With a single press release, Red Bull turned a routine Pirelli tire test into one of the biggest news stories of the Formula 1 season.
Daniel Ricciardo is now back in Formula 1 with the junior team AlphaTauri, replacing Nyck de Vries and putting enormous pressure on Red Bull driver Sergio Perez to improve his poor form.
That’s a remarkable turnaround considering Ricciardo has maintained a stance for so long that he wanted to sideline the full year. It was also another chapter in Red Bull’s history with incredibly tough driver decisions: De Vries had to miss just ten races in his rookie season with the team, likely spelling the end of his future F1 prospects.
Things went incredibly fast on Tuesday as Ricciardo tested the 2023 Red Bull at Silverstone. Sources told ESPN that Red Bull director Christian Horner called team advisor Helmut Marko about an hour later to tell him how impressive the pace was. Shortly after, Marko called back to tell Horner that he had just fired De Vries, although the Dutchman appeared to have feared the signs would be on the wall after Sunday night’s British Grand Prix.
After the Marko call, several prominent Dutch journalists were made aware of the situation and the story broke on Tuesday midday. That then forced Red Bull to announce quite clearly that afternoon that there was a desire to break the news to the public later this week.
Ricciardo’s pace was remarkable in every way. Ricciardo’s best lap, 1m27.415s, was fast enough to secure a front row start at the British Grand Prix four days earlier. A source present at the test told ESPN that comparing beat times is a bit like comparing apples and oranges — track conditions are different, weather conditions are different, fuel levels are different. Ricciardo also tested the 2024 Pirelli range and did not drive the 2023 Pirellis that Max Verstappen used to take pole position on Saturday last week.
But whichever way you look at it, Red Bull were blown away by what they saw from a driver many suspected had damaged merchandise following his difficulties at McLaren. It was exactly what Red Bull wanted to see and why Ricciardo had attached so much importance to the behind-the-scenes test from the very first moment. He had treated the test like an audition for a racetrack and it was the performance that got him across the finish line.
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Horner is said to have been particularly impressed. Earlier this year, Horner said Ricciardo had developed bad driving habits since leaving Red Bull, which the team had noticed from their first simulator sessions. Horner also repeatedly mentioned that the Ricciardo, who competed at McLaren in 2021 and 2022, was indistinguishable from the man who had seven wins for Red Bull between 2014 and 2018. Ricciardo’s lap times were the final piece of the puzzle in the decision to run with him in De Vries’ place.
While Ricciardo had been against the idea of racing in 2023 for so long this year, things apparently changed at Silverstone weekend when the reality of the De Vries situation became apparent. While De Vries was initially told he would have until his home race at Zandvoort in August to turn things around, it soon became the Austria/Silverstone stage.
Suddenly a choice had to be made. Stick with his plan to wait until 2024 and Ricciardo risks Red Bull junior Liam Lawson stepping in, doing a great job and taking that spot longer term. Ricciardo and those around him always knew that Red Bull would never promote him directly to the top team.
Horner is understood to have said as much to Ricciardo over dinner earlier in the year, when the Australian was outspoken about wanting to drive for Red Bull again. The conversation clearly had a positive impact on Horner, who began to see Ricciardo on AlphaTauri as an easy way to get away from De Vries, who had been against the company’s signing from the start.
For the Australian, who told ESPN last month that the “fairytale” end to his career would be a return to Red Bull, it was AlphaTauri or broke. Ricciardo sees the move as part of the long game that ends with the fairytale return to Red Bull. Additionally, as Ricciardo prepared for the Silverstone test, it became clear just how ready he was to return to an F1 cockpit.
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From speaking to Ricciardo throughout the year, whether at the team’s car launch in New York in February or in the months that followed, it is clear that the burden he carried on his shoulders throughout the McLaren season has lifted. Much like Kevin Magnussen spoke about when he returned from a year off to race for Haas in 2022, Ricciardo was able to gain a new perspective on racing in his absence and seems better off as a result.
