When Daniel Ricciardo returned to Red Bull for the first time after his four-year absence, he was not the same Formula 1 driver. In a bad way.
It was an unofficial but quietly understood truth in the F1 paddock early this year that Ricciardo had been back on the Red Bull simulator and struggled. Two years at McLaren had apparently had quite a negative impact.
This was not formally recognised until the Australian Grand Prix weekend earlier this month. Asked by The Race about how much rebuilding Red Bull had to do with Ricciardo after his McLaren stint, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner chose his words carefully but essentially confirmed Ricciardo had returned in a limited form.
“I guess when he first turned up after Abu Dhabi,” Horner said, before pausing.
“I think the problem is when you drive a car that obviously has its limitations, you adapt and you try and adjust to extract the maximum out of that car.
“And it was clear when he came back, that he picked up some habits that were not… that we didn’t recognise as the Daniel that had left us years earlier.”
Ricciardo had excelled in his first two seasons outside Red Bull, at least once he had got to grips with the Renault and his new team gradually improved the car to his liking.
He was particularly impressive and effective in 2020, hauling Renault onto the podium twice in a superb season that ended with Ricciardo fifth in the championship. That put him ahead of Red Bull driver Alex Albon, and actually matched or bettered three of the five seasons he had spent in Red Bull machinery.
But the two years with McLaren marked a surprisingly rapid decline as Ricciardo grappled with not one but two cars that he just could not gel with.
The Renaults had come to his liking in a way the McLarens never did. That led to pretty severe measures at McLaren, where Ricciardo’s driving was reconstructed in an extremely unusual way, to try to match the peculiar needs of the cars.
In hindsight it had no real benefit. It certainly did nothing to address Ricciardo’s trajectory and his second season alongside Lando Norris was significantly worse than the first.
By the end of the season, with a mutual agreement not to continue, Ricciardo left McLaren with both driver and team genuinely unsure of what went wrong and why it wasn’t fixable.
A couple of theories emerged in hindsight – one, that McLaren could not or would not develop the car in a way that would have theoretically migrated more towards Ricciardo’s preference, and two, that the attempt to reconfigure his driving was counterproductive and he would have been better off just driving the car ‘wrong’ but at least in his natural way.
The result was that Ricciardo’s driving technique had been mangled and his confidence bruised. And this became evident as he sat down for a session in the Red Bull simulator which, as one person with knowledge of Ricciardo’s situation put it, was “a f*****g disaster”.
There were whispers of Ricciardo being nowhere near Max Verstappen or Sergio Perez and of Red Bull being pretty shocked by the data, most likely the brake trace, for it was this key area of driving that Ricciardo ended up thinking about so consciously at McLaren. This also tallies with Horner’s reference to the “habits” he picked up elsewhere.
But the good news is this is already being unpicked. By the time Ricciardo drove on the simulator again, more time had passed – which meant, having arrived the first time with a ‘McLaren’ way of driving in mind, he had automatically started to migrate towards ‘his’ way of driving anyway. No surprise given the McLaren style never became second nature.
Horner described it as simply “having had time off over Christmas, and a chance to reset, when he’s come back and got into the 2023 work, he’s hit the ground running”.
This is consistent with suggestions Ricciardo himself feels re-energised and happy with his 2023 arrangement. He was back on-site at a grand prix in Australia, where he conducted an extensive amount of promotional activity but was then embedded within the race team for the weekend.
Ricciardo had a seat fit, he was in the debriefs, he followed the sessions on the pitwall. He was not in Melbourne just as a show pony. And as much as Ricciardo’s Red Bull return was played down from a ‘he could get a race seat again one day’ perspective, he’s not there just to kick back and rake in some easy cash.
He’s there to do a job and get something tangible out of it for himself, mentally and professionally. Finding a path to re-establish himself as the driver everybody knew him as pre-McLaren is a top order priority.
“He likes the feel of the car in the virtual world, which seems to correlate well with what we’re seeing in the actual world,” said Horner. “And I think he’s desperate to get a run in the car at some point to validate that.
“But we’re certainly seeing him getting back to being far more reminiscent of the Daniel that we knew.”
This ticks a very important box in Ricciardo’s quest to eventually return to the F1 grid. He was convinced with the right machinery he could show his true level again, not what he was reduced to during his McLaren struggle, and if he has started to drive the Red Bull effectively on the simulator that’s at least something.
He and Red Bull will want to check that in reality. Ricciardo will participate in some tyre testing this year so he will get the chance to get behind the wheel of a Red Bull in a relevant environment, not just show runs.
If Perez continues to be a strong support act for Verstappen, Ricciardo will struggle to open a door at Red Bull again. However, if he continues to piece himself back together in this role, then his appetite to find a race seat will grow.
Ricciardo may yet need to lower his expectations to land one but the purpose of his year out of racing and his return to Red Bull was to recharge, rebuild, and reassess.
That process, by all accounts, is off to an encouraging start on all fronts.