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Formula 1

What Ricciardo's early 2024 struggle means for him and Red Bull

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
8 min read

Daniel Ricciardo is three races into a crucial season that was meant to cement his Formula 1 comeback and maybe even propel him into a Red Bull Racing seat again.

Instead, it is already misfiring. And how Red Bull handles this will have significant consequences on both its F1 teams in the short- and longer-term.

This has not been the start to 2024 that Ricciardo had been hoping for at Red Bull’s second team, RB, and not because the team is failing to hold up its end of the bargain.

RB has started broadly as expected, with a car capable of challenging for the top 10. Yuki Tsunoda finally delivered on that potential in Australia, qualifying eighth and scoring the team’s first points of the season by finishing seventh.

And Tsunoda is the one leading the charge. He’s 3-0 up in qualifying, and should be 3-0 up in race finishes too. It was only a team orders call that let Ricciardo beat him in Bahrain, where Tsunoda undermined his good start to the season with his emotional overreaction after the chequered flag.

In Saudi Arabia, Ricciardo suffered the embarrassment of spinning late in the grand prix, and at his home race in Australia he only qualified 18th after having a laptime deleted for a track limits offence, then recovered to a lapped 12th while Tsunoda ran comfortably in the top 10.

RB celebrates Yuki Tsunoda's points finish at the Australian Grand Prix

Ricciardo ended his home weekend in a defiant mood. He seemed to have clocked the narrative that had developed, that he was exhibiting similar symptoms as he was at the start of his McLaren malaise, even though he insisted the details on-track are very different.

He seemed at pains to stress “it’s not a confidence thing” or a matter of questioning “what the hell is this the car going to do when I brake or when I turn?”, it’s that he cannot carry the speed he sees Tsunoda can.

“I’m sure I’ll find a bit more in myself and I still believe maybe we’ll find a little something on the car,” he insisted.

Nothing from the team after qualifying or around the race itself indicated there was a problem with the car, although Ricciardo did get given a full new set of engine components after qualifying just to be sure.

RB will doubtlessly take another close look at the car, and it might be that there's something still not right that’s holding Ricciardo back.

But if there’s still nothing forthcoming then it will be all eyes on Ricciardo himself.


Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 team

The Red Bull team started the season knowing that it had several options for Max Verstappen’s team-mate in 2025 - Ricciardo chief among them. But right now he needs to fix things at the second team before he can even entertain the thought of getting back to the top table.

Incumbent driver Sergio Perez has always appeared to be the number one choice for Red Bull Racing given the continuity option would be the most convenient. That was certainly implied when Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described that seat as Checo’s to lose.

But Perez is out of contract at the end of 2024. So he has as much to prove as anybody after he went missing for so much of 2023, when Verstappen could have won Red Bull both titles single-handedly.

Christian Horner and Daniel Ricciardo in conversation

Then factor in Ricciardo being a Horner project (for it was Horner who led the charge for Ricciardo’s return), his immense marketability, and his good relationship with Verstappen - and it looked like Red Bull had a tailor-made Perez replacement if it needed one, and if Ricciardo just proved he’s at or close to the level of driver that left Red Bull at the end of 2018.

But Ricciardo’s not doing the business. Perez was until Melbourne, where he struggled as well, which might have been a handy reprieve for Ricciardo - had ex-Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz not won the grand prix and then earned praise from Horner, who more than hinted that free agent Sainz was on the team’s radar for 2025 given he’s being released by Ferrari.

Ricciardo’s in need of a peak performance sooner rather than later to stake his claim in the way his peers have. He cannot rely on goodwill or the vague notion that if the car gets better, so will he.

Because even if his RB doesn’t have a specific problem and this is a case of the car just not being tuned to his needs, or of Tsunoda dealing with its limitations better than Ricciardo, or of Ricciardo being ready to do better if the car has a higher peak - that’s not really any use to Red Bull at the moment. It’s too hypothetical.

Red Bull needs Ricciardo to prove himself with the machinery he has, in order to work out what to do with him.

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, Australian Grand Prix 2024

“He’s a big boy, he’ll pick himself up,” Horner said of Ricciardo’s tough Australian Grand Prix.

