Daniel Ricciardo heads into 2024 re-established on the Formula 1 grid with the firm target of trying to oust Sergio Perez from his Red Bull seat in 12 months' time.
This represents quite the turnaround for a driver who 12 months ago wasn't sure if his Formula 1 career was over.
It says so much that Ricciardo feels “reborn” after a bit-part campaign that was nothing like the 2023 he had in store as Red Bull’s ‘third driver’ - a role that risked turning Ricciardo into a glorified marketing show pony with simulator and occasional testing privileges thrown in.
When his ill-fated McLaren stint came to a premature conclusion at the end of 2022, Ricciardo had no interest in returning to F1's midfield and did not want to be anywhere near an uncompetitive car.
Yet when the time came he jumped at the chance to return to Red Bull’s junior team – sorry, Red Bull Racing’s sister team – despite being parachuted in when AlphaTauri was last in the championship.
Then he broke his hand after just two races, and missed the next five.
And after all that he looks back on 2023 “as a positive”. For a simple reason: “Because, sitting here a year ago, I was like, could this be my last race?”
Reflecting on his comeback at the end of the season, Ricciardo continued: “I don't exaggerate when I say that. I really didn't know. I honestly thought it was 50/50.
“So, to have the year I've had and - forget the hand - I just feel a little bit…maybe reborn again, is the right word. I feel just re-energised. And I've definitely got a second wind.”
BUT HOW GOOD IS RICCIARDO NOW REALLY?
To then talk about the hand, Ricciardo reckons it “speaks volumes” that his injury – sustained in a clumsy and by his own admission “lame” accident in second practice at Zandvoort, the first race after the summer break – does not feel like a setback.
“I could see how maybe some people would see that lame accident with high consequences like ‘yeah, maybe Daniel should just give it up - that's probably just a sign that he should just call it a day’,” Ricciardo said.
“But I never thought that, I never felt like that. That was maybe even more power to the decision of trying to kick some butt.”
It’s fair to suggest, though, that Ricciardo didn’t really do that. He did in Mexico, where he qualified a stunning fourth and scored a healthy points finish – his only one of the season – in seventh. But the rest of his race weekends were largely a tale of unfulfilled potential and, in general, he was shaded by Yuki Tsunoda.
After a quietly encouraging maiden weekend in Hungary, where he drove the car for the first time, Ricciardo struggled to piece his weekends together.
Mexico turned out to be the exception even though the speed in the car was there at other races, as evidenced by Tsunoda’s end of season results.
Edd Straw’s driver rankings for the events Ricciardo competed tell the tale quite nicely: he ranked Ricciardo sixth in Hungary, 17th in Belgium, 16th in the US, fourth in Mexico, 15th in Brazil, 16th in Las Vegas and 15th in Abu Dhabi.
Consider also that Tsunoda outscored Ricciardo 15-6 in the events they shared together, had a slightly better average grid position (12.57 vs 13.57) and a slightly better finishing position (11.57 vs 12.86).
It paints a tale of relative mediocrity, barring the obvious peaks. And it was Tsunoda, not Ricciardo, who looked more like hauling AlphaTauri one more place up the championship table right at the very end of the year.
RICCIARDO'S VIEW ON HIS F1 COMEBACK
But when asked if he has got what he wanted from his return, disrupted though it was, Ricciardo was unequivocal.
“Yeah, and look, if I didn't race it all this year, if I had a whole 12 months off, I think that would have been no problem as well,” he said.
“Because the power of time off for me was just really, really beneficial. It gave me so much. And fortunately, I did find enough in those six months.
“If you'd have asked me in January, ‘OK, you're going to jump in an AlphaTauri in Budapest, how do you feel?’ - I would say well, probably not, I'm not ready, I need more time.
“It just wouldn't have made that much sense to me. But then, by that point, just made a lot more sense.
“Then driving the car it was like alright, this feels fun again, and even though I qualified 14th or something, I was still just having fun.
“That was really important for me. Just having a bit of perspective with the time off, my enjoyment in the sport should not be results based.
"I'll know what's a good lap or what's a good race, and that will help me sleep at night, but it doesn't just need to be winning every time.
“That's where I came to the place where I was totally happy and comfortable at that time driving for the 10th place team on the grid.
“Last year when I said I don't want to jump back into a car if it's fighting at the back, it didn't make sense for me. But it slowly started to make more and more sense.”
