Daniel Ricciardo’s return to Red Bull as a third driver, including the prospect of testing a car, leads to an unavoidable question: could he race for the team again in Formula 1?
Since Ricciardo’s return was prematurely confirmed by Helmut Marko over the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, the elephant in the room has been whether he has a chance to replace Sergio Perez. Not necessarily immediately, but over the next couple of years.
There is apparently no availability at Red Bull before 2025. Replacing Verstappen is impossible – not only because he is the double world champion and this is his team, he also has a contract until the end of 2028 – and Perez has signed a contract extension to the end of 2024 early this year.
The only course for Ricciardo racing for Red Bull would be for both drivers to walk away, be jumped or pushed. And Red Bull was quick to downplay this prospect.
Team boss Christian Horner stressed how specific Ricciardo’s deal is, the fact that Perez has a deal for the next two seasons, and said there’s “no reason” to expect Perez/Max Verstappen not to stay. strong for the duration of their contractual commitments.
But Ricciardo was adamant he was only targeting a move that would give him the best chance of a comeback in 2024.
So either he intends to use a year at Red Bull as a stepping stone to join another team or he believes there is an outside chance of a place in the race.
And while Horner tried to shut Ricciardo out of a future racing seat, Ricciardo himself didn’t.
“Being with a top team like Red Bull would be nice, but it’s not a guarantee that just because I’m there, that’s the place I’ll take,” said Ricciardo.
“Obviously, if something opens up, I think still being affiliated with a team and trying to get some work done, some testing maybe just to keep myself sharp, would be good.
“There could also be a broader conversation, perhaps with other teams.
“But for now, some layers have been removed.”
For Red Bull’s part, he’ll want to get more out of Ricciardo’s return than just some good PR. And even if the team doesn’t admit it publicly, it’s in Red Bull’s interest to entertain the idea of Ricciardo as a legitimate option.
When negotiations with Ricciardo began, Red Bull may not have had any intention or reason to consider him as an alternative to Perez, although Perez’s form was not great when Ricciardo’s departure from McLaren was confirmed.
Since then, however, things have changed. Red Bull entered the final race weekend on the heels of a controversy in Brazil, where Verstappen refused a team order to help Perez following a crash earlier in the year.
Internal tensions have recently surfaced over Perez’s alleged deliberate crash during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, which helped him beat Verstappen that weekend, leading to a row over team orders months later.
Verstappen says things are fine there now, but there was the backroom needle at Red Bull between Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
Inevitably, a theory has emerged in the F1 paddock that Ricciardo is already being targeted as a more harmonious option to calm Verstappen’s camp, or that Red Bull could use the hypothetical threat to target Ricciardo as a weapon to hold Perez row.
Perez had a mixed final weekend of the season. His qualifying performance was of a standard Red Bull can have no objection to: a couple of tenths behind Verstappen and ahead of Ferrari.
Then he contested a somewhat fragmented Grand Prix with a couple of mistakes which, combined with an inferior strategy born of Perez who couldn’t get the tires out like Verstappen could, made Perez lose second in the race and in the championship, both against Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
On balance, Red Bull would have little reason to replace Perez. He has won three races for the squad since joining the team in 2021, has slotted into an environment that gets the best out of Verstappen and played a big part in Red Bull’s first constructors’ championship success since 2013.
But if there is a hint of disturbed peace internally, then his level of performance alone won’t be enough to save him. Not in Verstappen’s team, given that Perez is second violin.
Even if Perez’s position is somewhat vulnerable, there is no guarantee that Ricciardo would be the favorite to replace him.
But bringing Ricciardo back into the fold, taking him to the simulator and putting him in a car for testing will allow Red Bull to properly assess a driver who Horner has repeatedly suggested has suffered a temporary loss of form under a specific set of circumstances at McLaren. .
If Ricciardo decides that a complete comeback in F1 is his priority for 2024, we know he will prefer a top team. Inevitably, the first one he targets will be the one he’s already a part of.
Wherever Red Bull really is with the idea of Ricciardo as a potential long-term driver, re-signing him will make him a key part of the driver line-up narrative in 2023.
The best thing Perez can do in response is make a cast iron case on and off the track which is still the best option.