Daniel Ricciardo’s full-time comeback with RB, Red Bull Racing re-signs Sergio Perez for two seasons, Yuki Tsunoda, Liam Lawson, driver market, silly season

When Daniel Ricciardo suited up in his new RB overalls at the start of the season, he thought he could be embarking on the first chapter of his fairytale.

That he was back on the grid as a full-time racer was already miraculous. Chewed up and spat out by a McLaren still many months away from its frontrunning comeback, he faced an early F1 retirement as a burnt-out former future champion.

But then he landed himself a reserve gig at his old Red Bull Racing team. A testing program allowed him to rediscover his mojo, and by the middle of the year he lucked into a seat at AlphaTauri, now RB, when Nyck de Vries was deemed surplus to requirements.

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The trajectory was set. With Sergio Pérez struggling badly late in 2023, Ricciardo needed only to show at RB what he had done in the Red Bull Racing simulator and in that now famous Silverstone tyre test and his old seat would be his again.

“This for me would be like the fairytale,” he told ESPN. “Honestly, the fairytale ending [would be] to finish my career [at Red Bull Racing] if I could have it all my own way.

“But we’ll see. I’ll probably have to work my way up a little bit, but it’s really nice to be back here.”

That fairytale ending was taken off the table this week, when Red Bull Racing re-signed Pérez for another two seasons, keeping the Mexican in place until the end of 2026.

The decision was on one hand surprising. Pérez held the most desirable seat in Formula 1 with no shortage of suitors. Red Bull Racing could have afforded to wait.

That’s particularly true given the six-time race winner has shown a concerning drop in form in the last two rounds. Knocked out in Q2 and Q1 in Imola and Monte Carlo respectively, Pérez was suddenly looking like the 2023 version of himself that had seemed sure to lose him his drive late last year.

But on the other hand, Pérez has the power of incumbency in a team that has suddenly prioritised stability after its chaotic start to the year off the circuit.

He was a known quantity, even if that quantity is a little bit lacking.

That’s still one up on Ricciardo, whose capacity to return to form remains a mystery almost a year into his post-McLaren comeback.

Daniel Ricciardo is still searching for consistency. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

RICCIARDO NEVER PUT HIMSELF IN CONTENTION

Ricciardo’s off-track reputation is as safe as houses, but on the circuit he’s just about all out of capital.

His past works with Red Bull Racing were enough to get his foot in the door but were never going to be sufficient for him to ride all the way back to Milton Keynes.

He had to prove the old Daniel really was still in there, and he had to show it consistently.

So far he’s been truly great only in flashes.

In Mexico last year he qualified an excellent fourth and finished an unlikely seventh.

He was similarly impressive in the sprint in Miami, qualifying and finishing fourth ahead of both McLaren drivers and one Ferrari.

That weekend in Florida demonstrated the frustrating duality of his comeback, however. Hours after finishing less than 10 seconds off the sprint podium, he qualified a shocking 18th for the grand prix.

It’s not unreasonable to think he’ll be able to string it all together by the end of the season, but what he’s shown so far is well short of his target.

“Ricciardo has to show that he has [teammate Yuki] Tsunoda clearly under control,” Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko told Servus TV earlier this year. “Then he could be a candidate [for Red Bull Racing].”

The Aussie is far from satisfying that criterion. In fact the opposite is true.

He’s been outqualified by Tsunoda 1-7 by an average of 0.182 seconds and 3.38 places, the fifth-worst teammate combination on the grid.

He’s been outraced 1-5 by an average of 3.33 places, the second-worst record ahead of only Logan Sargeant’s terminal drubbing at the hands of Alex Albon.

He’s down in the points 5-19, a difference of four places in the drivers championship. Ricciardo has scored 26.32 per cent of Tsunoda’s points, the third-worst return of any teammate to have scored so far this season.

Considering Red Bull Racing has never appeared to take Tsunoda’s potential seriously, these sorts of figures would have been damning of Ricciardo’s promotion chances.

Embellishing the gap between them is RB’s position in the middle of the field.

On raw pace Faenza fields the sixth-quickest car just behind Aston Martin. It means Tsunoda and Ricciardo are often competing on the cusp of Q3 and the points.

Tsunoda has made Q3 six times from eight grands prix. Ricciardo has cracked Q3 just once, with five other Q2 appearances.

The Japanese driver has delivered five top-10 finishes, whereas Ricciardo is yet to score on a Sunday, with his sole points scored in the Miami sprint.

That serves to make Ricciardo’s differences look more severe, though there’s no doubting the clear gaps in key metrics that have characterised the opening third of his campaign.

Yuki Tsunoda has been RB’s lead driver in 2024. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

‘ONLY PLACE I WANT TO BE’

Ricciardo has been candid about his shortcomings this year.

“The gap [to Tsunoda], maybe we do find something that [explains] why I lost a bit here or there,” he said, per PlanetF1. “There’ll probably always be something. This is F1 and it’s never perfect.

“I’m not happy with having these gaps. I think that’s what’s frustrating me a bit.

“Obviously the team has been great. They’ve been really supportive, and obviously they know I can do it, but it’s been a bit more of a struggle this year to do it week in, week out, and that’s really where my focus is now as opposed to getting too comfortable or excited about what the future holds.

“I want to be doing better, whether that’s the car or me.”

