Prodigal Son Returns: Ricciardo Back to Red Bull Racing
Oh, how the mighty have fallen; the Prodigal Son returns – choose the idiom to capture the full-circle bittersweet move of Daniel Ricciardo being the reserve driver from the same team he had once competed to be the top spot on.
The relationship between the Red Bull team and Ricciardo is littered with victory and baggage. The Australian, endearingly nicknamed “the honey badger” due to his intense racing style conflicting with this otherwise adorable presence, made his F1 debut under the HRT team in part of a deal with Red Bull Racing in 2011. Back in 2009 when Ricciardo was just in Formula 3 and got the chance to put in laps during an F1 outing in Jerez in a Red Bull car, none other than team principle Christian Horner remarked on the talent he saw in Ricciardo: “We'll see how this test goes, but [Daniel’s] a very promising young talent who is developing well.”
Fast forward to 2014, when Ricciardo finds himself again the apple of the eye for Horner, becoming the second driver for Red Bull Racing alongside Sebastian Vettel. In his first year he took home three wins – a year that ended-up being the most successful year of his career thus far. Ricciardo raced with Red Bull for four years, three of which were alongside current World Champion Max Verstappen – a relationship so strained it led to Ricciardo’s departure.
Verstappen made a powerful racing debut on the Red Bull team - winning the Spanish Grand Prix during his first race in F1, while, at the age of 18, breaking the record as the youngest driver in the sport. Quickly the dynamic on the team shifted as Verstappen became the undeniable priority of the Red Bull Racing team leaving Ricciardo in the number 2 position while signing Verstappen into a major contract extension in 2017 as the higher-paid, priority driver - - the first of two moments of catalyst for the team. The second came as Helmut Marko of Red Bull's driver program made his intentions clear to Ricciardo's agent: "I want to win the title with Daniel in 2018, and then win it with Max in 2019 and 2020." Red Bull's ambitions were made known to prioritize Verstappen, and Ricciardo took it to heart.
“It was probably one of the most difficult decisions in my career so far, but I thought that it was time for me to take on a fresh and new challenge,” Ricciardo said in 2018 when announcing his departure from the team. Unexpectedly for Ricciardo, the move away from Red Bull to join Renault was met with more challenges. While on Renault, Ricciardo failed to secure a win on the team, resulting getting on the podium twice in 2020. His strong, consistent results while racing for Red Bull weren’t delivering for his new team.
After his unsuccessful stint at Renault, he joined McLaren for the 2022 season only to have his contract cut short a year early due to underperforming. "I don't recognize him as the same driver that he was when he was with us,” long-time advocate and Red Bull Principal Horner remarked on the driver Ricciardo had become, “but I really hope that he finds something for the future."
Find he did in none other than the team that had made him: Red Bull Racing. Red Bull announced Ricciardo would be returning as the third driver for marketing events and show runs in addition to driving in the simulator to help the team – inspiring Ricciardo’s hopes for getting back on the grid in 2024. “If there’s not a seat with [Red Bull Racing], potentially they can help find a seat elsewhere,” Ricciardo said.
After the public ousting and potential embarrassment of his time at McLaren coming to an end, Red Bull might be the place Ricciardo needs to boost both his confidence and performance, following a downward career trajectory as continual errors took a toll on his approach behind the wheel. Returning to Horner and Red Bull may be a chance to rewrite the narrative.
“It’s like going home to Mum and Dad, you know. They’re your biggest people who supported your whole career, and you just want to be back in that environment, I guess, and feel that warmth and love.” Ricciardo said about returning to Red Bull.
The 2023 season will find Ricciardo on the sidelines supporting the 2022 Constructors Champion Red Bull Racing, with the hopes of the Australian returning to the grid behind the wheel of an available seat come the 2024 season.
Never say never – again.
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