Dreaming of a Red Bull return, Daniel Ricciardo goes back to his beginning

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Outside the Red Bull Energy Station, the biggest motorhome in the Formula One paddock that spans three floors and is home to the Red Bull and AlphaTauri teams, a dozen photographers stood in a long line. They were all waiting for one driver.

The cameras snapped as Daniel Ricciardo, wearing AlphaTauri gear in the paddock for the first time, walked up the ramp to the Energy Station ahead of his first public press briefing since his F1 return was announced last week.

Inside, journalists stood four or five deep around the table. One stood on a chair to get a view of Ricciardo, who had to squeeze past the crowd of bodies to his reserved seat. He’d not had such a well-attended media call for some time. “What happens if I become world champion?” he asked.

His first day back as an F1 driver was always going to be the big story in Hungary. He’s one of the sport’s biggest names and biggest characters, seen season after season in “Drive to Survive”. But seven months ago, upon leaving McLaren and landing at Red Bull as a backup for Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez, Ricciardo wasn’t even sure he’d want to come back.

But here he was, explaining how quickly things had moved for him to replace rookie Nyck de Vries at Red Bull’s sister team — and put him on what he sees as a path to racing again for the team at the top of the standings. And it starts where Ricciardo first made his name as an F1 driver, when AlphaTauri was known as Toro Rosso.

Fast mover

While Thursday was Ricciardo’s official ‘return’, it’s like he’s never been away. He missed just 10 races — less than half a season — and was in the paddock for much of that time as part of his Red Bull role.

“He’s been here all year,” said Lewis Hamilton. “He’s been in the driver briefings, but not actually competing, which is rare. You don’t normally see a reserve driver in the drivers’ briefing. I’m not surprised to see him back.”

The surprising part of Ricciardo’s return has been the speed of the timeline. Ricciardo explained that he knew that being part of the Red Bull family meant “things can change pretty quickly”, and he stayed primed for a potential return. Over the British Grand Prix weekend, he had “a little bit of chat” with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and advisor Helmut Marko, who call the shots on the driver line-ups for its teams, about possibly racing for AlphaTauri — their patience with de Vries’ lack of form was wearing thin.

Ricciardo’s planned tire test at Silverstone on the Tuesday after the British GP came at the perfect time, “the last box to be ticked” proving his impressive performances in the simulator could translate to the real-life car. After a couple of runs, the smiles in the garage told Ricciardo and Red Bull everything they needed to know.

“I felt really good in the car and it went well,” said Ricciardo. “It was pretty much, you look ready, let’s do it.” Marko informed de Vries he’d been dropped, and the news went public before the test had even finished.

Why AlphaTauri?

In April, Ricciardo made clear he was not interested in returning to F1 simply to make up the numbers. He wanted a team that would allow him to fight up the order and return to the kind of heyday that saw him battle for poles and notch eight victories. AlphaTauri, simply put, is not that team.

Ricciardo’s new teammate, Yuki Tsunoda, has spent the season dragging the car further up the order than it deserves to be. He believes it to be either the second-slowest or slowest on the grid. “It’s not ideal,” he said, before expressing his hope the planned updates would lift the team’s performance.

“I’m sure it’s not going to feel as good as the (Red Bull car),” Ricciardo said of the AlphaTauri his teammate Yuki Tsunoda (left) has deemed one of the worst on the grid. “But I’ll just work with that.” (Peter Fox/Getty Images)

It is also not an especially easy car to drive, an issue that caused Ricciardo to struggle at McLaren, knocking his confidence. But he learned from that experience, and said he’s avoiding any preconceptions about how good or bad the car may be, or how it compares to Red Bull’s historically dominant RB19.

“I’m not really thinking, ‘I know the car will have limitations’,” Ricciardo said. “I’m sure it’s not going to feel as good as the car I drove a week ago, but I’ll just work with that. I drove it on the sim and it felt OK. I think it was a solid day. We obviously need to see if that translates.”

Making the Red Bull a reality

The AlphaTauri move is just the first step for Ricciardo in what he hopes is a way back to the front of the pack.

“I knew it was going to be very hard to go back in at the top,” he said Thursday. “Of course, that was my wish, but I think also you need to be realistic at some point and say, ‘OK, 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.”

Getting back into a front-running Red Bull car “the dream” for Ricciardo. But he said there was “no point in me thinking about that”, given the work he needs to do with AlphaTauri to stake a proper claim for a future seat.

Pérez’s recent downturn in form has led to recurring questions about his future. He’s under contract for 2024, but Horner said on the F1 Nation podcast earlier this week that joining AlphaTauri was Ricciardo’s way to pitch for a Red Bull seat. It’s the feeder team for a reason.

Pérez, for his part, said it was “nonsense” for him to think about any threat from Ricciardo for 2025, given how far away it is, and he hadn’t spoken to Horner about the move. “From my side, it doesn’t change anything, because I drive for Red Bull,” said Pérez. “There’s not just Daniel out there. It’s Yuki, it’s more than half of the grid (who) would like to drive for Red Bull. So, it doesn’t change anything.”

But there is no escaping the fact it provides another challenger to Pérez for the long-term at Red Bull. Ricciardo said there is no “criteria” from Red Bull to get back to the senior team, but his fate will be decided by how he performs at AlphaTauri. He’s a known, quick quantity — who also gels well with Verstappen, the pair joking their way through the FIA press conference.

When The Athletic asked Verstappen if he’d be open to being teammates with Ricciardo again, he replied: “I never actually wanted him to leave!” After all, it was Ricciardo’s call to exit Red Bull for Renault at the end of 2018.

“We know that we get on very well,” said Verstappen. “Yeah, if Daniel of course does well where he is now, then of course he has the opportunity to go back up, right? It’s all open, to be honest.”

A lone wolf

Ricciardo got too in his head with the McLaren car’s issues. This time around, he wants to drive more from the heart, like he did when he raced in the junior series and made his breakthrough with Red Bull in 2014.

“You just race cars because it’s what you love doing,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot to learn, and I’m not going to solve everything this weekend. So it’s just really about focusing on using the things I do well. And I think that will translate into some more positive outcomes.”

Ricciardo told The Athletic about that change in mindset back in April when pondering what a possible return might look like. He’s found his own groove a lot more, even extending to his training. His former trainer, Michael Italiano, is now working with Tsunoda, but Ricciardo is happy to find his own way.

Ricciardo joked he was a “lone wolf” now, getting some support from a trainer on race weekends but otherwise taking a more self-reliant approach. “I always said if I came back to the sport, I wanted to do things a bit differently,” said Ricciardo. “This year, I always wanted to find that self-motivation, and I wanted it to come from me, the training, all of it, the mindset.

“I wanted to get back into the sport because it’s truly coming from me and it’s what my heart desires. I’ve been doing it myself this year. I’ve got the answers I wanted.”

The next two races will give Ricciardo the chance to get to grips with the AlphaTauri car before the summer break offers the chance to digest everything he’s learned — and to figure out what’s possible.

But right now, it is all open.

(Photo of Daniel Ricciardo at the 2023 Hungarian GP: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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