Daniel Ricciardo: Red Bull third driver’s hopes of 2024 F1 return assessed

F1 star Daniel Ricciardo

After Daniel Ricciardo recently attended a Grand Prix for the first time in his role as Red Bull third driver, Sky Sports F1 assess the likelihood of the Australian making a permanent return to the grid in 2024.

Ricciardo was let go by McLaren at the end of last season after a hugely disappointing two-year spell with the team, and rather than take a 2023 seat towards the back of the grid, he opted for a year out of sorts by re-joining Red Bull.

The Australian established himself as one of the sport’s top drivers by winning seven races for Red Bull between 2014-2018, but decided to leave for Renault, before moving onto McLaren two years later.

While there have been flashes of brilliance, most notably a victory for McLaren at Monza in 2021, Ricciardo’s stock has gradually fallen. Ricciardo sat on the Red Bull pit wall at the Australian GP and his popularity and commercial value alone could almost guarantee him a seat at some teams, but with Ricciardo holding out for a drive in a competitive car, it remains unclear whether an offer to tempt him back onto the grid will be forthcoming.

Ricciardo, along with several team principals who have worked – or in some cases tried to work – with him, spoke about his future during the Australian Grand Prix weekend.

Red Bull chief

Red Bull chief Christian Horner, who oversaw Ricciardo’s development with the team earlier in his career, made a quite stunning admission about the Australian.

“When he first turned up after (the final race of 2022 in) Abu Dhabi…” Horner said. “I think the problem is when you drive a car that obviously has its limitations, you adapt and you try and adjust to extract the maximum out of that car.

“And it was clear when he came back, that he picked up some habits that were not… that we didn’t recognise as the Daniel that that had left us two or three years earlier.”

Despite their initial concerns, Horner insists that after some time off during the winter, Ricciardo swiftly began to resemble the driver that won seven races in five seasons with Red Bull.

“Having had time off over Christmas, and so on and a chance to reset, when he’s come back and got into the 2023 work, he’s hit the ground running,” Horner said in Australia.

Is Daniel returning to form?

“We’re certainly seeing him getting back to being far more reminiscent of the Daniel that we knew.

“It’s great to have him back in blue and be back in the team. This is the first Grand Prix he’s attending this year, and he’s really throwing himself into it, sitting in all the briefings, he’s been working hard on the simulator as well in the UK doing some race support and some development work on that.

“And Daniel’s just a positive energy to have around and it’s great to see him getting his mojo back, to see that big smile on his face and he lights up a room when he walks in.

Ricciardo put on a brave face as he attended his home Grand Prix as somewhat of an outsider, sat on the Red Bull pit wall watching Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez driving the RB19.

It would have undoubtedly been painful for the 33-year-old to be on the fringes in front of a passionate Australian crowd, but he says it’s actually been time away from the track that has clarified his desire to return.

Top 10 on the grid a reality?

“The signs are pointing towards getting back on the grid,” Ricciardo said in Australia. “I feel like that’s where I’m tracking in my head and a few of the habits that I’m having or doing is pointing towards that.

“It’s only been a few months (out of F1) but I think some itches have been scratched, so to speak. I’ve actually weirdly found that the days that I’ve had no schedule are the days when I’ve actually done training, and I’ve done things like I would before.

“So I don’t know, being my own boss, writing my own schedule has actually brought out a lot of the things in me, when I thought I might just sit on the couch and watch movies all day and eat junk food, I’m just not. That’s not me.

“So even these things have made me realise how much I do care about it.”

The reason Ricciardo is on the pit wall rather than in a car is that he decided against taking up offers to drive for teams unlikely to be competing for point, and his mindset doesn’t appear to have changed.

“I still am at a point where it’s not at any cost, it’s not just to be back on the grid,” Ricciardo said.

“A lot of the reason for taking this year off was that I didn’t want to just jump back into a car, any car just to be one of the F1 drivers. And I still don’t see myself starting from scratch and rebuilding a career and going at it for another decade.

How many more seasons does Ricciardo have left?

The reality is that Ricciardo being comprehensively outperformed by Lando Norris at McLaren has damaged his stock, but the Australian believes he can be reinvigorated by the chance to drive a competitive car.

