10 years since Daniel Ricciardo’s first Red Bull spell – the Australian’s rollercoaster F1 journey since
Let’s rewind the clock back 10 years. Lewis Hamilton was a one-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel had secured four titles in a row and – alongside the German at Red Bull – Daniel Ricciardo was gearing up for his first year at the team, having replaced the retiring Mark Webber.
The then 24-year-old was coming off the back of two full seasons in F1 with Toro Rosso and had never finished a Grand Prix higher than seventh. He would finish the 2013 season 13th in the drivers’ championship, but there were signs of the potential the young Australian had.
As a measure of what he could do, Ricciardo had outqualified his Toro Rosso team mate Jean-Eric Vergne 30-7 in their two seasons together. And that had contributed to this young racer bagging one of the most coveted seats on the F1 grid.
Fast forward now to the present day, and we have a 34-year-old Ricciardo driving for Red Bull’s sister team. In 2023, he finished no higher than seventh but showed flashes of the immense talent he has – and he’s now in the running for one of the most coveted seats on the F1 grid. Deja vu anyone?
Yes, the Daniel Ricciardo story could be one major move away from essentially repeating itself – only this time, the racer has many more F1 miles on the clock compared to his previous promotion to Red Bull.
The past 10 years have been a rollercoaster for Ricciardo. There have been incredible highs, challenging lows, and he’s faced the pain of being without a seat on the grid at the start of 2023. Here we look back on Ricciardo’s journey over the last decade, with another potential shot in the Red Bull seat he once possessed very much on the cards.
Ricciardo’s initial Red Bull years
Few people would have bet on Ricciardo coming into Red Bull and finishing higher than his four-time world champion team mate Vettel in that 2014 season – but that’s exactly what happened.
While it was Mercedes and Hamilton who would bask in the championship glory, Ricciardo was quickly gaining his own accolades as a potential champion of the future should he get the machinery.
All in all, the Australian would take three Grands Prix victories in 2014, his first coming in Canada as he became the fourth Australian to score a Grand Prix win in F1, while Vettel would win none that year. Ricciardo eventually finished third in the drivers’ standings – two places and 71 points better off than his more established team mate.
If ever there was a lesson in how much can change in a year, Ricciardo had delivered a perfect example. In October it was announced Vettel would be leaving Red Bull at the end of the season to join Ferrari, one year before his contract was set to expire.
Ricciardo would now be deemed the senior driver in the team after just one season, with Daniil Kvyat replacing the departing Vettel for 2015.
That year, Red Bull’s RB11 failed to deliver the desired performance as the team slipped behind the likes of Ferrari and Williams while Mercedes enjoyed another formidable season. What held the car back was their Renault power unit and Ricciardo would finish the year down in eighth, three points behind Kvyat despite out-qualifying the Russian 14-5.
But 2016 would bring a much more competitive Red Bull machine, with the Australian regularly featuring towards the front again – aside from the dominant Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg who dueled for championship honours.
That season witnessed an infamous incident in Monaco. Ricciardo had claimed his first ever pole position, and led the early wet stages of the race, but he would be hampered by a pit stop mix-up that meant his supersoft tyres weren’t there waiting for him.
Hamilton duly took the race lead after that costly error, and Ricciardo was left utterly dejected. "I've been screwed two weeks in a row," he would say post-race, having called out his strategy in the previous Spanish Grand Prix – the race his new team mate Max Verstappen had won on his Red Bull debut at the age of 18.
Red Bull’s driver pairing was pretty much set once Verstappen had been promoted at the expense of Kvyat midway through 2016. While Mercedes continued to dominate there were still moments of Red Bull joy in the two and a half years Ricciardo and Verstappen worked together.
Ricciardo would add the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix, the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix and – righting the wrong of 2016 – the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix to his list of wins. Verstappen would also get in on the act, further winning the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix, the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix and the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix.
Plenty in the paddock expected this driver pairing to continue for the foreseeable – it was after all a formidably talented duo who just needed the machinery to compete at the very top end. And then Ricciardo gambled…
Ricciardo's shock Renault switch
"It was by far the toughest decision I've made in my racing career. But in 29 years living on this Earth, it was actually one of the toughest life decisions I've made,” said Ricciardo in a video blog after it was confirmed he would be moving from Red Bull to Renault for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
"I felt it was a time now where it was good for me to move on and have a fresh start somewhere else. I think it will be healthy for me – so, excited for what lies ahead with Renault."
That move in August 2018 caught much of the F1 paddock off guard, including Red Bull, and was viewed as a massive gamble from the Australian. Roughly five and a half years on, it can only be seen as a gamble that failed to pay off.
Partnered with Nico Hulkenberg, Ricciardo and Renault’s 2019 was relatively disappointing as the Australian would go on to finish 9th in the drivers’ championship on 54 points. For context Verstappen finished third on 278 points.
Granted, Ricciardo knew there would be work to do at Renault to transform them into an outfit that could challenge at the front, and where he could add to his list of Grand Prix victories.
