Daniel Ricciardo Is Back—Kind Of
4:22 PM EDT on July 11, 2023
There's something aesthetically pleasing about Daniel Ricciardo in a Red Bull. He has spent recent memory in the midfield's bright colors: two years in McLaren's papaya orange, and the two years before that in Renault's best-unspecified yellow. But in Silverstone this weekend, he wore Red Bull's ever-constant navy-and-red race suit, and stepped into Red Bull's ever-constant navy-and-red car—only, for the first time in four years it had the number 3 on its nose—and even non-Red Bull fans felt a sense of deep satisfaction.
Nostalgia? Probably. The McLaren years were deeply unkind to Ricciardo's legacy—even his win in Monza proved mostly sentimental in value when it came to his reputation as a driver—and no matter how well Ricciardo did at Renault, the narrative was always going to be that it was such a shame he didn't have a better car. The Daniel Ricciardo who was once arguably the third-best driver on the grid, who beat a four-time world champion in Sebastian Vettel in his first year in a new car, did his work at Red Bull. It's only right that he should be back.
And, after looking at Daniel Ricciardo's test times at Silverstone, it turns out that Red Bull thought so too.
As of today, Dutch rookie Nyck de Vries is officially out at AlphaTauri after only 10 races in the seat. Daniel Ricciardo, everyone's favorite personality, will take his place on a team that ranks dead last in the Constructor's Championship standings, in a car that has scored two total points this season.
But, naturally, it isn't about the car. AlphaTauri, née Toro Rosso, is owned by Red Bull and has served as the second-squad affiliate for future Red Bull drivers, and de Vries wasn't the only Red Bull-affiliated driver on watch this season. Sergio Pérez, after two seasons and five races of being a perfectly serviceable Red Bull second driver, has abruptly found himself struggling to get the fastest car on the grid into Q3, while his teammate, Max Verstappen, has been putting it on pole each weekend. This is as much a wake-up call for Pérez as it was a bucket of ice water over the head of Nyck de Vries.
Red Bull has rolled out, if not a red carpet, then at least navy-and-white one for Ricciardo to make a grand comeback playing second fiddle to Verstappen. How fitting since he left the team in 2018 because Ricciardo, like many reasonable drivers, was disinterested in playing second fiddle to Verstappen. That being said, Ricciardo would be a fool not to take the opportunity. It's hard enough for drivers to get back into Formula 1 after euphemistically taking a break. Sure, Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg returned, but they did it in a Haas. If Ricciardo thoroughly outperforms Yuki Tsunoda in an AlphaTauri, he could be in a Red Bull within the next two seasons—considering how Ricciardo ended last season, it's hard to imagine a better outcome for him.
The question of "Does this makes sense?" is better reserved for Red Bull. Hiring de Vries was a strange decision from the get-go. He wasn't a young Red Bull junior driver who needed more room to grow. At the time he signed, he was pushing the definition of "young driver" at 28. He spent years as a Mercedes reserve driver with little fanfare; he won Formula 2 in his third year, in a season where Nicholas Latifi came second and followed up with a Formula E championship in 2021. When Red Bull signed him, they signed him off the back of a single ninth-place performance in a Williams and the power of Dutch compatriotism. They hoped he could deliver immediately as a Pierre Gasly replacement on the sister team, even though that isn't the usual purpose of a sister team. His leash was short. As soon as he didn't deliver, they cut him from the team.
In that light, replacing de Vries with Ricciardo is no big loss. That second AlphaTauri seat was a sink anyway, and dedicating it to a problem-solving space for Red Bull's omnipresent second-driver issue—which was, funnily enough, kickstarted by Ricciardo leaving in 2018—is hardly the worst thing they can do with it, especially if they aren't going to bring up Liam Lawson from the junior team. Red Bull's concerns about their second driver aren't unfounded, even if it feel a bit reactionary. Though it isn't a problem now, Pérez's inability to stick to the front of the grid would be an issue in a closer season—Red Bull experienced that themselves when Verstappen drove practically solo in 2020; Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes learned this through many races in 2021.
Red Bull—or, to name specific names, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko—haven't yet made any hasty decisions about getting rid of Pérez. They're only placing a timer on when they'll have to make that decision and lining up their candidates beforehand. From here on it's Pérez vs. Tsunoda vs. Ricciardo. If you're a Ricciardo believer, and have faith that the past years at McLaren were a fluke for Ricciardo, then you'll be thrilled by this outcome. If you're Horner and Marko, you don't need Ricciardo to be the race-winning, occasionally world-beating driver he was before. You only need him to be good enough, or at least better than Pérez. On the other hand, there's a possibility that Ricciardo doesn't outperform Tsunoda—but that's a situation better left untouched for those who like funny, marketable Australians with nice smiles.
As much as the people might crave a Ricciardo redemption narrative and road bumps in the monotony of Red Bull domination, it would be best for Red Bull that this situation resolve itself as anticlimactically as possible. Fans want excitement; Red Bull wants flawless victory and to avoid revisiting this issue again one year down the line, especially because Pérez is already signed through next year. So if Pérez gets over whatever issues have been dogging him, thus rendering all of these questions useless? All the better in the eyes of Marko and Horner—as long as they aren't attached to the nostalgia-softened image of Daniel Ricciardo in a Red Bull race suit.