Daniel Ricciardo’s willingness to jump into an AlphaTauri mid-season in place of Nyck de Vries speaks volumes for the revitalising effect of the past seven months. He nonetheless faces a big challenge, but contrary to what you might expect that’s not because the car is uncompetitive.
Obviously, drivers are always happier when in a quick car but if his priority is to prove the ‘old’ swashbuckling, race-winning Ricciardo is in there, it will do the job. A driver’s level of operation can be measured within the context of the machinery and sticking a Formula 1 car into Q2 that should be 18th is as good as taking a pole position from that perspective.
But there is a related concern, specifically the fact that sometimes uncompetitive cars have significant vices. Based on recent form, the Alfa Romeo is very similar pace-wise to the AlphaTauri, but despite that the drivers have been positive about its balance. Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu have generally characterised it as nice enough to drive, just a bit slow.
The AlphaTauri is not described that way. Since the start of 2023, its weakness has been rear-end instability in the late-entry phase for slower corners. That then transitions to understeer in the middle of the corner. Some progress has been made to ameliorate that and one of the specific targets of the major Silverstone upgrade was tackling that, but although the numbers were broadly in line with expectations neither Yuki Tsunoda nor De Vries were jumping for joy at the transformation.
Ricciardo’s struggles at McLaren were rooted in successive cars that offered what he once characterised as “peculiar” characteristics.
He worked incredibly hard to reprogramme his driving style, honed to perfection through his years with Toro Rosso and Red Bull and that proved effective with Renault after a few tweaks, but got completely lost at Mclaren. He simply couldn’t adapt to it. When he first jumped into the Red Bull F1 simulator, the damage done by that experience was very obvious before, gradually, the driver Red Bull once knew started to re-emerge.
There were differences between the limitations of the 2021 and 2022 McLarens, but one of the problems he faced was the under-rotation of the car thanks to its problematic corner-entry characteristics. That was sometimes down to not being able to attack the corner aggressively enough and sometimes because understeer had been dialled in to calm the rear. But the broad effect would be the same. Effectively, the corner would be a little longer than it was for Lando Norris and Ricciardo would be more traction-limited for longer. The result was lost laptime in a car that, last year, Norris described as being on a “knife-edge”.
The corner-entry phase is key to getting the best out of any F1 car. It’s where the ‘limit behaviour’ is most exposed because you are asking so much of it, particularly a complex piece of machinery like a grand prix car. And the way the AlphaTauri behaves is hardly confidence-inspiring. At times last season, when the AT03 had a similar problem, Pierre Gasly found it contained his pace significantly.
It’s impossible to know how Ricciardo will respond to it, and it’s very possible that if he can get the car to his liking for the initial turn-in phase perhaps that instability in the late-entry phase could be dealt with. If so, he’ll be able to drive with confidence and might resemble the driver we’ve not seen on track on a grand prix weekend since 2020.
That would be the best outcome for Ricciardo, those watching who enjoy witnessing drivers at their best, and F1 as a whole. The worst outcome would be struggling in another car that doesn’t allow him to drive in the way that comes so naturally to him. Those are the two extremes of the possible spread of outcomes and there’s a whole bell-curve between them in terms of how well or badly it might go. That’s what will make it so fascinating to watch.
Ricciardo will go into this with his eyes open and not expect miracles, but he will be setting high standards for himself. If and when he ever got into an F1 car again, the priority was always going to be to banish the ghosts of McLaren and prove to himself and the outside world that he’s still got it.
He will back himself to do well and as a driver with prodigious ability despite those two terrible McLaren seasons there’s every chance he will. But Ricciardo might just have ended up in the most difficult car on the grid in which to revitalise a career that could still have so much to offer.