the mighty Mercedes. At that stage, Ricciardo was regarded as a bona fide front-runner and while that reputation remained intact during two encouraging years at Renault it took a severe dent once he switched to McLaren.

Ricciardo never clicked with the driving style required to extract performance from McLaren’s machinery and a mutual split one year early, having been comprehensively beaten by Lando Norris, meant his stock nosedived.

The Australian took up a role as Red Bull’s third driver, keeping his eye in the game, while allowing him to hit the refresh button and take time away from the hamster wheel of Formula 1. Red Bull re-discovered a driver who had lost his mojo and picked up bad habits, with his first runs in the simulator described as a disaster. Over the following weeks, however, his form improved.

Ricciardo was initially reluctant to race in 2023, particularly with a backmarker, but half a season off has given him a fresh start. That coincided with Ricciardo's eye-catching performance at last week’s post-British Grand Prix tire test at Silverstone in combination with Nyck de Vries’ underperformance at AlphaTauri.

“I had enough time off to reset and enjoy it again,” said Ricciardo at a very busy media session on Thursday. “I was up to speed (at the test) really quickly and it felt really good again, and obviously tasting the Red Bull car got my pretty excited and everything that happened the last few years and getting back into the sport, taking some time off, I knew it was going to be very hard to go back in at the top. Of course, that was my wish but I think also you need to be realistic at some point and say, ‘Okay, if I want to get back to a Red Bull seat then it is going to take a bit of a process and a path.' This for me is the best path at the moment.

“I’ve fallen in love with it again and I feel like I’m being myself again, probably back as well in an environment that is giving me a lot of nostalgia. When the opportunity came, I thought let’s try and that’s that.”

Ricciardo will also have to adapt to AlphaTauri’s lackluster AT04, which has weaknesses.

“In terms of expectation, there is none,” he said. “I know the car is going to have some limitations, but I’ve got to do the best with what I’ve got. If it’s something I think I can work with then that’s all I need to feel good behind the wheel again and use some of my experience to push the team. As far as this weekend goes, if you ask me where I want to finish, I couldn’t tell you. I just want to know I put everything in to it and got a lap I can be proud of.”

Ricciardo nevertheless emphasized that “I need to show something—for sure—for next year, and beyond. There’s no guarantees, probably ever, with this sport.”

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Sergio Perez has failed to keep up with teammate Max Verstappen at Red Bull in 2023.
NurPhoto//Getty Images

Underperforming Perez Needs to Pick it Up

Red Bull’s Sergio Perez spoke earlier in the year of his steadfast belief in his ability to contend for the title and emphasized the requirement to be consistent up against the relentless Verstappen.

He remains second in the championship but his results have tailed off courtesy of a run of five grands prix in which he has staggeringly failed to qualify inside the top 10. Perez has never been a one-lap specialist but in a car as strong as the RB19 it is a dismal record. Perez’s deficit to Verstappen has swelled from 14 to 99 points in just five races.

Perez has a contract for 2024—and in public both Christian Horner and Red Bull’s motorsport consultant Helmut Marko have been broadly supportive—but his recent form has prompted concern.

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The fact that Max Verstappen, left has 10 podiums in 2023 and teammate Sergio Perez has just five is not lost on the team leaders at Red Bull, who might want a little more out of their No. 2.
Dan Mullan//Getty Images

Red Bull’s advantage means Verstappen can effectively win both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles single-handedly but if the season was closer—and if its rivals do close in next year—Perez’s underperformance would be more keenly felt. That was a situation which befell Perez’s predecessors Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon when they were paired alongside Verstappen.

The elevation of Ricciardo to AlphaTauri creates an intriguing dynamic as to whether Red Bull is evaluating his prospects as a Perez replacement, which would be a full-circle move for the current champions.

Perez, though, was unmoved by the arrival of Ricciardo into AlphaTauri.

“I’ve been in F1 for 13 years so I’m not a guy who thinks so much further ahead,” said Perez. “I think it’s a great opportunity for him, and that’s it. I’m focusing on Hungary and then Belgium and not really thinking about 2025, you know? It’s such a far world ahead, it’s nonsense to think that far away.

“It’s in my hands. That’s why I’m focused. I’m a winner, I don’t like having bad weekends, it’s not what I’m here for, I’d rather be at home doing something else. I’m here because I know that I can do it and I’ve done it before. You’ve seen it with other drivers, other teams, they’ve had difficult periods. But then they don’t have 20 replacements after each session like they do with the Red Bull drivers.”

