Daniel Ricciardo is back in a proper Red Bull Formula 1 car on Tuesday and his long-term aim is to make it a permanent return.
Show car runs in old Red Bulls and seat fits at grands prix he’s acting as reserve driver are nowhere near as significant as Ricciardo’s finally getting his hands on the 2023 RB19 in a tyre test at Silverstone.
Almost done, Silverstone 🍯🦡
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) July 11, 2023
It’s something Ricciardo and Red Bull are taking seriously. It could be a key step to getting back on the F1 grid, regardless of whether a Red Bull Racing seat might become available to him.
Ricciardo’s back in the Red Bull fold this year on an enforced sabbatical from racing, after leaving his McLaren deal early and finding that none of the available seats interested him.
As Red Bull’s third driver, his on-track work is limited. He’s mainly got a lot of commercial commitments and is driving on the simulator, while acting as a reserve driver at a few grands prix.
But this time off has rejuvenated Ricciardo, who is desperate to get back on the grid. And what he really wants is a top car again. Ideally that would be Red Bull, and Ricciardo has even said that publicly.
But Max Verstappen’s place is fixed indefinitely, given he is the team’s star asset, and Sergio Perez is under contract next year.
“It’s not something that we’re planning, that’s for certain,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said of Ricciardo’s race seat prospects.
“It was right to give him the opportunity this year to remain within the team and keep him around the sport. I think it would have been a loss to the sport for him just to disappear.
“I didn’t recognise the Daniel of the last couple of years so I’ll be very interested to see what kind of job he does on Tuesday.”
There’s another, long-winded, long-shot route Ricciardo could take back to a Red Bull Racing drive though. And it would at least mean getting back on the F1 grid sooner.
Nyck de Vries’s AlphaTauri seat looks like it might well become available before much longer. And Ricciardo needs to do all he can to get that AlphaTauri drive, because it’s his best chance of emphatically proving himself to Red Bull.
Going back to where it all began – full-time, at least – and letting his career come full circle might seem an unappealing move on paper but it would be a means to an end. Ricciardo has even admitted he would be willing to do it if there’s at least a chance it could lead to a proper Red Bull drive.
It’s the right mentality. Ultimately Ricciardo has to be in an F1 car to impress, whether that’s Red Bull, or someone else.
If Red Bull decides to drop De Vries mid-season shortly, Ricciardo might not be in line to replace him. He’s got a lot of commitments to complete this year whereas Red Bull junior Liam Lawson, who is impressing in his Super Formula title-challenging season, is easier to pull out and dump into F1. Especially as Red Bull would like to evaluate him properly too.
So, there’s a good chance Ricciardo’s really looking ahead to 2024 and beyond. He has only the slimmest of chances that would be with Red Bull Racing for it would require Perez’s form to drop off a cliff completely on Sundays, not just Saturdays, or for there to be a cataclysmic breakdown in the Verstappen-Perez dynamic. And even then, Ricciardo might not be the #1 pick.
But it’s different for AlphaTauri. If Red Bull wants the most qualified driver for the sister team then Ricciardo is the right pick on paper. What Ricciardo must still prove, starting with this tyre test, is that he is not a lost cause post-McLaren.
The public messaging from Red Bull is that Ricciardo is doing what he needs to. He’d been so badly damaged by two years trying to crack the weird way McLaren F1 cars need to be driven that when he first tried Red Bull’s simulator when he rejoined for 2023, the team admitted to not even recognising Ricciardo as the driver it once employed.
But Horner has been full of praise for Ricciardo’s efforts on the simulator ahead of his first on-track test in the team’s RB19 at Silverstone, calling him “extremely competitive” and saying there is a “spring coming back in his step”.
And now there’s a Pirelli tyre test to evaluate whether that translates into reality. It’s not something Red Bull’s in much control of. But it will be able to evaluate Ricciardo’s pace, his physical and mental state, and benefit from his feedback.
“It’s an important test for Pirelli but it’s also going to be great to see him back in a Red Bull car and seeing where he’s at, both on pace and mentally, physically and to get his feedback on this car as well,” said Horner.
“It’s a good opportunity for him to get back behind the wheel of a car that’s just won the British Grand Prix.”
Even though Horner is interested to see how Ricciardo performs, he’s adamant that right now a Red Bull return isn’t being planned for.
But Ricciardo does at least have half a chance at an F1 return in the short-term because of one underperforming driver in the Red Bull stable. And if another one keeps disappointing there could eventually be an even bigger opportunity.
The road to either outcome reaches a significant waypoint with this test.