“But sometimes being a Formula 1 driver can be a bit lonely so a bit of encouragement’s never a bad thing.”

Asked about Ricciardo potentially losing the Red Bull 2025 opportunity, Horner added: “I think it’s too early in the year to even be thinking about next year.”


Liam Lawson, RB F1 reserve driver

The other thing Red Bull needs to consider in all this is whether Ricciardo’s worth keeping Liam Lawson on the sidelines for.

Last year’s stand-in success is a looming threat to Ricciardo. The three-into-two problem was resolved in Ricciardo’s and Tsunoda’s favour but Red Bull has promised to find Lawson a race seat no later than 2025.

It’s an interesting sub-plot in the broader Red Bull power dynamic. Ricciardo is Horner’s man. Tsunoda is there for Honda. Lawson’s the driver Marko rates - and wanted in the seat for 2024 after he did well replacing an injured Ricciardo last year.

Marko didn’t get his wish, and it’s probably no coincidence he’s been immediately putting pressure on Ricciardo - and Tsunoda, although to a lesser degree. He stated publicly that Ricciardo needed to produce something better, soon, before the Melbourne weekend.

“People tell me in the media ‘so and so said’ and it’s the first I’ve heard,” Ricciardo said when asked about the noise around his future already picking up last weekend.

“No disrespect to you guys, but I know I’m on this little kind of process or journey at the moment and I just need to focus on myself.

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, Australian Grand Prix 2024

“If I let any of the noise in, it’s going to kind of distract me from the path I’m on.

“It’s been really good that I haven’t let any of the maybe negative stuff creep in.

“I also understand that, I didn’t expect to start the season like this. I honestly thought this year we would start a lot stronger.

“So, there is that, which I understand. Not only me, a few people are wondering why.”

Maybe including some senior Red Bull figures? It seems more than likely that what Marko wants is to get Lawson into an RB seat one way or another. If so, who makes way?

Tsunoda’s never seemed to have Red Bull’s full confidence, as Marko says it was concerned by his “self control, outbursts and error-proneness”, but Australia was a really good response from Tsunoda to a Marko hurry-up. And Marko then praised Tsunoda effusively afterwards - saying he’s driving at a “very high level” this season and crucially “staying error-free”.

Yuki Tsunoda leads Lewis Hamilton, Australian Grand Prix 2024

Horner’s clearly still not won over by Tsunoda. He even turned a question about whether Red Bull should take Tsunoda more seriously as an option into an answer about Sainz in Australia, claiming Red Bull wants to field the “best pairing that we can” and suggesting it might need to look outside its current driver pool to do that.

But whether Tsunoda has a shot at Red Bull Racing is not actually relevant to what Ricciardo’s form means for Red Bull. Because all Tsunoda needs to do, really, is be the benchmark at RB to secure his own future. And if Ricciardo fails to match or beat Tsunoda it surely won’t be Tsunoda making way for Lawson - whether that’s for 2025 or, against all initial expectations, during the 2024 season.


Daniel Ricciardo, RB, Australian Grand Prix 2024

Changing drivers during the year is par for the course for Red Bull. It’s how Ricciardo got back onto the grid last year, after all. And the rumours have already started. There was a suggestion in the Melbourne paddock that Ricciardo might be facing something of an ultimatum, a line the New Zealand Herald newspaper is now pushing.

It would be very drastic if the situation was as simple as Ricciardo having until Miami in May to turn things around or he’ll be replaced. If there's any truth to that, it’ll come down to Ricciardo’s form, and where Horner, the RB bosses and Red Bull’s parent company stand on the matter.

One other factor is whether Ricciardo himself says ‘I really don’t fancy going through another year of this again’. But that is not happening anytime soon.

“The important thing is that I stay calm and stay on course,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s not that my head is filled with nonsense or anything. I honestly feel good.

“Unfortunately the results haven’t made me feel awesome. But deep down behind the wheel I do feel good and excited and just want to keep racing.”

Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda

It indicates a better headspace than where Ricciardo was in by the end of 2022. Which is certainly good news.

But it does not change the fact that there is at least some pressure building to improve. And that’s far from the way Ricciardo hoped this crunch season would begin.

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