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Ricciardo's F1 return

What might Ricciardo’s F1 return mean for Perez, Tsunoda and Lawson?

It's a game of musical F1 chairs at Red Bull and AlphaTauri. With Daniel Ricciardo returning to a race seat, is the Honey Badger destabilising the future of some of its existing roster?

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Nyck de Vries is out, Daniel Ricciardo is in. But it’s not as simple as a straight swap at AlphaTauri. What might the downstream implications be?

Perez and Tsunoda could be the losers of Daniel Ricciardo's F1 return
Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda are two drivers that stand to lose out if Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 return goes well. (Image Credit: Getty Images via Red Bull Media Pool)

I don’t think that anyone in the world of F1 thinks that this story starts and finishes with the brutal axing of Nyck de Vries a mere 10 races into his AlphaTauri tenure. Nor do I think anyone else thinks that this is just a curtain call for the much-loved Daniel Ricciardo.

Red Bull, as always, is thinking three steps ahead. But that itself begs the question: What’s the endgame here?

As we know, Red Bull and AlphaTauri drivers are “centrally contracted”, meaning they can easily be moved between teams’ mid-season, as we’ve seen in the past.

With Daniel Ricciardo now firmly back in the equation, it becomes a game of musical chairs. It’s a dynamic and multifaceted situation where the performance of one driver could dictate where the others may fall.

How did we get to this point?

What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is a clear departure from Red Bull family convention. Tradition has dictated that Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri is a more welcoming, patient, and nurturing environment. One where drivers are given more time and leeway. After all, Franz Tost has been running with his three-year rule.

Conversely, Red Bull has operated much more ruthlessly. If you underperform, don’t expect to stick around. Just ask Daniil Kyvat and Pierre Gasly. Both were handed mid-season demotions back to where they came from: Toro Rosso.

De Vries’s unceremonious firing from AlphaTauri is closer aligned with the senior team’s way of thinking, particularly so when you consider Helmut Marko’s public disparagement of the rookie prior to his sacking.

When contrasted with how Red Bull has publicly handled Perez’s mid-season qualifying slump, it suggests a reversal in approach between the two halves of Red Bull’s F1 family.

It’s a transition that may have begun when it was announced that AlphaTauri would be changing its identity and direction for 2024. With the outfit destined to be less a junior team and more a ‘B’ team (again) moving forward, how does that factor into the Red Bull/AlphaTauri driver equation? And if so, how?

Ignoring Max Verstappen, for obvious reasons, there are three main protagonists that stand to gain or lose depending on how badly or how well Daniel Ricciardo’s racing return goes.

Those three drivers are Sergio Perez, Yuki Tsunoda and Liam Lawson. There are several Red Bull juniors in the ranks, but Liam Lawson is the clear ‘next man up’ and we could be about to see Red Bull pivot in approach and drastically reduce the size of its academy, anyway.

However, before we address the aforementioned trio, it’s worth spending a few words on the man of the moment himself.

Which Daniel Ricciardo will we get?

There are a number of questions surrounding Ricciardo’s return: Will we get the Honey Badger of old, or will we get the Ricciardo that languished at McLaren for a couple of seasons? Given he actively didn’t want to race an uncompetitive car, what changed?

We won’t know the answer to the first one until we’ve seen him on track a few times. And the answer to the second most likely lies in the fact that there are now substantive benchmarks for him to compare Ricciardo against, thus removing some of the ambiguity.

We know what level Yuki Tsunoda is at, that he’s taken a step forward this season. We also know roughly where Nyck de Vries would have been, had he stayed in the car. Also, Ricciardo now has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

But even so, questions remain. Does he have to score points for his return to be a success? What happens if Ricciardo does not and cannot perform? Linked to that is the most pertinent question of all: What’s the target for him at AlphaTauri?

What does Ricciardo need to do?

Does Ricciardo have to match or even beat Tsunoda, or does he merely have to reduce that gap that existed between his new teammate and De Vries?

You’ve got to assume that in the 12 races they’ll share together, the Australian has to at least match Tsunoda, because otherwise, if you wanted to replace Perez, surely, you’d then just put Tsunoda in the second Red Bull.

Red Bull was very careful to highlight the ‘loan’ nature of Ricciardo’s move to AlphaTauri. This in itself is nothing unusual for the team, as previously mentioned. But the fact they did mention it is.

Only a couple of days before De Vries was removed to make way for Ricciardo, Christian Horner told us that the 34-year-old racing for Red Bull was “not the plan, that’s for certain.”

However, things change, and the wording of the press release implies that the plan is for Ricciardo to return to Red Bull, and perhaps not as just the third driver if he does perform.

The hope for Red Bull is that Ricciardo puts Perez under enough pressure that the Mexican turns things around, or he does well enough to replace Perez.

If he cannot perform, it’s likely the end of his F1 career. An exciting and illustrious one, but one that didn’t quite live up to the potential or the hype, nevertheless.

Ultimately, Ricciardo looks right at home having returned to Red Bull, so if he can’t get back to his dive-bombing former self at AlphaTauri, would he be able to at the senior team?

As to whether Ricciardo would be able to challenge Verstappen in the way he used to, that’s a different topic for a different day.

What does it mean for Sergio Perez?

In short, it means that the rest of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull stay could be short-lived. It’s not so long ago that the 33-year-old was seemingly in the form of his life; the form that launched a thousand think pieces as to whether he could emulate Nico Rosberg a la 2016. Ultimately, like Icarus, it appears that Perez flew too close to the sun.

