Why Ricciardo is going home to Red Bull — and what it means for a future racing return
Daniel Ricciardo is going home to Red Bull Racing.
Ricciardo’s return could barely even be called an open secret. Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko blabbed to German TV last weekend that the Australian would sign on as a third driver in 2023, and though team principal Christian Horner and Daniel himself denied the deal was done, both were forced to admit that they were very close to putting pen to paper.
This week the reunion was finally made official.
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“It is great to bring Daniel back into the Red Bull family,” Christian Horner said. “I know the whole factory is excited to be welcoming him home.”
Ricciardo will be the team’s third driver, one of several indistinct non-racing driver roles teams tend to make up to suit their circumstances.
Third driver for Ricciardo is distinct from reserve driver in that he won’t be expected to be on hand at every race to drive in the case of injury or illness. He will, however, undertake some simulator work and testing duties. His considerable popularity will also be leveraged for promotional and ambassadorial work.
“Daniel will give us the chance to diversify, assisting in the development of the car, aiding the team with his experience and knowledge of what it takes to succeed in F1,” Horner said.
In that sense it’s a no-brainer for Red Bull Racing. It’s all reward for no risk — it gets an experienced driver to fill in its development gaps and a popular sporting figure to do some promotional work without having to worry about whether Ricciardo’s lost his speed.
But for Ricciardo the decision was a little more involved.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR RICCIARDO?
The Aussie has been weighing up reserve roles for Red Bull Racing as well as Mercedes virtually since he was axed by McLaren.
For weeks the German marque seemed the logical choice. Mercedes is the decade’s most dominant team and Toto Wolff is one of the grid’s best connected team principals. It would also have put Ricciardo in the frame for a full-time drive if Lewis Hamilton didn’t extend his contract beyond the end of next year, though the Briton says he intends to sign a new multiyear deal.
Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, is a closed ecosystem with Max Verstappen at its centre and with both seats fully subscribed until the end of 2024.
What it does do, however, is return him to the scene of some of his best-ever drives, when his stock was probably as high as it’s ever been in Formula 1.
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After two bafflingly difficult seasons at McLaren, retracing his steps home might be the tonic he needs to get the lightning back in the bottle.
“I think he needs to step away, take stock and rediscover whatever it was that was working for him in the first part of his Formula 1 journey,” former Red Bull Racing driver David Coulthard told the In the Fast Lane podcast earlier this month.
“I would — not that he’s asking me! — say, ‘Right let’s just take it back to where you were. How were you living at that point? What was it that your mind was filled with?’
“Something has definitely changed that’s not allowing him to release that absolute honey badger performance like we’ve seen in the past.”
Speaking in Abu Dhabi after Marko leaked his own team’s announcement, the West Aussie said there was an element of a sort of go-home factor at play.
“There is something with probably a little bit of familiarity which swayed me a little bit towards Red Bull,” he said.
“I’ve obviously been jumping around a bit the last few years, so maybe going back to something familiar might be … in a way perhaps a little easier.”
Red Bull Racing builds cars that suit Ricciardo’s style. Both history and Verstappen’s early travails this season prove it.
Verstappen and Ricciardo prefer cars with a pointy front axle and loose rear end to carry a higher velocity into the corners. It’s a trait Gasly and Albon struggled with upon replacing Ricciardo in 2019.
This year’s RB18 at launch had inverted dynamics that better suited Sergio Perez’s preference for understeer. Re-establishing that bias towards oversteer partly explains why Verstappen pulled so far ahead of the Mexican after a neck-and-neck start to the season.
If reproving himself as a capable frontrunner is the aim, he’ll have a willing partner in Red Bull Racing.
The team knows what Ricciardo is capable better than arguably any other team in the sport, and Horner has frequently wondered aloud in the last two years why the Australian has suddenly gone off the boil at McLaren.
It was the Red Bull program that first saw Ricciardo’s potential despite a relatively modest junior CV. It might take Red Bull to find it again.
WHAT WILL LIFE LOOK LIKE FOR DAN IN 2023?
But despite the momentum behind his homecoming, the bottom line for 2023 is that this is still a sabbatical year. Time off after more than a decade in Formula 1 and two extremely bruising years was paramount for Ricciardo behind putting pen to paper.
“I don’t want to race next year, that’s the truth,” he said last weekend.
“I knew that I wanted some time off next year from a race seat and just from competition. It’s obviously been pretty tiring, I guess, the last couple of years and the struggles in that.
“So I felt like it was pretty clear to me shortly after the summer break, once we got back into racing, that that’s what I wanted and what was going to be best for me.”
