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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Why Ricciardo gave up the seat he so badly wants now

by Mark Hughes
7 min read

Daniel Ricciardo was under Red Bull contract from 2008 in Formula Renault until the end of 2018 when he turned down a reported £20 million offer to stay alongside Max Verstappen in the F1 team, opting to leave for a team whose cars he’d regularly lapped.

It seemed a bizarre decision at the time and no less so now, especially as he’s subbing in the Red Bull ‘junior’ team a decade after he left it. His aim is to return to the senior team alongside Verstappen, to prove to himself and the world that he’s still a top driver despite the last two years at McLaren having suggested otherwise.

Filling in for the fired Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri is his shop window as he strives to convince Christian Horner and Helmut Marko that he’s still got it. This wouldn’t have much currency given that current occupier of that seat Sergio Perez is contracted until the end of next year. Except, of course, Perez is in the middle of a confidence crisis and has suffered an alarming loss of form. Contracts can be paid out.

Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull F1

Let’s assume for one moment that Ricciardo’s form in the AlphaTauri for the remainder of this year is strong enough to convince Red Bull to pay off Perez for ’24 to make way for him – that’d mean it will have taken five years for Ricciardo to get back to the seat he walked away from. And probably at a greatly reduced salary.

Which begs the question even more: why did he do it?

Verstappen’s performance

Daniel Ricciardo Max Verstappen Red Bull F1

“I believe he was running shy of Max,” said Christian Horner at the time, a belief he has frequently repeated.

The psychological impact of Verstappen’s arrival and performance upon Ricciardo should not be underestimated. Ricciardo at his best was an unstoppable force, riding a confidence wave, pulling off audacious overtakes, searing single-lap pace in qualifying. His arrival in the senior team after outpacing a series of well-rated team-mates at Toro Rosso saw him instantly outperform the team’s golden boy Sebastian Vettel.

Not always and not by a lot, but three fighting victories to none probably played their part in Seb deciding to move on at the first opportunity.

Nico Rosberg Mercedes Daniel Ricciardo Sebastian Vettel Red Bull F1

Which only boosted Ricciardo’s confidence further.

Daniil Kvyat was no threat to his team leadership status but already within the Red Bull family Verstappen was making waves. He was so clearly the next big thing and when he was brought into the senior team a few races into his sophomore F1 season, suddenly Ricciardo’s status was no longer assured.

If Verstappen performed at anything like the level expected, Ricciardo was not going to be able to retain the team’s focus fully on him. At best, it was going to be split.

Max Verstappen Red Bull F1 junior

Verstappen’s victory first time out, Barcelona 2016, was a disastrous development.

In the cold analytical spotlight, Max (like Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari) got the lucky strategy call that day, Ricciardo (like Vettel at Ferrari) the unlucky one. Which was better could not have been called in advance.

But perception is everything and an 18-year-old had just walked into 26-year-old Daniel’s team and won immediately.

Ricciardo had out-qualified him in Spain, but in the nitty-gritty pattern of a race weekend, Ricciardo would have seen the underlying pattern. Which was summarised by Horner: “He came into the senior team without having tested the car even in the sim. There were few people faster over a single lap than Daniel Ricciardo at that time yet Max walked in, went faster in practice, faster in Q1 and Q2 and only lost out in Q3 because the track grip was ramping up and he was nervous about changing the wing level so picked up a bit of understeer.”

Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull F1 Monaco

Ricciardo responded magnificently in the next race, skimming the Monaco walls to set pole as Max crashed into them. But even Ricciardo’s deserved victory there was denied him by a catastrophic mix-up in the garages as he came in for his tyre change.

In the 16 races they were paired in 2016, a fair comparison could be made in all but one of them. Ricciardo was ahead in qualifying 9-6 but by the small average margin of 0.062% (which worked out at around half a tenth of a second). They won one race apiece, Ricciardo prevailing in Malaysia in a close wheel-to-wheel dice. Ricciardo had certainly not rolled over, but he was digging deep.

