It is rare in Formula 1 that a driver enters a pivotal moment in his career with his eyes wide open at its importance.
But there’s no questioning the significance of the next 12 races for AlphaTauri teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda.
Both will have their careers marked indelibly by the result of the next 12 Grands Prix.
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Ricciardo’s arrival at AlphaTauri comes with an explicit goal: to prove he still has what it takes to resume his role as the fearless action racer who made him famous during his years at Red Bull Racing from 2014 to 2018.
Potentially at stake is Sergio Perez’s first-team seat, no doubt part of Ricciardo’s deal by betting his career on the slowest car on the grid.
However, it is not yet clear what success looks like in the AlphaTauri car.
“They expect results, performances”, Ricciardo told the F1 website. “I think until I got in the car, I had to define what that is: is it a P8, is it a P14?
“I don’t think there will be any pressure until the summer break… but I don’t expect a slow start either. I want to get going and try to use what I have learned in this free time, put it into practice”.
But whatever it is, the route to that goal goes directly through Tsunoda.
The arrival of Ricciardo is one of those classic Machiavellian moves by Red Bull drivers that will serve several different purposes.
He will light a fire under Perez, who will have witnessed Nyck de Vries’ brutal contract execution and now feel a little less sure about the 2024 deal in his pocket given his dire slump in form.
But it will also answer two key questions about two enigmatic drivers.
How good was Tsunoda at dispatching de Vries?
And is Daniel Ricciardo really back to his best or at least within striking distance of it?
DOUBTS ABOUT TSUNODA
Although Tsunoda is clearly a growing force, there are questions about his level of performance.
Those doubts relate to his bumpy start in Formula 1.
He was brought into AlphaTauri in 2021 following a third-place finish in the previous year’s Formula 2 championship behind Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott.
That season’s F2 grid only received a lukewarm rating. Schumacher lasted two years in F1, and the less said about Nikita Mazepin, who finished fifth, the better.
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However, there was no mistaking Tsunoda’s raw speed, and his promotion seemed like a coup when he scored points on his debut.
But what ensued was a roller coaster of form, with endpoints at the peaks and unforced errors causing crashes at the valleys, that has had him perpetually at risk of being fired if a viable alternative is disclosed.
By the time Tsunoda was revamped for 2023, he was beginning to turn the tide on Pierre Gasly, a worthy achievement but one clouded by the speculation the Frenchman had gone over in his head before his switch from Alpine.
He was also signed with the implication that it would be his last chance to establish himself: AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost has long said that drivers need three years to prove they are made for F1. The 2023 season would be a test of sink or swim.
Along with Formula 2 and Formula E champion Nyck de Vries, who Red Bull motorsports adviser Helmut Marko hoped would immediately become team leader, Tsunoda has risen to the challenge of spectacular fashion, taking just 10 races to end the Dutchman’s career.
He outscored his teammate 10-2 and beat him in races 8-2 when they both saw the checkered flag.
The Japanese driver’s qualifying advantage of 0.469 seconds is the second largest of any team rivalry this year, behind only Verstappen’s dominance over Perez.
His paltry two points belie a step forward in pace and consistency. She has yet to make an unforced error of the kind that characterized the first two seasons of it.
But how big is that step?
It’s impossible to know how good Tsunoda is because it’s impossible to know how good De Vries really was. How much of the now ex-F1 driver’s damage was self-inflicted and how much was caused by a teammate coming of age?
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That brings us back to the two central questions that the final 12 races will answer.
How good is Tsunoda and how good is Ricciardo?
Result 1: Ricciardo with a lot of confidence is a force to be reckoned with
Few expect Ricciardo to struggle like he did at McLaren.
Red Bull is evidently convinced after months of simulation sessions and last week’s Pirelli tire test that the Australian has successfully cleared the McLaren cobwebs and is back to his former competitive self.
It’s hard to imagine the trigger would have been pulled on de Vries’ hack if management hadn’t had at least a reasonable amount of faith that Ricciardo would be a superior alternative.
On paper there is no competition. Ricciardo is a much more experienced driver with 232 races and eight grand prix victories.
He’s even raced for this team before, and successful enough to guarantee promotion to Red Bull Racing.
He will bring a new mindset and approach to the challenge, having learned from the way he got disastrously caught up in knots trying to adapt to the McLaren car, and Red Bull also has better driver development and simulation tools at its disposal to help. fix a possible repeat: McLaren’s simulator, for example, was decades old during Ricciardo’s tenure.