“I appreciate I might not have every opportunity under the sun, but I want to win,” he added. “I want to be back with a with a top team and obviously a team where I have my confidence back and my mojo.

“I think also that’s where, maybe when I look back that’s a weakness of mine, but in a way it’s a strength as I feel better at the front of the grid. I feel like I perform in those situations with a bit more pressure and a bit more emphasis on a podium.

“So to go back and try to put myself in just any seat or something that’s fighting at best for a top-10 finish, I don’t think that’s going to bring the best out of me. So yeah, I see myself, at least in my head, wanting to go back on the grid, but there’s still some terms and conditions, so to speak.”

Forumla one wins

Red Bull have made a dominant start to the season, winning all three races – with one-twos in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – and the RB19 is undoubtedly the car that every driver on the grid would want to be in at the moment.

Ricciardo is no different, and admitted: “Truthfully Red Bull is the number one seat, that’s what I would love.”

However, Verstappen looks to be on his way to a third successive world championship and will be going nowhere, while Perez’s contract runs until the end of 2024, creating a couple of major obstacles for Ricciardo.

Ricciardo says it feels ‘amazing’ to return to Red Bull as their third driver for the 2023 season and there has also been speculation that in the event Verstappen or Perez were unavailable to drive in a race this season, Red Bull would promote Yuki Tsunoda from AlphaTauri rather than put Ricciardo in the seat.

F1 is super competitive

While that could be related to contractual obligations rather than performance expectations, it feels like Ricciardo is a long way from driving a Red Bull in competitive circumstances.

What does appear likely to happen is some sort of testing of practice run-out for the veteran, who according to Horner, has been enjoying driving the RB19 in the simulator.

“I think he likes the feel of the car in the virtual world which seems to correlate well with what we’re seeing in the actual world and I think he’s desperate to get a run in the car at some point to validate that,” Horner said.

“I think that he’s training hard and he’s ready to go given the chance.”

While Ricciardo appears to be adamant he will only return in a competitive car, the chances of a seat becoming available at Red Bull or one of their main challengers – Mercedes, Ferrari and Aston Martin – appears highly unlikely.

What are Ricciardo’s challenges?

Even if a desirable slot opened up, Norris, for one, would undoubtedly be ahead of Ricciardo in the queue for it. Therefore, the most realistic scenario for a permanent Ricciardo return would appear to be a team convincing him that they can follow in the footsteps of Aston Martin and take a big step forward to contend at the front.

Ricciardo and surfing legend Mick Fanning reveal how they became friends and compare the challenges of their sports. Ricciardo and surfing legend Mick Fanning reveal how they became friends and compare the challenges of their sports

Haas were repeatedly linked with Ricciardo last season, but a deal failed to materialise before Guenther Steiner filled his second seat with Nico Hulkenberg.

The Germany veteran has made a hugely impressive return to F1, perhaps providing inspiration for Ricciardo, but it also means another opening might have closed.

“It’s a little bit early to speak about a driver change already for next year,” Steiner said when asked about Ricciardo in Australia. “So let’s see how we are doing with these drivers and, for sure, at some point maybe I speak with him but I cannot promise anything because if our two guys do a good job…”

“But for sure, everybody is wanting to speak with Danny after a year off, maybe he knows again what he wants to do and he will be interesting for everybody in Formula 1. But at the moment I have a new driver this year that has done only two races, so I need to give him a little bit of a chance.”

Formula 1 odds?

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Ricciardo

After Oscar Piastri was confirmed as Ricciardo’s McLaren replacement, there were talks over a possible return to Alpine, the team (formerly known as Renault) that Ricciardo had ditched two years earlier.

They ended up signing Pierre Gasly from AlphaTauri, who is contracted until the end of the 2024 season, along with team-mate Esteban Ocon.

“So we had discussions with Daniel, ended up with Pierre when he became available and he’s signed with Red Bull no,” Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer said in Australia.

“But I think, like Guenther does, he’s a fantastic racing driver, he’s still young and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back racing in the future.”

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Mohammad Mo
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