That explains why he turned down talks with Haas about a move down the grid, having previously noted that committing to another team off the back of his ill-fated McLaren move had the potential to do his reputation more harm than good.
This principal is the basis of Ricciardo’s workload for 2023. Unlike a reserve driver, he won’t be turning up to most races — that would defy the point of taking a year off.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t be playing a sporting role.
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“The ability to contribute to and be surrounded by the best team in F1 is hugely appealing whilst also giving me some time to recharge and refocus,” he said. “I can’t wait to be with the team and support with simulator work, testing sessions and commercial activities.”
Simulation is understatedly important to a modern Formula 1 team, with simulator drivers often working late on Friday night to experiment with and recommend set-up changes after Friday practice for the race team to try on Saturday ahead of qualifying.
Ricciardo’s contemporary F1 experience would be invaluable in this role.
If that goes well, getting seat time in a modern Red Bull Racing car is a logical next step to tune his feedback. This might involve him taking part in the team’s two permitted filming days just to get a feel for the 2023 car, even if they’re limited to 100 kilometres on specifically designed demonstration tyres.
Ricciardo is unlikely to appear in pre-season testing given teams get only three days to split between their two race drivers. Appearing in an FP1 session is also unlikely given two hours are already set aside for rookie drivers, though it can’t be discounted entirely if the team thought it were beneficial for car development.
Otherwise Ricciardo will be deployed on promotional duties. Red Bull is F1’s most prolific marketer and undertakes numerous demonstration events each year. Its race drivers are rarely available given the condensed nature of the calendar, meaning it often relies on drivers only distantly or tenuously connected to the sport.
Ricciardo would be a huge drawcard for these events.
IS THERE A ROUTE TO A RACE SEAT
And now the big question: will the move help Ricciardo get back into a full-time race seat?
The answer is the same as it was when he was sacked from McLaren and then turned down by Alpine: the driver market as it stands is as closed at the end of next year as it was this year.
Unless Ricciardo wants to drive nearer to the back of the grid, his options are extremely limited.
To get himself into a competitive car, he needs to rely on there being a twist in the silly season.
You could argue that Red Bull Racing is the most likely place such a fissure might appear.
Sergio Perez is on a two-year deal to the end of 2024. He will not be out of contract at the end of this season.
But you’re only as good as your last race, and Perez’s sternest test may come next year.
If Ferrari and Mercedes both join the title fight, it wouldn’t be unkind to suggest the Mexican would be the weakest of the six drivers in regular victory contention — indeed he couldn’t even finish second in the drivers championship this season in the same car Verstappen made look untouchable for so much of the year.
If Perez were to wilt in that fight and Red Bull Racing were to lose the constructors championship as a result, and if Ricciardo were quietly proving that he’s still the same driver he was before moving to McLaren, would the team be tempted to make the change?
For what it’s worth, Horner said Ricciardo wasn’t being signed with a view to a potential promotion.
“Daniel‘s contract is very specific for a specific reason,” he said. “We have a contract with Checo for the next two years. What the partnership of Max and Checo has produced has been phenomenal for us.
“They‘ve raced well for the team and we’ve got no reason to see that being any different tomorrow or for the duration of their contractual commitment to the team thereafter.”
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But it’s not as though Red Bull Racing has been afraid to ruthlessly shuffle its driver roster in the past, and the minor blow-up in Brazil has proven the relationship isn’t as sweet as the team’s made it out to be.
At a minimum the threat of Ricciardo’s presence might spur Perez to dig deeper and find another level next year.
But if Perez sticks around for the duration of his contract — and at the moment that must be assumed to be the case — Ricciardo would need to hope some other relationship dissolves on the grid to make way for him.
Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly have a historical dislike for one another, but Alpine has already rejected talk of a Ricciardo reunion, with upper management unwilling to reunite after the Aussie walked out on the team effectively after one year.
You don’t have to walk far in the paddock to find someone who thinks Fernando Alonso’s multiyear deal with Aston Martin will end in early frustration — but again, that’s a big if and would probably imply the team isn’t making progress.
Alfa Romeo is a potential dark horse given its impending conversion to the Audi factory team, but Ricciardo would need to sign a three-year deal starting 2024 just to see the first year of that project.
The more doors that close, the more a Ricciardo return is dependent on him taking a step backwards on the grid, which in turn begs the question of how hungry the Aussie is to be on the grid again.
It’s an answer he’ll start to understand only once the lights go out in Bahrain next March and he’s not there to drop the clutch.