A VITAL SHIFT IN RICCIARDO'S MENTALITY
Facing the reality of his career suddenly being on the rocks, thanks to a McLaren move Ricciardo was convinced would take him closer to the front of the grid rather than potentially off it entirely, has clearly left Ricciardo with a different mindset.
But it is one he had been transitioning towards for a while, having talked repeatedly through his Renault and McLaren stints about how he had adjusted to his new, upper-midfield surroundings having sniped for the occasion win through his entire Red Bull stint.
There is, Ricciardo says, an appreciation for the second chance he has been given. But he draws the line at that being taken as “he’s just happy to be here and if he’s smiling then he’s doing good”.
“It’s like getting a good effort sticker when you come eighth in the running race at school out of eight kids,” he joked.
“It's not about that. It’s not at all a mentality of just being complacent and content.
“There is an element of me happy to be back, and I take that from a place of gratitude, and a place of ‘I really just want to appreciate all of this’. Because last year, through some lows, you just don't enjoy it as much as you should.
“I'm coming from a place of gratitude. But I'm also coming from a place where I'm going all in. And I will expect results out of myself. And I will expect me to do things like I did in Mexico and turn some heads and have people saying, ‘Oh, he's still got it’.”
There is a competitive fire within Ricciardo, one that he was hoping the time off would ignite further rather than extinguish.
It was possible, though unlikely, that Ricciardo would spend the first few months of 2023 realising there is more to life than F1.
Instead he realised that if his F1 career is going to end, and he does not have what it takes as a driver anymore, then he needed to be dead sure of that.
Limping out after the bruising two-year McLaren stint was not an option.
“That's why I want to approach it like I'm going all in with preparation and everything off track,” he said.
“So that OK, if I don't pull it off, if this doesn't happen, I can say ‘all right, well, I tried’.
“It sounds very nonchalant. But I really just…if I can walk away and be like, ‘OK, I gave it a crack, I really thought I could do it, unfortunately it turns out that I can't’ - so be it, life goes on.
“That's really the approach. I don't believe that'll be my answer. But it'll be OK if it is. I can take it.”
PUSHING RED BULL FOR IMPORTANT ANSWERS
At this point it is worth considering that Ricciardo really worked hard to get back on the grid. It is not as simple as signing the Red Bull deal let him waltz into Nyck de Vries’ AlphaTauri seat.
Ricciardo was itching to get on the simulator to answer questions he had about himself as much as anything, and then pushed for more simulator time to learn more and improve.
He admits he “wanted to get some answers, just for my own peace of mind”, which is what made him willing to take the punt of the unusual (for a driver of his pedigree and experience) Red Bull role for 2023 in the first place.
“Even if it's a simulator, I just wanted to see if I can still do it,” he said. “And if the car feels the way I want it to feel.
“I was curious, because as much as the McLaren I felt didn't suit me, I felt like it was certainly compounded over time with just my confidence dropping and getting kind of lower and lower, after obviously taking quite a few punches in the gut. There were a lot of things I wanted to answer.
“I was really enjoying the sim, I was really enjoying working with [his old Red Bull race engineer] Simon Rennie again.
“Even if I wasn't speaking directly to Christian [Horner, Red Bull team boss] after every session, I'm sure the feedback he was getting was ‘Daniel's taking this seriously, Daniel's got that smile on his face, he’s going fast again’.”
SIGNS OF LIFE BUT A CRUCIAL 2024 SEASON AWAITS
Ricciardo was clearly not ready to give up on F1, and while he needs to do more to suggest the driver who wowed with Red Bull Racing and Renault can return on a consistent basis, there was enough in his 2023 to show he still has something to offer. Which is good for F1.
Mexico showed what an on-form Ricciardo can do on-track. And off it, in general, he was a revitalised character, subtly but significantly different to the driver who was having to lift himself so often in the previous year.
Ricciardo never threw his toys out of the pram with McLaren, but slapping on a trademark smile and conducting himself with grace in difficult circumstances took a toll. By the end of 2023 that was not the case at all.
“I feel like I'm not carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders,” he said. “And it's kind of nice.”
Given Ricciardo’s situation one year ago, he can be permitted a glass-half-full review of his year – even if a more conclusive answer about his comeback, and his future, awaits in 2024.