It’s an ideal situation for Red Bull. Whether the team admits it or not, it’s putting pressure on Perez, whose form has been in a downward spiral since his second-place finish at the Miami Grand Prix in May, and will serve as a stark reminder of that that a ready-made replacement is waiting for him Wings for him should he fail to bring about the turnaround.
Ricciardo must perform to legitimize this threat. Given that AlphaTauri may have the worst car in F1 at the moment, expectations for overall results will be low, but Ricciardo’s performance will be under massive scrutiny within the team. His first task will be to do something he’s struggled to replicate at McLaren with Lando Norris: beat new teammate Yuki Tsunoda.
Multiple sources have told ESPN that Perez is currently safe, and this is backed up by Horner’s public statements. His position might be bolstered by the fact that Max Verstappen could almost win the constructors’ championship on his own this year, but it’s also true that without a thorough reading of Ricciardo, Red Bull would never do anything as drastic as cut Perez before his expired 2024 contract. But frustration at the situation is clearly growing and with the rivals closer together in 2024, they can’t afford to have Perez in this form.
They have now given themselves an alternative if the situation does not improve. Ricciardo remains hugely popular within the team due to his contagious personality and, when he returns to his old level, is as good a replacement as one could wish for for a team struggling for championships.
It is worth noting that like everyone else, Red Bull are very aware of the development of what is happening with Verstappen’s teammates. Pierre Gasly lasted half a year before he was demoted. Alex Albon has struggled to replicate Verstappen’s performances, although internally the team still carries a degree of guilt for sacking him in the process. Now Perez has problems.
Horner has suggested that the Mexican driver thinks too much and drives too much. Even if you are very critical and look back at 2018, the same trend emerged at the end of this season. From the moment Ricciardo signed his Renault contract for 2019 during the 2018 summer break, he never scored a podium for Red Bull, while Verstappen scored seven points including victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. At the time, Horner surmised that Ricciardo’s move to Renault was because he was running away from a fight with the improving Verstappen.
With that in mind, it’s clear that Horner isn’t ready to see the answer to Perez – a man widely considered one of the most underappreciated talents on the grid prior to his arrival in 2021 – in simply replacing him with another driver to replace. Verstappen, with his unrelenting pace and unwavering confidence, has become the ultimate teammate killer and that’s something Red Bull will have to pull off long into the future. Talking at Red Bull this season, Horner is right when he says that one or two clean weekends should do the trick for Perez in the short term.
Speaking of pace and confidence, a final word for De Vries. The Dutch driver never seemed to get a fair impression in the AlphaTauri team, with Marko – the man who signed him following a strong result in his debut, the 2022 Italian Grand Prix when he replaced Alex Albon at Williams – the The only one was He came under public criticism just a few months after his rookie season.
There is also an interesting dynamic internally, with Marko admitting last month that Horner had rightly doubted whether De Vries was the right man for the company’s second team. Marko is believed to be the godfather of the Red Bull driver program, whose urging on Dietrich Mateschitz to sign a 17-year-old Verstappen to Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) in 2015 likely meant the Dutchman didn’t end up in the Mercedes stable. De Vries’ debacle hurts his reputation for spotting driver talent.
In the paddock there are mixed opinions about De Vries. Some say he is difficult to work with, others say the opposite. What is clear is that he came to AlphaTauri with a Formula E championship under his belt and had the confidence to put his weight into action, which was what he wanted the team to do. In that sense, he wasn’t a traditional newbie, and that may have misled some key people. While his results weren’t spectacular, it seemed like Marko had decided a while ago that he’d bought a BOM and nothing would change his mind.
Although De Vries was clearly talented, it took him several years to break through in Formula 3 and Formula 2, winning the latter in one of his most talented years. While a Formula E championship is a huge achievement, in Formula 1 it’s still seen as a series for underdogs and drivers who weren’t good enough to advance to the big league. Rightly or wrongly, he always struggled with it and when results were poor from the start he never had a chance to continue.