Feature F1 Unlocked
DRIVER MARKET: Ricciardo, Tsunoda and Lawson – a three-way tussle for two AlphaTauri seats
There are just three seats left on the grid for the 2024 Formula 1 season and it seems two of those – located at Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri – are edging closer to being confirmed, as F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto explains…
AlphaTauri may be rock bottom of the constructors’ championship with just seven races to go – but they remain a very attractive proposition for the 2024 campaign.
New CEO Peter Bayer will be joined by new Team Principal Laurent Mekies once the former Ferrari man completes his gardening leave, with the team to run under a new name, which will be revealed following the conclusion of discussions with a title partner.
Crucially, they will form a closer bond with Red Bull, ensuring greater synergies between the two companies and that will likely result in the Italian squad taking several parts – as permitted by the rules – from reigning world champions Red Bull, and in turn should significantly boost their competitiveness within the midfield.
But who will be racing their two cars?
Ricciardo favourite to race for team next year
Daniel Ricciardo is cracking on with his recovery after breaking a bone in his hand at Zandvoort late last month and was in Singapore to join up with the team in a supporting role – as reserve Liam Lawson stepped in for the third race in a row.
The Australian was part of all the engineering briefings and he sat on the pit wall during the sessions, with AlphaTauri keen to utilise his experience on a weekend where they brought a significant upgrade package to track.
But what Ricciardo really wants to be doing is racing – and he’s still some time away from that, even if the rehab is going to plan. He’s missing Japan and, while a return at Qatar is a possibility, it is understood he will only return when he is confident he can be 100% when back behind the wheel.
Sources say Red Bull management are being very supportive of the Australian and have agreed with the plan to focus on getting him back to full fitness before returning. Returning without the bone being fully healed is considered a risk not worth taking, especially as Lawson is doing a good job standing in.
Ricciardo is itching to return – and watching Lawson perform so strongly so quickly will be difficult for him from a personal perspective – but he can take comfort from the fact he has backing of the management.
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner and Red Bull Motorsport Advisor Helmut Marko have, according to sources, reassured Ricciardo that the seat will be his when he’s ready to return this season, even if Lawson is impressing.
And I’m also told that regardless of when he comes back and what happens on track while he’s away, Red Bull are keen for him to be a AlphaTauri race driver next season.
Tsunoda v Lawson for the second seat
That would suggest there’s one seat left for two drivers.
Yuki Tsunoda has had a difficult couple of races. The Japanese driver failed to start the Italian Grand Prix because of mechanical gremlins and then didn’t complete a racing lap in Singapore following contact with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
But up until that point, he had impressed his Red Bull and AlphaTauri bosses by stepping up to lead the team and scoring points three times with a car that has been among the most uncompetitive on the grid for much of this season.
Heading into the summer break, he was heavy favourite to retain his seat for a fourth campaign with the little Italian team but when Ricciardo crashed at Zandvoort and was replaced by Lawson who has since gone on to finish 13th and 11th before scoring points last time out in Singapore, staying on became less certain.
Red Bull and AlphaTauri have spent a lot of timing mulling over the decision, which considers the fact Tsunoda is backed by Honda, who work with both Red Bull teams on their Power Unit until the end of 2025.
Do they keep him for a fourth season? Or do they make him a reserve for Red Bull and AlphaTauri next year and give Lawson the full-time race seat? At the time of writing, it is believed they are leaning towards Tsunoda – but talks are ongoing ahead of Tsunoda’s home race at Suzuka this weekend and Lawson is still in the frame.
What it means for Lawson if he misses out is unclear. The New Zealander has earned the plaudits of the paddock with the way he’s hit the ground running when stepping in from what is essentially a standing start.
In an ideal world, Red Bull would put all three in a race seat – but they only have two at AlphaTauri. As it stands, it looks like Lawson is third in the pecking order, but if this year has told us anything, it’s that things can change quickly.