Daniel Ricciardo in Red Bull clothing: It’s both a strange and comfortingly familiar sight all at the same time.
Some form of third or reserve driver role had been one of Ricciardo’s main criteria for his 2023 plans, and it had let to him being linked with a return to his former team as well as with Mercedes, the latter gaining early momentum.
It certainly felt like a gamble to be targeting such a role rather than a race seat with Haas that looked very much an option if he wanted to open talks. But Ricciardo was keen to find a balance that would allow him to reset and rediscover the hunger that has taken a hit over the past two seasons.
Only Ricciardo can know what he is feeling and needs, but developments over the past week have made his decision look like the right move on a number of fronts.
The first point actually has nothing to do with Ricciardo, McLaren or Red Bull at all. It’s about his former teammate at Renault, Nico Hulkenberg.
The German has returned to Formula 1 with Haas after three years without a drive, and it’s not the fact that he’s been able to come back that stands out, but his comments about his time away.
“For two years I wasn’t too stressed about it, I was also enjoying the life out of the driving seat,” Hulkenberg said. “It’s much more relaxed, there’s other benefits, but then it sort of crept back – the desire to come back on the grid, to go racing, to kick ass! To be in the driving seat. So there was no fear.”
That’s what Ricciardo is looking for. Hulkenberg’s shown he was still a very quick driver in that time with all of his substitute appearances, but you’ve got to be fully committed to perform at the highest level. And after more than a decade doing it, you can understand that sometimes fatigue sets in.
Plus there’s internal dynamics at Red Bull, with obvious tension between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez even if the discussions after the Sao Paulo Grand Prix have apparently cleared the air.
Whatever the catalyst, it was something that Verstappen had held onto since the early part of the season, and Perez’s comments after the race in Interlagos suggested there was some needle from both sides.
In an interview with George Russell last weekend (that you’ll be able to read here on RACER soon), the latest grand prix winner admitted he has been having to adapt to the huge amount of extra marketing demands that come with being a Mercedes driver, and Ricciardo might have been able to help lighten that load. But he would have been entering a team where the driver line-up looks completely settled.
Christian Horner insists the same is true of Red Bull, but Ricciardo’s addition not only takes some of the pressures off the race drivers in terms of their commitments – the Australian being a hugely popular replacement for sponsors and partners to use – but it also slightly increases it on Perez.
As good as Liam Lawson has been when completing FP1 outings, the Kiwi is not banging down the door to get into F1. That led to Red Bull turning attentions elsewhere to replace Pierre Gasly at AlphaTauri, bringing in Nyck de Vries from Mercedes of all places. So despite the presence of the junior team, there has been nobody waiting in the wings to keep Perez on his toes.
Now, with Ricciardo, there is.
For that to really work, Ricciardo will need to show in simulator and testing sessions that he has the ability to extract the same sort of performance from the car that Red Bull was used to seeing from him before he left in 2018, but he’s now got exactly the role that gives him that opportunity.
The potential is there to impress Red Bull, and the experience will still be valuable to any midfield team if Ricciardo’s future self decides he does have the hunger for any seat on the grid.
It’s not a race seat, but it is the next best thing, and it might just be the perfect place for Ricciardo to reignite his career.