In 2017 the differences were again small, but this time more in Verstappen’s favour (0.064% ahead in qualifying, two race wins to one). In 2018, the season of their disastrous Baku collision, Verstappen extended his qualifying advantage (but still to no more than 0.15s) but his wild early-season spell tended to flatter Ricciardo’s race statistics.

Max Verstappen Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull F1

They won two races apiece, but if Max had not made crucial errors in China and Monaco, it could conceivably have been 4-0.

These, way more than the actual points, were the hard important stats. And they were only going in one direction.

Ricciardo had held out impressively for three years against the onslaught, and they were still super-close (as Baku unfortunately underlined) but extrapolating Verstappen’s improvement curve would likely see Ricciardo in a support role and that was not an acceptable outcome for someone of Ricciardo’s intensely competitive nature.

Verstappen’s Red Bull relationship

Christian Horner Max Verstappen Helmut Marko Red Bull F1

Ricciardo, just like almost every other Red Bull driver except Verstappen, had come up through the Red Bull junior programme. That driver scheme was his big break, his one chance of breaking out of the Australian racing scene and getting on the path to F1. He’d grabbed it with both hands and performed. If you didn’t, you’d be dropped. That would have been the end of it for Ricciardo. There was no Plan B.

Verstappen was different – to anyone else. He was a phenomenon and his shrewd father Jos had kept him out of anyone’s driver programme throughout his karting career and into Formula 3. Dr Marko had been trying to get him on board since 2010, but always Jos resisted, reasoning that he’d have more control over Max’s destiny the longer he did so.

It was a brilliant plan and it worked perfectly because as Max’s sensational karting form translated into F3 in 2014 so Mercedes became interested too and in the ensuing bidding war, the Verstappens got from Marko the only thing he could offer which Mercedes could not: straight to F1 in 2015.

Max Verstappen Toro Rosso F1

Marko was enraptured by Verstappen’s talent and was determined to get him. No-one had ever said no to a Red Bull contract before, but the Verstappens had. Marko would not have waited patiently for anyone else. He could see the generational talent Max represented.

In the power dynamics of the team, the Verstappens had a unique position. It was almost as if they were doing Red Bull a favour in agreeing to be contracted there. Their terms included the control to move elsewhere if certain stipulations were not met by certain dates, etc.

Red Bull was still providing Ricciardo with absolutely equal machinery and opportunities. But that’s not the same as being empowered.

Verstappen was. Ricciardo was not. He was valued but not empowered. That, just like the performance trajectory, would not have sat easy with Ricciardo.

Baku 2018

Daniel Ricciardo Max Verstappen F1 Azerbaijan GP

This was the flashpoint of all the above. Ricciardo had prevailed in a wheel-to-wheel battle, Verstappen had then overcut himself ahead because of the slow warm-up of the harder tyre. Verstappen was now suffering the exact same slow warm-up and was vulnerable.

Ricciardo staked all on a late dummy move into Turn 1, Verstappen made a second change of direction in defence, the crash ensued.

Both drivers were hauled over the coals by Christian Horner, who later commented that the rollicking seemed like ‘water off a duck’s back’ to Verstappen.

Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull F1 Azerbaijan GP

But it wasn’t for Ricciardo. He didn’t enjoy being treated “like a naughty kid for something I don’t think I was at fault for”, as he later phrased it. Nor did he enjoy the ‘naughty step’ treatment they were both given in having to turn up at the factory and apologise to each department.

Was that a factor in his deciding to leave, I asked him. “There were other things. But yeah, it was definitely a factor,” he answered.

Throwing off the shackles

Daniel Ricciardo Renault F1

That belittling experience for a 30-year-old perhaps caused him to re-evaluate a few things. His personal and business life was coming into full flower and as he matured, perhaps being treated that way had made a bigger impact on him than it otherwise might.

He had been on the Red Bull scheme for 11 years, from age 19. It had been the making of a brilliant life and career, but perhaps wider horizons removed some of that early focus.

The idea of a big-bucks move to a manufacturer team he could help evolve into a top team, with him the focus of attention, was a dream as it turned out.

But at 35,000 feet in the Californian sky as he made that decision, it felt real.

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