Daniel Ricciardo’s return to Red Bull as a third driver, including the prospect of him testing a car, leads to one inevitable question: could he race for the team in Formula 1 again?
Since the Ricciardo return was prematurely confirmed by Helmut Marko during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, the elephant in the room has been whether he has a chance of replacing Sergio Perez. Not necessarily immediately, but in the next couple of years.
Ostensibly there is no availability at Red Bull before 2025. Replacing Verstappen is a no-go – not just because he’s the double world champion and this is his team, he also has a contract until the end of 2028 – and Perez signed a contract extension to the end of 2024 earlier this year.
The only route to Ricciardo racing for Red Bull would be for either driver to leave, whether they jump or are pushed. And Red Bull’s been quick to play down that prospect.
Team boss Christian Horner has stressed how specific Ricciardo’s deal is, the fact Perez has a deal for the next two seasons, and said there is “no reason” to expect the Perez/Max Verstappen not to remain strong for the duration of their contractual commitments.
But Ricciardo has been adamant he would only target 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 springboard to join another team or he believes there is an outside chance of a race seat.
And while Horner tried to rule Ricciardo out of a future race seat, Ricciardo himself didn’t.
“To be 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 seat I’m taking,” said Ricciardo.
“Obviously, if something opens up then I think just still being affiliated to a team and trying to get some work done, some testing perhaps just to keep me sharp, would be good.
“There could be a wider conversation as well, perhaps with other teams.
“But, that’s a few layers removed for now.”
On Red Bull’s side, it will 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 the negotiations with Ricciardo started, Red Bull may well have had zero intention or reason to consider him an alternative to Perez, even though Perez’s own form wasn’t great when Ricciardo’s McLaren exit was confirmed.
Since then, though, things have changed. Red Bull went into the final race weekend off the back of a controversy in Brazil, where Verstappen refused a team order to help Perez because of an incident that occurred earlier in the year.
Internal tensions have recently surfaced over Perez allegedly crashing deliberately during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, which helped him beat Verstappen that weekend, leading to a team orders row months later.
Verstappen says that things are all square there now, but there was needle behind the scenes at Red Bull between Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
Inevitably, one theory emerged in the F1 paddock that Ricciardo has either already been targeted as a more harmonious option to soothe the Verstappen camp, or that Red Bull could use the hypothetical threat of turning to Ricciardo as a weapon to keep Perez in line.
Perez had a mixed final weekend of the season. His qualifying performance was of a standard that Red Bull can have no objections to – a couple of tenths off Verstappen and ahead of Ferrari.
Then he had a slightly scrappy grand prix with a couple of mistakes that, combined an inferior strategy born from Perez not being able to eke out his tyres like Verstappen could, lost Perez second in the race and the championship, both to Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
On balance, Red Bull would have little reason to replace Perez. He has won three races for the team since joining in 2021, slotted into an environment that gets the best out of Verstappen, and played an important role in Red Bull’s first constructors’ championship success since 2013.
But if there is any hint of a disturbed peace internally then his performance level alone will not be enough to save him. Not in Verstappen’s team, given Perez is playing second fiddle.
Even if Perez’s position is in any way vulnerable, there is no guarantee Ricciardo would be favourite to replace him.
But bringing Ricciardo back into the fold, getting him on the simulator and putting him in a car in testing will let Red Bull properly evaluate a driver that Horner has repeatedly suggested has just suffered a temporary loss of form in a specific set of circumstances at McLaren.
If Ricciardo decides a full F1 comeback is his priority for 2024, we know he will prefer a top team. Inevitably, the first one he targets will be the one he will already be a part of.
Wherever Red Bull is really at with the idea of Ricciardo as a long-term driver prospect, re-signing him is going to 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-track and off it that he still is the best option.
Keyword: What Ricciardo return really means for Red Bull driver line-up