Daniel Ricciardo’s last Formula 1 team-mate comprehensively bested him. Before then, Ricciardo was accustomed to being the top dog, or at least holding his own.
Ricciardo toppled four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull. He held his own against a young Max Verstappen, even if the trend was only heading in one direction. He asserted himself over Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon at Renault.
Until Ricciardo joined McLaren, he was very obviously not just a good grand prix driver even if he was not universally viewed as someone who belonged in the absolute top-tier bracket. Then Lando Norris and the specific challenges of driving for McLaren made Ricciardo look ordinary at best.
Now Ricciardo’s making an unexpected mid-season return to the F1 grid at AlphaTauri, he has another new team-mate to measure up against. But this partnership might mean more for Yuki Tsunoda than it does Ricciardo.
Tsunoda’s form against his F1 team-mates has gone in the opposite direction to Ricciardo’s, although the sample size is much smaller.
Two seasons alongside Pierre Gasly went largely against the inexperienced young Honda protege until Tsunoda started to turn the tide late last year. This season, with Gasly gone and replaced by a full-time F1 rookie in Nyck de Vries, Tsunoda cemented his place as AlphaTauri’s lead driver and showed that same strong late-2022 form on a consistent basis.
But now De Vries is gone, axed after 10 races because Red Bull thinks he did not do a good enough job. And that, rightly or wrongly, risks casting Tsunoda’s own season in a different light.
If Red Bull felt that De Vries was just a rookie being beaten by a more experienced driver doing an exceptional job, he would surely have been afforded more time to match up to that benchmark. Was Tsunoda actually so impressive? Or was De Vries just failing?
It’s a bit of both. De Vries has not performed as well as he could have. But Tsunoda has upped his game. Firing De Vries and hiring Ricciardo does not have to mean Red Bull doubts just how good a job Tsunoda has done. But it could be an effective way to test his progression.
Against De Vries, Tsunoda was always going to have to be the emphatically superior driver to emerge with any sort of positive outcome of being his team-mate. Otherwise, it felt like a no-win situation. De Vries wasn’t particularly highly-rated and he was a rookie, up against a third-year Tsunoda.
Ricciardo coming in means a different, known benchmark for Tsunoda. It’s extremely unlikely that Ricciardo will get nowhere near him but it’s hardly impossible that Tsunoda will beat him over the balance of what remains of the season. And that could seriously enhance his reputation in a way that any kind of victory over De Vries never would.
Likely some will dismiss a Tsunoda team-mate victory, if it happens, as further evidence Ricciardo isn’t the driver he once was. But the right people, the relevant people, will know that beating Ricciardo is a more serious display of Tsunoda’s progress and performance levels than beating his predecessor.
Lose to Ricciardo, though, and Tsunoda will lose the credit he’s been building since late last year. Doubts about his ultimate potential and ability will return. Any chance of progressing within the Red Bull programme will stall and Honda and its 2026 partner Aston Martin might think twice about where Tsunoda could fit into the long-term picture too.
A motivated and firing Ricciardo is an excellent benchmark for Tsunoda on track and off track and, if Ricciardo is at his best, he will be difficult to beat. But if Tsunoda manages to do that it will mean that much more.
De Vries didn’t afford the kind of test that could progress Tsunoda’s career. So there is at least a bigger upside to the challenge of squaring up against Ricciardo.
He could take Tsunoda down. But he could also help prove Tsunoda’s progress is real.