He dared to challenge Verstappen. And, if you’re going to shoot the king, you’d better not miss.

Now, the best that Perez can reasonably hope for is that Ricciardo underwhelms on his return to racing and that Red Bull decides not to replace him anyway, regardless of the situation at AlphaTauri.

He’s contracted to the team for 2024, we know that much, but Perez will almost certainly have to acquiesce with his supporting role or risk being replaced irrespective of form, despite all suggestion and rumour being linked to 2025 and not 2024.

F1 wants Red Bull to have a more evenly matched driver pairing. And Red Bull is starting to make those same noises too. But crucially, it’s also starting to feel like neither F1 nor Red Bull thinks that Perez is – or can be – the man to bring that change.

If Ricciardo indeed does perform, don’t expect Perez to necessarily be in the Red Bull stable come the start of next season, even if he does have a contract in place.

And Perez at AlphaTauri? I can’t see it. I can’t see either party wanting it.

If it’s Tsunoda, and not Ricciardo, that steps up, Perez’s place at the team still looks uncertain. Might they opt to promote the Japanese driver and find other experience to partner with Liam Lawson at AlphaTauri, even if that experience isn’t Ricciardo?

I think you can see the musical chair-esque nature of this whole equation.

What does it mean for Yuki Tsunoda? 

In some ways, Tsunoda is the most difficult to call. You get the impression that 10 races into the season, AlphaTauri are still not sure how good the AT04 is.

Further still, you also get the impression that two and a half seasons in, Red Bull still don’t know how good Tsunoda is, or how good he can be.

Ricciardo should provide a more stable reference point, one that will allow them to better gauge just how much of a step Tsunoda has taken this year – and it’s quite clear he has done.

If the 23-year-old doesn’t match – or even beat – Ricciardo, is he in trouble? If he does beat the Honey Badger, is he in the running for the Red Bull seat? Basically, is there a scenario in which Tsunoda is the one left outside looking in?

To some extent, he’s reliant on the form of Perez. If the Mexican performs well and stays the course of his contract at Red Bull, Tsunoda needs to prove he can show Lawson the ropes next season or finesse a seat at a new team. If he can’t, might AlphaTauri seek to keep Ricciardo around to nurture Lawson?

I appreciate that I’m asking more questions here than I’m answering, but it just highlights how fragile and changeable the situation is.

I can’t see Ricciardo crushing Tsunoda – not to the extent that threatens his place in the team. But this does provide Tsunoda with the opportunity to beat Ricciardo comfortably and thus cement himself in the Red Bull conversation.

Even then, at the end of the day, if Perez is out, I don’t think Tsunoda and Ricciardo’s biggest competition is each other. I think you’d need to look at a certain Lando Norris for that.

What does it mean for Liam Lawson?

Last, and by no means least, we come to the only driver not currently racing in F1.

Lawson impressed in F2 and had a couple of pivotal points in the 2022 season gone differently, he could have found himself fighting for the title.

He’s now impressing in Super Formula – perhaps the closest thing to F1. With three wins in the opening six rounds, Lawson sits a meagre point off the championship lead.

He won on debut – something he has a habit of doing. In fact, since 2018, he’s won his first race in every series he’s competed in, with the sole exception of FIA Formula 3. That’s six different series, including DTM and F2.

The 21-year-old already has diverse racing experience. But despite that, and his penchant for doing well straight out the gate, he wasn’t the right man to replace De Vries. Yet.

Ricciardo is a better barometer for accessing Tsunoda, and Ricciardo is a seasoned F1 driver who might end up in the Red Bull next season.

Lawson could, and should, end up racing for AlphaTauri next year. The biggest risk for the New Zealander is that Perez, Tsunoda and Ricciardo all finish the year strong, and nothing changes across the two teams. Even then, would Ricciardo stay?

If Ricciardo’s return does delay Lawson’s ascension to an F1 seat to at least 2025, that’s where it starts to get tricky for the Kiwi.

From there, he’s got to hope that none of the current F2 crop – most notably Ayumu Iwasa – have shown themselves to be more ready than he.

Joker in the pack?

It’s not so much that bringing Daniel Ricciardo back into the fold destabilises the situation, but rather that he re-stabilises it – the only one who could really miss out is Lawson.

Unless Ricciardo returns with such ferocity that Red Bull can’t not put him in the car for 2024, there’s not much to suggest that either Perez or Tsunoda can challenge Verstappen on a regular basis anyway.

Regardless of where the cards do ultimately land, there remains a joker in the pack in Lando Norris.

I’m not sure that Ricciardo’s pace, or even his return, matters one bit if Red Bull can prise the Briton away from McLaren. Because, even if the Honey Badger does return with a vengeance, it’s unlikely he’d be able to go toe-to-toe with Verstappen in the way he used to.

The Max Verstappen of 2023 is very different to the one that Daniel Ricciardo walked away from in 2018, after all.

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images via Red Bull Media Pool

  1. Logically, Ricciardo should only be a seat-warmer for Lawson with him taking over as Tsunoda’s teammate for next season, although if Ricciardo regularly out-performs, the lineup could equally be RIC-LAW, & if Perez continues to be subpar, VER-RIC & TSU-LAW.

  2. If Tsunoda keeps Ricciardo behind him, it means that the fast tire sessions in the RB14 is bad news for Perez. Meaning that even not a strong driver like Ricciardo can set fast times in the RB14. It tells everything abut the driver wualities of Perez.

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