Red Bull’s Formula 1 driver strategy is a bizarre blend of glorious success and chaotic failure. It has consistently employed one of the best drivers in grand prix racing as the spearhead of Red Bull Racing – first Sebastian Vettel, then Daniel Ricciardo, then Max Verstappen – so judged by that, it has been a roaring success. But the second seat has proved more troublesome in recent years, while at AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso there have been times when chaos has reigned.
Daniel Ricciardo’s return to AlphaTauri, a team he raced for in its Toro Rosso guise in 2012-13, is the latest chapter in the strange story of Red Bull’s junior team. It’s a microcosm of the troubles of the Red Bull driver program, one that was triggered by Pierre Gasly being allowed to move to Alpine and Colton Herta’s superlicence troubles. The former was an unforeseeable event given it was part of the fallout from Fernando Alonso’s seismic decision to join Aston Martin, closely followed by the realization that Alpine had failed to sign its junior prospect, Oscar Piastri, to a proper contract. But while letting Gasly go a year early was the right decision given the opportunity he had and the payback Red Bull received, what happened next was illogical.
With a scheme of Red Bull’s size, there should have been a next-cab-off-the-rank to slot in. Instead, Helmut Marko recruited Nyck de Vries (main image), seemingly largely off the back of a single extraordinary performance for Williams at Monza in 2022. Revisionist history has it that this drive was nothing special, but in the circumstances it was. However, Marko over-extrapolated and moved to sign de Vries, seemingly disregarding what had been learned about his strengths and weaknesses during his years in single-seaters.
This has been Marko’s approach to talent-spotting and generally it has worked well. But it has become anachronistic at a time when the majority of F1 teams now have some kind of junior program. Such drivers are now recruited younger, increasingly from the karting ranks rather than from entry-level single-seaters, and the monitoring of prospects is becoming increasingly rigorous and scientific. That perhaps explains why Red Bull’s junior scheme has had so many good drivers recently, but has missed out on the truly great prospects in such a competitive market. You can’t just judge a driver based on their good days.
Of the drivers who have emerged as superstars in recent years, only Max Verstappen has come through with Red Bull support. And even then, he was only picked up after winning a bidding war with rivals Mercedes and Ferrari when Verstappen was already in F3. That showed the value of its second team as Red Bull could offer Verstappen a graduation to F1 in 2015, something its rivals couldn’t afford to risk with only one team.
But Charles Leclerc (Ferrari), George Russell (Mercedes), Esteban Ocon (Mercedes) and Piastri (Alpine/McLaren) have since made a big impact with support outside of Red Bull. Even Alex Albon, who got his F1 shot through Red Bull, was dropped and has done his best work after being salvaged from the scrapheap by Williams. The evidence indicates that Red Bull is missing out.
The decision to get rid of De Vries is an odd one. His performance level hasn’t been good enough to ensure he was undroppable, but it certainly hasn’t been bad enough to make it necessary to oust him. The real mistake was the decision to sign him in the first place, as the willingness to dispense with him shows it wasn’t based on any real confidence in his ability, but just a knee-jerk reaction to the need for a driver and what happened at Monza. It is just one more baffling move in a puzzling junior driver scheme.
Which brings us to Ricciardo. You can argue that this switch is more driven by the need to get Ricciardo into an F1 car to evaluate, with De Vries as collateral damage. You can also add to that the commercial value of one of F1’s biggest names whose return has added spice to the season. Were Bernie Ecclestone still involved, persuading Red Bull to get Ricciardo back on the grid is exactly the kind of thing he’d have done.
The 33-year-old is an unusual choice for an operation that was, initially at least, focused on developing the best of Red Bull’s young drivers. For all the rhetoric in recent years of it becoming more of a ‘sister’ team, it has always been and will always be the poor relation, and being an incubator for future Red Bull drivers remains part of the brief. But given Max Verstappen is signed up to the end of 2028, there is the possibility Ricciardo could have a value as his number two. Ironically, this was a role Ricciardo wasn’t keen on and which played a part in his decision to turn down a new deal and move to Renault in 2019.