There is also a feeling that the sport would love to see Ricciardo do well. Tsunoda is an immensely popular and likable driver that F1 would love to keep, but Daniel is the box office – the response to his return in the slowest car on the grid proves it. One wonders how Yuki will respond to the fanfare.
So if the Ricciardo we get is the Ricciardo of old, or even an improved model, this battle will be over relatively quickly.
The only question would be the scale of his success.
Sheer dominance combined with Perez’s continued fight could see him return to Red Bull Racing at the end of the season.
If Perez improves his game but Ricciardo remains strong, it could take another season for the inevitable to happen, but there would be a sense of unstoppable momentum.
“It feels a bit like when I was working in the Red Bull family,” he told the F1 website. “If you get results, we will keep pushing you and we will keep pushing you.
“So that’s really the mindset.”
Tsunoda’s defeat wouldn’t necessarily be the end of his career if he could hang on to the coattails of a convincing Ricciardo. Dan is on the team in part to compare Yuki; There are still ways for him to emerge stronger even if he loses.
However, annihilation would leave Tsunoda badly injured and vulnerable to New Zealander Liam Lawson and fellow Honda-backed junior Ayumu Iwasa, both Red Bull protégés eyeing Formula 1.
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Result 2: Tsunoda proves that he is actually very good
But it would not be the first time that Ricciardo has entered the domain of a young driver in his third season and has been shown the way.
Lando Norris was expected to take on the role of apprentice to Ricciardo’s teacher at McLaren in 2021. Instead, the Brit has made a name for himself as a giant slayer and a true potential cutting-edge force when he has the machinery at his disposal. .
In fact, the parallels go deeper than that.
Norris had been relatively comfortable with former teammate Carlos Sainz, with whom he shared a bantering, brotherly relationship that helped foster him in his formative years.
Tsunoda had a similar connection to Gasly. Some have suggested that the relationship was too comfortable to get the best of the rising Japanese star.
In both cases, the friend was replaced by an intruder. Both young drivers stepped up and both dispatched their challengers.
Now Tsunoda is asked to step back again and deliver another blow to a new rival. Can he do the same again?
Ricciardo arrives at AlphaTauri on an explicit six-month loan to show that he has returned to his best level.
While Tsunoda is unlikely to blitz him, not keeping up with his new teammate would be considered a failure and likely mean the end of his career.
But it would be a boon for Tsunoda, who would finally have his F1 bona fides polished beyond doubt. He would likely grant him another extension at AlphaTauri alongside a Red Bull-backed rookie as the team’s undisputed leader.
It would also give him enough credit to get through to 2026, when Honda is rumored to want to take him to Aston Martin when it starts its engine supply deal with the British team, a potentially race-winning move.
Just as Norris used his Ricciardo years to establish his reputation, Tsunoda would be elevated for destroying two teammates in a single season. The opportunity is huge.
Outcome 3: stagnation
The third possible outcome is less inspiring: stagnation.
Maybe Tsunoda leads the way early and Ricciardo catches up, but too slow to be absolutely convincing.
Maybe Ricciardo has the pace from the first race, but Tsunoda stays with him and they split the spoils.
It could be that the car falls further back in the pack and makes it difficult to draw conclusions, even with access to all the driver data.
Tsunoda would be the biggest winner from this scenario. Any situation where you stay close to a Ricciardo, even vaguely competitive, will enhance his reputation.
But the Red Bull program would be the loser.
The goal of Ricciardo’s rapid promotion to AlphaTauri is to get answers quickly. At the end of the season, Red Bull wants to know if Dan is good enough to stay in F1, and probably preferably to move up to the senior team if the circumstances are right, or give him the chance to pave the way for a youngster. driver. Answers are also being sought as to whether Tsunoda is a good long-term bet or if he has reached his ceiling.
Ending in an unconvincing stalemate would force some tough decisions for their line-up, given that both Lawson and Iwasa are likely to push hard for promotion in F1.
In that situation, would you leave Tsunoda on a positive development trajectory or would you leave Ricciardo still promising to return to his best?
Or would you lose one or both of the young drivers that you have invested time and money in perfecting for F1?
That’s why you can bet management is expecting a decisive result.
Whether they succeed or not depends on