The beleaguered Australian Formula 1 star’s return to his former team – in a support role instead of as a full-time driver – has left many motorsports fans scratching their heads. Why has ‘The Honey Badger’ gone for this Red Bull deal?
After McLaren ended Ricciardo’s contract early in order to get fellow Aussie Oscar Piastri on board for 2023, many fans assumed that Danny Ric would try and secure a full-time race seat at a midfield or backmarker team, or just take 2023 off entirely. Instead, he’s not really doing either of those things.
Initially, we here at DMARGE speculated that Ricciardo might try and go back to his former team Alpine, but it quickly became clear that the French outfit never seriously considered him as an option, and instead decided to chase Pierre Gasly.
Ricciardo going to Red Bull’s junior team AlphaTauri never seemed that plausible, but he could have thrown his lot in with either Williams or Haas – and indeed, Ricciardo reportedly toyed with the idea of joining the latter, only for the American team to opt for Nico Hülkenberg to fill Mick Schumacher’s seat instead.
The point is this: if Ricciardo really wanted to, he could have had a full-time drive for 2023. He could have also just taken a year off. So why pen this ‘halfway house’ deal with Red Bull?
WATCH Daniel Ricciardo discuss his return to Red Bull below.
Well, Ricciardo’s Red Bull deal isn’t your usual reserve driver arrangement. The young Kiwi Liam Lawson, who has raced in Formula 2 for the past two seasons, will still be the main reserve driver for Red Bull and AlphaTauri next year. While he’ll still be on hand if they need him, part of Ricciardo’s deal is that he doesn’t have to turn up to every race next year.
Instead, he’ll mostly be doing off-track marketing work and putting in some sim time, with an eye to rejoin the grid full-time in 2024.
“I won’t be at 24 races – otherwise I may as well still be on the grid. I made it clear that I needed time off,” Ricciardo told the press in Abu Dhabi last weekend.
“It has beaten me down, the past couple of years, which is why I want a little bit of time removed. I want to find a part of myself again and rebuild a little bit. When it doesn’t work you can so easily just be angry, bitter, have negative emotions to something you love.”Daniel Ricciardo
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Red Bull clearly recognises that Ricciardo is exceptionally valuable as a marketing tool. He remains one of the most popular and best-loved personalities in F1 and has always shown a willingness to get involved in off-track marketing shenanigans.
In comparison, Max Verstappen has never been particularly keen to engage with marketing or the media, and Sergio Pérez isn’t the same sort of natural, charismatic star that Ricciardo is. So if Ricciardo can pick up the slack marketing-wise and let the drivers, well, drive – that’s an ideal situation for Red Bull.
What Ricciardo needs to do is make the most of his ‘F1 gap year’ – restore his mental health, get refocused, and put in a lot of time in the sim. .. And if he does get called to race next year, he really needs to impress Red Bull (and the rest of the grid). Being back at a top team and being exposed to how they operate will also no doubt be very beneficial to Ricciardo.
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What about 2024?
While on paper, Ricciardo probably doesn’t have much of a chance at getting a seat at a top team, things could change by the end of 2023.
Verstappen is Red Bull’s golden child and has a mammoth contract until 2028, so it’s unlikely that the talented Dutchman won’t be going anywhere soon. But things could change with Pérez. The Mexican is contracted until 2024, but recent tensions at the team regarding team orders have seriously sown discord between the previously fairly rock-solid driver pairing.
If Pérez ends up leaving Red Bull early (or is forced out by Verstappen’s camp), Ricciardo could be poised to take his seat. While he’d no doubt once again end us as the second driver to Verstappen, that’s better than having no seat at all. Verstappen and Ricciardo were always fairly close, too, so it could be a more natural driver pairing.
Another opportunity could arise at Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton’s contract expires at the end of 2023, and while the seven-time World Champion has previously downplayed any talk of him retiring from F1, 2023 might change his mind.
2022 was the first season Hamilton contested where he didn’t win a race. In contrast, George Russell’s star continues to rise, and he’s almost cemented himself as Mercedes’ first driver. If Hamilton has another challenging year in Russell’s shadow, that could be enough for him to call time on F1 – opening the door once again to Ricciardo.
Mercedes’ junior ranks are looking a bit thin at the moment, and Ricciardo was in talks with Toto Wolff to join the team as a reserve driver before he bit the bullet on Red Bull. Again, he’d probably be second fiddle to Russell, but still… It’d be a chance to win races again, potentially.
Of course, this is all wild speculation. Ricciardo could end up cooling his heels with Red Bull for a while yet – and seeing how crazy the 2022 silly season was, we’re totally prepared to see more bonkers stuff happen next year. Fingers crossed though.