It’s a case of unfinished business for Ricciardo.

Though he targeted that fairytale RBR ending, he’s also rediscovered joy in the struggle of recovering his own form and building up RB in the process.

“I think it was all part of my happiness and motivation — everything — coming back last year,” he told Fox Sports earlier this season. “I was happy doing all of it.

“I was happy driving but I was also happy spending the time with the engineers, trying to problem solve. I could feel that the team was very, receptive, quite excited about the questions I was asking or the direction I was trying to suggest.

“I certainly felt like I was bringing good value to the team, and that was exciting.”

It led him to a realisation in the second half of last season. Having had a frontrunner-or-nothing approach to his comeback, Ricciardo adjusted his target.

“Now that I’m back in the Red Bull family, it’s the only place I want to be and want to stay,” he told Sky Sports. “However much longer my career is, it’s where I want to end my career.

“Of course the dream is to get back to the big team, but if it’s not that, then I made it clear that I want to be here [at AlphaTauri, now RB].”

It’s a declaration that’s proved prescient. After a flat start to the season, RB is clearly a team on the up.

It’s the third-fastest developing team of the season so far behind only Alpine and McLaren, and its trajectory is only steepening — the VCARB-01 has been closer to the leaders in the last three races than it has been all season.

It’s nowhere near podium contention, but the team is moving in the right direction.

Daniel Ricciardo contributes more than just on the track. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

RICCIARDO’S FUTURE IS UNCLEAR

Moving to Red Bull Racing is out of the question. Staying at RB isn’t the massive backwards step it looked like last season.

But declaring an intention to stay is one thing. Successfully arguing for it is another.

The RB driver line-up situation remains fluid.

Both Ricciardo and Tsunoda are out of contract at the end of the season. So far the Australian has been the clear second-best driver.

Meanwhile reserve driver Liam Lawson is on the sidelines eagerly awaiting his chance. The Kiwi was reportedly promised a race seat for 2025 after his excellent points-scoring five-race stand-in appearance covering for Ricciardo late last year during the Aussie’s injury hiatus.

Three into one doesn’t go, and conventional wisdom has Ricciardo’s head on the chopping block.

But it isn’t so simple.

Ricciardo brings more to RB than just his on-track performances. The Faenza squad has more ambitious goals than it ever has thanks to its closer technical ties to Red Bull Racing, and Ricciardo’s experience is helping to accelerate its progress behind the scenes.

“It’s a huge luck for this team to have a pairing [of] Yuki and Daniel,” team principal Laurent Mekies told PlanetF1.

“In the context of the projects where the team needs to go and helping identify the gaps, it hugely helps to have somebody like Daniel that won eight races, has been at a few teams and knows where the board can be and where the board needs to go.

“His input into the team has been massive. Even when [in] the first couple of races the performance was in the uncomfortable zone, [he was] still bringing a massive amount of value to the team.”

It’s one area in which Ricciardo has a clear edge over Tsunoda, who’s yet to shake his volatile reputation despite a long and growing run of consistency and performance that RB CEO Peter Bayer said made him keen to keep the Japanese driver on the books next year, though he gave nothing away on his thoughts about a broader driver line-up.

“I think we’re very happy with both of our drivers and, honestly, we’re not wasting time with discussing ifs and whens,” Bayer said. “We have a very strong line-up. We have a great reserve driver.

“Liam is an extremely valuable member to the team. He’s with us every weekend, obviously. He’s doing a lot of work in the simulator.

“But as I said before, currently we have two drivers in the cars. We are finding performance with the two.

“We really do not discuss the 2025 situation, perhaps because we’re in a luxury situation of having that strong grassroots pyramid behind us.

“The focus is really on track and on the next couple of races until definitely the summer break.”

Liam Lawson is waiting in the wings. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

The door would appear open to an unchanged line-up. Perhaps Lawson even isn’t the inevitability he deserves to be.

But there’s also one more moving part.

Tsunoda had also been targeting Pérez’s seat but has likewise had the door slammed in his face.

With Honda — which has backed his entire Formula 1 career — set to switch allegiance to Aston Martin from 2026, the Japanese driver isn’t guaranteed to take up a new deal with RB, where his future would appear limited.

“If [Red Bull Racing] don’t want me or they’re not expecting me into the seat, if I’ve got an interesting offer that could be better than even VCARB or Red Bull, I’ll think about it,” he said in Monaco.

It would be difficult for another backmarker team to match RB in terms of pure performance, but there could be enticing alternative prospects. Alpine could make him a works driver. He’d be a good fit at Audi too as a young gun alongside veteran Nico Hülkenberg.

If the aim is to bridge the gap to 2027, when Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin seat will be up for grabs, then even a stint at Haas or Williams could do the job if he thinks he’ll lack job security at RB in 2026.

It’s unclear how likely it is, but if Tsunoda were to leave, he would give Ricciardo his best hope of holding onto his RB drive if Lawson is destined for a full-time debut in Faenza’s colours.

But the Red Bull program has a habit of pitching curve balls. Perhaps Lawson will again be frozen out. Perhaps an all-new line-up is in the offing.

The only seemingly clear thing is that Bayer has suggested a decision will be made after the mid-season break.

The clock is ticking Ricciardo’s hopes for a fairytale ending to his career are finished. He might now have less than three months to come up with an alternative next chapter.

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