Daniel Ricciardo has been brought back to Earth regarding his ambitions of returning to the F1 grid in 2024, with Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko declaring he is 'not at the level' of current Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. His comments come after an ultimatum to underperforming Alpha Tauri rookie Nyck de Vries sparked speculation the Aussie star could make a shock return in 2023 - a prospect that has since been all but ruled out.
De Vries, who was recruited to the Red Bull sister team after scoring points in his F1 debut in 2022 when he filled in for Williams driver Alex Albon at the Italian GP, is one of two drivers yet to score a point this season. It was reported ahead of the cancelled Emilia Romagna GP at Imola that Marko, who oversees Red Bull's junior teams and holds major sway over the F1 drivers, had told the Dutch driver he had three races to prove he belonged in F1 long-term.
That report sparked suggestions the team could draft in Ricciardo for the rest of the 2023 season - an earlier than expected return to the grid after the West Australian opted to take a sabbatical following his departure from McLaren. Any return with either of the Red Bull affiliated teams was always going to be a long-shot, with New Zealand's Liam Lawson reportedly the preferred option should Alpha Tauri drop De Vries mid-season.
Those slim hopes were dealt a massive blow when Marko gave a characteristically frank assessment of where Ricciardo was at. It comes after Red Bull team principal Christian Horner claimed Ricciardo was 'unrecognisable' as a driver following his stints at Renault and McLaren.
“He is not at the level of Verstappen and Perez [on the simulator],” Marko told Motorsport-Total.“His goal is to get back into a top team.
“Those were his statements. And I think this break from active sport is good for him so that he can find himself and know where he really wants to go.
“AlphaTauri is AlphaTauri. And Red Bull Racing is Red Bull Racing. Whether you drive in midfield or whether you drive at the front, that’s a completely different pressure, a completely different climate. […] We know his qualities.
“Then came the Renault era. Then McLaren came and there was a slump. That wasn’t the Ricciardo we knew.”
Daniel Ricciardo's struggles exposed upon Red Bull return
Ricciardo has long held that any F1 comeback in 2024 would have to be with a team that can put him in championship contention - but the 33-year-old's options appear thin on the ground. The likes of McLaren and Alpine (formerly Renault) have both slid backwards since 2022, and neither would quickly welcome their former driver back into the fold.
Red Bull's seats appear to be sewn up for the foreseeable future, while the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes would be unlikely to draft the Aussie in as well. Surprise packets of 2023, Aston Martin, have grander long-term ambitions and appear more than comfortable with their current pairing of Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll, son of the team's owner Lawrence Stroll.
A further blow to Ricciardo's prospects came when Horner suggested earlier in 2023 that Ricciardo's stints at Renault and McLaren had resulted in him picking up bad habits as a driver. Horner said Ricciardo was a shadow of the driver who won seven grands prix for Red Bull through 2018 - adding only one more win after leaving, with McLaren in 2021.
“I think the problem is when you drive a car that obviously has its limitations,” he said, “you adapt and you try and adjust to extract the maximum out of that car.
“And it was clear when he came back, that he picked up some habits that were not… that we didn’t recognise as the Daniel that had left us two or three years earlier.
“But having had time off over Christmas, and so on and a chance to reset, when he’s come back and got into the 2023 work, he’s hit the ground running and I think he likes the feel of the car in the virtual world which seems to correlate well with what we’re seeing in the actual world.
“And I think he’s desperate to get a run in the car at some point to validate that, but we’re certainly seeing him getting back to being far more reminiscent of the Daniel that we knew.”
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