But, while 2020 brought some green shoots of promise – a rise to fifth in the drivers’ standings for the Australian was proof of that – it wasn’t satisfactory enough. Ultimately his head had been turned.
'It’s like being dumped by a girlfriend...'
When Ferrari decided not to retain Vettel for the 2021 season, a series of driver changes kicked into gear early on in 2020. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz would fill the vacant seat at Ferrari, thus creating an opening alongside Lando Norris at the papaya-coloured outfit.
Ricciardo was impressed, saying he had been convinced by McLaren’s progress as they overtook Renault to claim fourth in the constructors’ championship in 2019 as well as their decision to switch engines to Mercedes.
"Last year is our best reference," he said in June 2020. "They were the team that made the most noise. They made the biggest step out of all so that was encouraging. That's all you can base it off and then the pitch for the future. They are switching power units. It was by no means an easy decision."
Drive To Survive fans will recall the fallout from this decision. Then Renault Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul didn’t take the news well to say the least – and episode five of series three covered all of that.
“We need to be in a position to be fighting for wins and championships, and Daniel has put a stop to that,” says Abiteboul in the show. Ricciardo’s former Red Bull boss Horner also couldn’t resist the odd jibe, as he was filmed asking the Australian, “Is Cyril talking to you yet?”
Horner would then tell the Netflix cameras: “It’s like being dumped by a girlfriend but she hasn’t moved out of the house. It must be an odd dynamic for Cyril, knowing for the whole season that Daniel is going to his biggest rival. Cyril no doubt took that very personally.”
Ultimately, Ricciardo’s move to McLaren was another gamble that didn’t pay off. While there was one obvious high point – his win at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix secured McLaren’s first victory since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix – for whatever reason Ricciardo struggled to get to grips with the machinery he was given in his two years with the team.
In 2021 he would finish two places and 45 points behind his team mate Norris (who finished sixth) in the drivers’ standings, while in 2022 the disparity between the two was worse – Ricciardo finished 85 points behind the Brit.
In August 2022, Ricciardo’s fate at McLaren was sealed as he and the team terminated his contract a year early by mutual agreement. In the end he would be replaced by rookie Oscar Piastri for the season just gone.
All of a sudden, less than 10 years after showcasing his undoubted promise and potential in his debut Red Bull year, Ricciardo was left without a seat on the 2023 grid.
A topsy-turvy comeback year
Ricciardo would begin 2023 as Red Bull’s reserve driver, having opted to rejoin the team he chose to leave in 2018 – and it would kick-start another eventful year in the life of the Australian.
Ultimately that spell on the F1 sidelines would prove to be beneficial for him, allowing for self-reflection and time to refresh his mindset.
“I think having the time off for the start of the year, I realised that I was probably just doing too much sometimes and probably even just not prioritising myself in terms of my body and my recovery and all that,” Ricciardo would say on his time away.
But the call to come back soon came. With Ricciardo driving the dominant Red Bull RB19 in the Pirelli tyre test at Silverstone following the British Grand Prix, the announcement came that Nyck de Vries was to be released from his AlphaTauri seat – and Ricciardo was back in at Red Bull’s sister team from Hungary.
There had long been talk that Ricciardo’s form was back following his Red Bull return, and the test at Silverstone proved it. In his words, he was “a few hundredths” off Verstappen’s pole time at the Grand Prix weekend that had just played out, and naturally there was excitement.
But that was just the start of Ricciardo’s rollercoaster comeback year. Suddenly he was out again after breaking his metacarpal bone in an FP2 crash in Zandvoort.
In came Liam Lawson, who impressed while Ricciardo sat out the following five race weekends, and suddenly there was a real debate as to the driver pairing AlphaTauri could choose going forward out of Ricciardo, Lawson and Yuki Tsunoda.
AlphaTauri would eventually back Ricciardo and Tsunoda into 2024 – but there is also the small matter of Sergio Perez, the man who is driving the Red Bull seat Ricciardo used to have.
The Mexican’s struggles in 2023, as he failed to challenge his all-conquering team mate, have been well documented, particularly his troubles in qualifying. But he still finished as runner-up in the drivers’ standings and will have another season to prove his worth at Red Bull.
Ricciardo is very much eyeing up his old seat again, saying it would be perfect to end his career as a Red bull driver.
“I'm not even going to put a day, or date on it, or year, whatever,” he told the Beyond The Grid podcast. “I think coming back into it and jumping back in with the Red Bull family, doing the test in July, all these things, working with Simon [Rennie] again, that's really the dream.
“Honestly, to end my career as a Red Bull driver would be perfect. Not that I'm looking at the end, but if I go back there, then I'll certainly make sure I finish there.”
Back in 2018 there were shockwaves when Red Bull’s Ricciardo and Verstappen pairing was broken up – and ultimately we never got to see what could have been had that duo had a championship-winning car at their disposal. Now, though, there is every chance we might get to see that play out after all.