The strategy of Red Bull’s Formula 1 drivers is a strange mix of glorious success and chaotic failure. It has always employed one of the best drivers in grand prix racing as the spearhead for Red Bull Racing, first Sebastian Vettel, then Daniel Ricciardo, then Max Verstappen, so judging by that, it has been a resounding success. But the second seat has proven more problematic 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 his Toro Rosso guise in 2012-13, is the latest chapter in the Red Bull junior team’s bizarre history. It’s a microcosm of Red Bull’s driver program woes, one that was triggered by Pierre Gasly’s permission to move to Alpine and Colton Herta’s superlicense woes. The former was an unpredictable event given that it was part of the fallout from Fernando Alonso’s seismic decision to join Aston Martin, followed closely by the realization that Alpine had failed to sign their junior prospect Oscar Piastri to a contract. appropriate. 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 the size of Red Bull, there should have been a next taxi out of range to locate. Instead, Helmut Marko recruited Nyck de Vries. (main image), apparently in no small part thanks to a single extraordinary performance by 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 ignoring what he had learned about his strengths and weaknesses during his years in single-seaters.
This has been Marko’s approach to scouting talent and it has generally worked well. But it has become anachronistic at a time when most F1 teams now have some form of junior programme. Such drivers are now being recruited younger, increasingly from the ranks of karting rather than entry-level single-seaters, and prospect tracking is becoming more 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 judge a driver simply by his good morning.
Of the drivers who have become superstars in recent years, only Max Verstappen has come along with the support of Red Bull. And even then, he was only chosen after winning a bidding war with rivals Mercedes and Ferrari when Verstappen was already in F3. That showed the value of his second team, as Red Bull could offer Verstappen a graduation to F1 in 2015, something his rivals couldn’t risk with just 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 the chance for him in F1 through Red Bull, was written off and has done the best job of him after Williams rescued him from scrap. The evidence indicates that Red Bull is missing out.
The decision to get rid of de Vries is a strange one. His level of performance hasn’t been good enough to ensure he can’t be dropped, but it certainly hasn’t been bad enough to necessitate sending him off. The real mistake was the decision to sign him in the first place, as the willingness to do without him shows that it was not based on any real confidence in his ability, but simply a knee-jerk reaction to the need for a driver and what happened in Monza. It’s just one more baffling move in a baffling junior driver scheme.
Which brings us to Ricciardo. It can be argued that this change is more motivated by the need to get Ricciardo into an F1 car for evaluation, 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. If Bernie Ecclestone was still involved, persuading Red Bull to get Ricciardo back on the grid is exactly the sort of thing he would have done.
The 33-year-old is an unusual choice for an operation that, initially at least, focused on developing the best of Red Bull’s young drivers. Despite all the rhetoric in recent years about it becoming more of a ‘brother’ team, it has always been and always will be the poor relative, and being an incubator for future Red Bull drivers remains part of the charge. But since Max Verstappen is signed until the end of 2028, there is a chance that Ricciardo has value as the number two of him. Ironically, this was a role Ricciardo disliked and one that influenced his decision to turn down a new deal and move to Renault in 2019.
So Ricciardo is a special case, and one that perhaps justifies being scrapped mid-season. Yes, it’s unfortunate for De Vries, but it always seemed destined to be a one-season (full) wonder, so it’s arguable that with that decision already made, there’s no harm in making the switch early. As Red Bull will view Ricciardo as a possible teammate to Verstappen, even if he has the wrong age profile to be a long-term successor, it’s really a team spirit decision.
That brings us to Sergio Perez. He has a solid contract for 2024 and it’s likely he’ll be there next year. However, every time he misses Q3 (now six of 10 in the main qualifying sessions this year) a little more uncertainty is injected into the situation. Yes, he usually recovers well, but he should. His race pace has been good at times, questionable for others, but the truth is that qualifying is ‘lap zero’ of the race and he is compromising the result of the race with his bad grid positions. To achieve just one podium in the last five races in the fastest car is a desperate level of underperformance. There’s a feeling within Red Bull that this is partly the consequence of focusing too much on Verstappen and Perez’s now-extinguished hopes of a title challenge, meaning there’s a desire to see him restart and do the same thing again. job.
Right now, Perez’s underperformance doesn’t really matter. Verstappen has scored enough points on his own to put Red Bull in the lead in the constructors’ championship and both world titles will be sealed. The question Red Bull will be asking is what if the competition comes next year? So driver number two may be the deciding vote.
If two teams are tied, the second driver is there both to assist in the Constructors’ Championship quest, ideally by beating the rival team’s number two, but also to aid the leading driver’s individual campaign by taking points away from whoever the rival is. Based on current form, Perez would have done it effectively in the early stages of the season, but terribly recently. In 2021, he and Valtteri Bottas had little impact in the fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, although Perez made some useful interventions, notably costing Hamilton time in Turkey and Abu Dhabi. But he would have to do more than that if the situation were to repeat itself.
That is the possibility that Ricciardo offers. While five years ago he was unwilling to be Verstappen’s backup – a status ultimately defined by the fact that Verstappen had a small but significant advantage over him – now he may well be. He has endured four seasons largely in the wild and spent the past half year looking into the barrel of oblivion of his career, so his perspective will have changed. The thought of a few years as Verstappen’s teammate, probably winning a handful of grand prizes, will be appealing.
But there will also be the other tantalizing possibility for Verstappen that if he can break through at Red Bull, he should finally get a chance to drive a championship-challenging car. Granted, he’ll be up against an all-time great in Verstappen, but I’d at least give him a chance. That’s the one opportunity left in his brilliant F1 career, and you can be absolutely sure it’s on his mind. That may sound harsh for 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 breaking into Red Bull remains a long shot given Perez can stabilize the situation by delivering at the level of which he is perfectly capable in the next few races – Ricciardo he has to act in diminished circumstances. The AlphaTauri is a tricky car, one that struggles in low-speed corners with late-turn instability and mid-corner understeer, and the first thing you need to do is show you can adapt.
At McLaren he did not know how to adapt to the peculiarities of a car that did not allow him to take corners with confidence. That often led to insufficient rotation and therefore the extension of the limited pull phase of the corner, meaning he lost time. The situation worsened in the second season, with safety understeer often marking and contributing to that insufficient rotation. His confidence soared and he was a shadow of the exciting driver of the past.
AlphaTauri’s limitations are different and he has set up his post to head into his return with an open mind. But if the old Ricciardo can shine, Red Bull will have something to think about, as well as putting a little more pressure on Perez to get him back on track.
You can criticize much of Red Bull’s driver strategy in recent years, but this particular decision at least seems to tick all the boxes. At worst, he definitely answers questions about Ricciardo with Super Formula ace Liam Lawson looking forward to a chance at him next year, come what may. At best, he could get an immediate upgrade for his embattled second team and, if necessary, an alternative to Perez.
But that’s the nature of chaos, sometimes you bring together a set of circumstances that play in your favor. To avoid relying on chance, it is essential for Red Bull to ensure that its driver strategy is fit for this era of F1. And like everything in modern F1, that means a higher level of rigor and precision when it comes to evaluating the countless drivers operating in the junior and karting categories.