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Daniel Ricciardo’s comeback, AlphaTauri, Red Bull Racing, Yuki Tsunoda, Nyck de Vries sacked, driver market, silly season, contract rumours

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It’s rare in Formula 1 for a driver to enter the pivotal moment of their career with their eyes wide open to its importance.

But there’s no mistaking the meaning of the next 12 races to AlphaTauri teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda.

Both will have their careers indelibly marked by the outcome of the next 12 grands prix.

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Ricciardo’s arrival at AlphaTauri comes with one explicit objective: to prove he’s still got what it takes to reprise his role as the swashbuckling all-action racer that made him famous during his Red Bull Racing years of 2014–18.

Potentially on the line is Sergio Pérez’s seat at the senior team, undoubtedly part of the bargain that has Ricciardo betting his career on the slowest car on the grid.

What success looks like is still unclear, however, in the backmarking AlphaTauri car.

“They expect results, performances,” Ricciardo told the F1 website. “I think until I get in the car it’s had to define what that is — is it a P8, is it a P14?

“I don’t think there’s pressure until the summer break … but I also don‘t expect to get off to a slow start. I want to hit the ground running and try and use what I’ve learnt in this time off, put it to use.”

But whatever it is, the route to that goal cuts directly through Tsunoda.

Ricciardo’s arrival is one of those classic Red Bull Machiavellian driver moves that will serve several different aims.

It will light a fire under Pérez, who will have witnessed Nyck de Vries’s brutal contractual execution and now be feeling slightly less confident about the 2024 deal in his pocket given his dire form slump.

But it will also answer two key questions about two enigmatic drivers.

How good was Tsunoda in dispatching De Vries?

And is Daniel Ricciardo really back to his best or at least within touching distance of it?

THE DOUBTS ABOUT TSUNODA

Though Tsunoda is clearly a growing force, there are doubts about at how high a level he’s performing.

Those doubts link back to his patchy start to life in Formula 1.

He was rushed into AlphaTauri in 2021 off the back of a third-place finish in the previous year’s Formula 2 championship behind Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott.

That season’s F2 grid was only tepidly rated. Schumacher lasted two years in F1, and the less said about Nikita Mazepin, who finished fifth, the better.

Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri move questioned | 01:19

There was no doubting Tsunoda’s raw speed, however, and his promotion seemed like a masterstroke when he scored points on debut.

But what followed was a rollercoaster of form — with points finishes at the peaks and unforced crash-causing errors at the troughs — that has had him perpetually at risk of the sack should a viable alternative make themselves known.

When Tsunoda was renewed for 2023 he was beginning to turn the tide on Pierre Gasly — a worthy accomplishment but one tarnished by speculation the Frenchman had mentally checked out ahead of his Alpine switch.

He was retained also with the implication it would be his final chance to establish himself — AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost has long said drivers need three years to prove they’re cut out for F1. The 2023 season would be a sink-or-swim test.

Paired with Formula 2 and Formula E champion Nyck de Vries — who Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko expected to immediately become the team leader — Tsunoda has risen to the challenge spectacularly, taking just 10 races to end the Dutchman’s career.

He outqualified his teammate 10-2 and beat him in races 8-2 when both saw the chequered flag.

The Japanese driver’s qualifying advantage of 0.469 seconds is the second biggest of any intrateam rivalry this year, behind only Verstappen’s domination of Pérez.

His paltry two points belie a step forward in pace and consistency. He’s yet to make an unforced error of the kind that characterised his first two seasons.

But how big is that step?

It’s impossible to know how good Tsunoda is because it’s impossible to know how good De Vries really was. How much of the now ex-F1 driver’s damage was self-inflicted, and how much was wrought by a teammate coming of age?

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THE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES

That brings us back to the two central questions the final 12 races will answer.

How good is Tsunoda, and how good is Ricciardo?

Outcome 1: Ricciardo high on confidence is a force to be reckoned with

Few expect Ricciardo to struggle like he did at McLaren.

Red Bull is evidently convinced after months of simulator sessions and last week’s Pirelli tyre test that the Aussie has successfully blown off the McLaren cobwebs and is back to his old competitive self.

It’s difficult to imagine the trigger would’ve been pulled on De Vries’s axing if management didn’t have at least a reasonable amount of faith that Ricciardo would be a superior alternative.

On paper there’s no competition. Ricciardo is vastly more experienced driver with 232 race starts and eight grand prix victories.

He’s even raced at this team before, and successfully enough to warrant promotion to Red Bull Racing.