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New AlphaTauri teammates Daniel Ricciardo, left, and Yuki Tsunoda ham it up in Hungary ahead of this weekend’s F1 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Peter Fox//Getty Images

Pressure Ramps Up on Tsunoda

Red Bull accelerated Yuki Tsunoda’s progress through the junior categories, leaping from Formula 4 to the AlphaTauri Formula 1 team in four seasons, so it was little surprise that the Japanese youngster was rough around the edges at first. Last year, he began to show more pace alongside Pierre Gasly but AlphaTauri’s regression through the midfield limited his opportunities and masked those gains.

This season, Tsunoda comprehensively got the better of Nyck de Vries, snuck into the points in Australia and Azerbaijan, was robbed of more in Spain by a baffling stewarding call, and only narrowly missed out on adding to his tally in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Miami.

Bringing in Ricciardo gives Tsunoda an experienced teammate to learn from but also provides Red Bull with an opportunity to gauge how he responds to a different challenge. If he’s staring at Ricciardo’s rear wing, then he risks his upwards trajectory being dented.

“Nyck came as a rookie and everyone expected me at least to be beating him, that’s the normal thing,” said Tsunoda. “Daniel won multiple Grands Prix and has experience already in these cars. I think it’s good for me, he’s highly rated, so if I beat him, everyone starts to recognize more than a couple of previous races.”

A nonchalant Tsunoda quipped that “in the end it doesn’t make much difference (whether it is) Daniel or Nyck (in the car) as one driver will be slower and the slower guy won’t make it to Red Bull, that’s easy, the faster guy anyway has more chance to go to Red Bull, it’s how it works in Formula 1, that’s it.”

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Liam Lawson’s path to Red Bull or AlphaTauri just got a little more complicated with the return of Daniel Ricciardo.
Mark Thompson//Getty Images

Red Bull Junior Liam Lawson Waits His Turn

There is another factor at play at Red Bull, namely the status of its young driver program, which was once the go-to location for its next driver off the carousel.

In recent years—aside from the promotion of Tsunoda—Red Bull’s scheme has looked less-than-stellar. For 2023, it recruited F1 drivers from outside for de Vries (and only after advances to Colton Herta were blocked by his Super License ineligibility). And now, Red Bull has put Ricciardo—a veteran of over 200 races—with a team historically known for nurturing rising stars.

For the last two years, 21-year-old Liam Lawson has been reserve for both Red Bull and AlphaTauri, has tested its Formula 1 machinery, and is ostensibly the next in line for a seat.

In 2023 he has been competing in Japan’s Super Formula championship, a tough single-seater category, and despite his rookie status has won three races in six starts and is second in the season championship standings.

“I’m confident he’s going to have a seat in F1 soon,” said Williams’ Alex Albon, who was Lawson’s teammate when they raced in DTM in 2021. “To put him in now would be tough for him as he’d be coming in as a rookie halfway through a season.”

It is understood that Red Bull did not want to disrupt Lawson’s Japan exploits by parachuting him into a sub-standard car mid-season. But if the Kiwi continues his current form in Japan then his already compelling case for a 2024 seat at AlphaTauri will become harder to ignore.

Door Closes on De Vries

De Vries’ Formula 1 career thus reads one race at Williams and 10 at AlphaTauri, and his options are limited in the championship.

“I would like to thank Red Bull and Scuderia AlphaTauri for the opportunity to live my dream,” he said. “Of course, it hurts that the F1 chance I dreamed of for so long ended prematurely. But life is not a destination, it’s a journey, and sometimes you have to take the hard road to get where you want to be.”

Tsunoda agreed that 10 races was too short a stretch in which to fully judge de Vries and praised the Dutchman for his “precise feedback” when talking to engineers, a trait that Tsunoda accepts he still needs to develop.

Replacement Ricciardo also conveyed sympathy for de Vries’ plight.

“After what I’ve kind of gone through the last year, but also my age now and just knowing how this sport is, and being a bit more mature like, for sure, you feel for other drivers,” said Ricciardo. “We put our life’s work into this, so it’s one of those ones where I do, I feel for Nyck. I look at me a year ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever race an F1 car again, and a year later, here I am. Things can happen.”