So Ricciardo is a special case, and one who perhaps does justify being thrown in mid-season. Yes, it’s unfortunate for De Vries but he always seemed destined to be only a one (full) season wonder, so you can argue that with that decision already made, there’s no downside to making the move early. As Red Bull will see Ricciardo as a potential possible Verstappen teammate, even if he’s the wrong age profile to be a long-term successor, it’s actually a decision in the spirit of the team.
That brings us to Sergio Perez. He has a solid contract for 2024 and it’s probable he will be there next year. However, with every failure to reach Q3 (now six out of 10 in the main qualifying sessions this year) a little extra uncertainty is injected into the situation. Yes, he recovers well usually, but he should do. At times his race pace has been good, at others questionable, but the fact is that qualifying is ‘lap zero’ of the race and he’s compromising the race result with his poor grid positions. Managing just one podium finish in the last five races in the fastest car is a desperate level of underachievement. There’s a feeling within Red Bull that this is partly the consequence of becoming too focused on Verstappen and Perez’s now-extinguished hopes of a title challenge, meaning there is a desire to see him reset and get back to doing the job.
Right now, Perez’s underperformance doesn’t really matter. Verstappen has scored enough points single-handedly to put Red Bull in the lead of the constructors’ championship and both world titles will be sealed. The question Red Bull will be asking is what if the competition gets closer next year? Then, the number two driver can be the swing vote.
If two teams are evenly matched, the second driver is there both to help the constructors’ championship chase – ideally by outscoring the number two of the rival team – but also to assist the lead driver’s individual campaign by taking points off whoever the rival is. Based on current form, Perez would have done that effectively in the early stages of the season, but terribly recently. In 2021, he and Valtteri Bottas had little impact on the fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, although Perez did make some useful interventions – notably costing Hamilton time in Turkey and Abu Dhabi. But he would need to do more than that were the situation repeated.
That’s the possibility that Ricciardo offers. While five years ago he wasn’t willing to be Verstappen’s backup – a status that ultimately was defined by the fact Verstappen had a small but significant edge on him – now he might well be. He’s endured four seasons largely in the wilderness and spent the past half-year staring down the barrel of career oblivion, so his perspectives will have shifted. The idea of a few years as Verstappen’s wingman, probably picking up a handful of grand prix wins, will appeal.
But there will also be the other tantalizing possibility for Ricciardo that if he can force his way into Red Bull, he should finally get the chance to drive a championship-challenging car. Granted, he’ll be up against an all-time great in Verstappen, but it would at least give him a shot. That’s the one opportunity missing from his mostly-glittering F1 career, and you can be absolutely certain it’s in his mind. That might seem harsh on Perez, but elite sport is a brutal world and Ricciardo has been on both sides of that equation. Performance is everything.
Before he has any chance of playing out this idealized future – and it’s important to note that getting into Red Bull remains an outside chance, given Perez can stabilize the situation by delivering at the level he’s perfectly capable of in the upcoming races – Ricciardo has to perform in diminished circumstances. The AlphaTauri is a tricky car, one that struggles in lower-speed corners with late turn-in instability and mid-corner understeer, and the first thing he must do is prove he can adapt to it.
At McLaren, he couldn’t adapt to the peculiarities of a car that didn’t let him attack the corner confidently. That often led to under-rotation and therefore the extension of the traction-limited phase of the corner, meaning he shed time. The situation got worse in the second season, with security understeer often dialed in and contributed to that under-rotation. His confidence was shot and he was a shadow of the thrilling driver of the past.
The limitations of the AlphaTauri are different and he has set out his stall to head into his comeback with an open mind. But if the old Ricciardo can shine through, then it will give something for Red Bull to think about, as well as putting some extra pressure on Perez to get back into the groove.
You can criticize much of Red Bull’s driver strategy in recent years, but this particular decision at least appears to tick all of the boxes. At worst, it gets to definitely answer questions about Ricciardo with Super Formula ace Liam Lawson waiting in the wings for his chance next year whatever happens. At best, it could get an immediate uplift for its beleaguered second team and, if needed, an alternative to Perez.
But that’s the nature of chaos, sometimes it throws together a set of circumstances that plays in your favor. To avoid relying on chance, it’s essential Red Bull ensures its driver strategy is fit for purpose in this era of F1. And as with everything with modern F1, that means a greater level of rigor and precision when It comes to evaluating the countless drivers operating in the junior categories and karting.