He’ll be bringing a new mindset and approach to the challenge, having learnt from the way he disastrously tied himself in knots trying to adapt himself to the McLaren car, and Red Bull also has better simulation and driver development tools at its disposal to help troubleshoot a potential repeat — McLaren’s simulator, for example, was decades old during Ricciardo’s tenure.

There’s also the sense that sport would love to see Ricciardo do well. Tsunoda is an immensely popular and likeable driver F1 would love to keep, but Daniel is box office — the response to his comeback in the slowest car of the grid proves it. One wonders how Yuki will respond to the fanfare.

So if the Ricciardo we get is the Ricciardo of old — or even an improved model — this battle will be over relatively quickly.

The only question would the scale of his success.

Absolute domination combined with Pérez continuing to struggle could see him elevated back to Red Bull Racing by the end of the season.

If Pérez ups his game but Ricciardo is still strong, it might take another season for the inevitable to come to pass, but there’d be a sense of unstoppable momentum.

“It feels a bit like back when I was working my way up through the Red Bull family,” he told the F1 website. “If you get results, we‘ll keep pushing you and we’ll keep pushing you.

“So that‘s really the mindset.”

Defeat for Tsunoda wouldn’t necessarily be career-ending if he were able to cling to a convincing Ricciardo’s coat-tails. Dan is at the team in part to benchmark Yuki; there are still ways for him to emerge stronger even if he loses.

Annihilation, however, would leave Tsunoda badly wounded and vulnerable to New Zealander Liam Lawson and fellow Honda-backed junior Ayumu Iwasa, both Red Bull protégés targeting Formula 1.

Ricciardo returns to F1 with AlphaTauri | 00:46

Outcome 2: Tsunoda proves he’s actually very good

But it wouldn’t be the first time Ricciardo has walked into the domain of a young driver in their third season and been shown the way.

Lando Norris was expected to fall into the role of apprentice to Ricciardo’s master at McLaren in 2021. Instead the Briton made a name for himself as a giant killer and a genuine potential frontrunning force when he has the machinery at his disposal.

In fact the parallels run deeper than that.

Norris had been relatively comfortable alongside former teammate Carlos Sainz, with whom he shared a jokey, brotherly relationship that helped foster him in his formative years.

Tsunoda had a similar connection with Gasly. Some have suggested the relationship was too comfortable to bring the best out of the Japanese rising star.

In both cases the friend was replaced by an interloper. Both young drivers stepped up and both dispatched their challengers.

Tsunoda’s now being asked to back up again and take another swing at a new rival. Can he do the same again?

Ricciardo is arriving at AlphaTauri on an explicit six-month loan to prove he’s back to his best.

While it’s unlikely he’ll be blitzed by Tsunoda, failing to keep up with his new teammate would be deemed a failure and would likely spell the end of his career.

But it would be a boon for Tsunoda, who would finally have his F1 bona fides burnished beyond question. It would likely earn him another extension at AlphaTauri alongside a Red Bull-backed rookie as the undisputed team leader.

It would also bank him enough credit to get to 2026, when Honda is rumoured to want to bring him to Aston Martin when it starts its engine supply deal with the British team — a potentially race-winning move.

Just as Norris has used his Ricciardo years to establish his reputation, Tsunoda would be elevated for destroying two teammates in a single season. The opportunity is enormous.

Outcome 3: stalemate

The third possible outcome is less inspiring: stalemate.

Maybe Tsunoda leads the way early and Ricciardo catches up but too slowly to be absolutely convincing.

Maybe Ricciardo is on the pace from the first race but Tsunoda sticks right with him and they split the spoils.

It could be that the car falls further off the back of the pack and makes drawing conclusions difficult, even with access to all the driver data.

Tsunoda would be the biggest winner from this scenario. Any situation in which he stays close to an even vaguely competitive Ricciardo will enhance his reputation.

But the Red Bull program would be the loser.

The point of Ricciardo’s rapid promotion to AlphaTauri is to get answers quickly. By the end of the season Red Bull wants to know whether Dan is good enough to stay in F1 — and probably preferably to be moved up into the senior team if the circumstances are right — or give him the flick to pave the way for a young driver. Answers are also sought on whether Tsunoda is a good long-term bet or if he’s reached his ceiling.

To end up in an unconvincing stalemate would force some difficult decisions for its line-up given both Lawson and Iwasa will likely be pushing hard for F1 promotion.

In that situation would you drop Tsunoda with a positive development trajectory or axe Ricciardo still with the promise of getting back to his best?

Or would you lose one or both of the junior drivers you’ve spent time and money on honing for F1?

It’s why you can bet that management is hoping for a decisive outcome.

Whether or not they get it depends on

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