Christian Horner has explained the sequence of events that meant Daniel Ricciardo went from a “disastrous” sim session to convincing Red Bull to give him a seat.
Daniel Ricciardo returns to F1 action this weekend, having secured a cockpit with Red Bull junior team AlphaTauri after re-joining Red Bull as a reserve and simulator driver for 2023 following his McLaren contract being bought out.
After two years of struggling for performance at McLaren, the eight-time Grand Prix winner had his contract paid off by McLaren in order to bring in promising rookie Oscar Piastri, with Ricciardo finding refuge back at Red Bull on a year out from racing.
Christian Horner: We didn’t recognise Daniel Ricciardo when he came back
Ricciardo, who left Red Bull at the end of 2018 in order to pursue a new challenge at Renault, was immediately tested by Red Bull upon his return, with Horner revealing that the Australian had picked up plenty of bad habits during his time away from the fold.
Appearing on the F1 Nation podcast ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Horner revealed the sequence of events that led to the critical Pirelli test that marked Ricciardo’s return.
“It all kicked off in a hotel room in Mexico last year, I had a meeting with Daniel and it was clear that his options for this year were going to be a bit limited and he just looked pretty broken,” Horner said.
“I said to him why didn’t he come back to Red Bull for 12 months, out of the car predominantly, help us with simulation work, and a bit of tyre testing, and just come back into the fold and refind his passion for the sport.
“Because it was clear that he wasn’t enjoying things. To be honest with you, I didn’t really recognise the Daniel over the last couple of years that we’d grown so used to, he’d grown up with us – so that’s where it started.
“He came in and drove the simulator a couple of days after Abu Dhabi, and it was a complete disaster. He’d picked up every bad habit imaginable. He was working with his previous engineer and gradually we unpicked it.
“With each session, he just got better and better, you could see his confidence growing to the point that he was absolutely on the pace with the race drivers.
“The plan was always to put him in for that Silverstone test. We kept him very busy on off-track activities, marketing-wise, and the test was extremely impressive.”
Daniel Ricciardo gets chance at wheel of Red Bull’s RB19
With the RB19 the dominant car of the F1 field, as Max Verstappen romps to win after win en route to a third consecutive title, Ricciardo was given his opportunity to climb into the cockpit for a Pirelli tyre test two days after the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
An early spin aside, Ricciardo showed the kind of performance that meant Red Bull simply couldn’t ignore it – as Horner revealed.
“It was actually like when we tested him 10 years ago – we were looking at who was going to be the right person to replace Mark Webber,” Horner said, speaking of when Ricciardo’s predecessor left the sport at the end of 2013.
“Kimi Raikkonen was one of the favourites at that point. We decided to give Carlos Sainz a brief run to run in the brakes and let Daniel drive in the afternoon, Carlos went within a couple of tenths of Sebastian, and then Daniel went quite a bit quicker when he drove the car.
“What impressed me the most [in 2023 test], I went up to have a look, was, bearing in mind this guy hadn’t been in a car for several months, within his third or fourth lap, he was down to a time that was within a second of what our drivers were achieving.
“Then his first proper run, as it were, on tyres that were comparable, you could see his confidence was growing, and that first lap on probably what was his seventh lap of the day would have put him on the front row of the grid. So it was hugely impressive.”
A quick conversation after the run also revealed the pressure Ricciardo had put on himself, with Horner saying the relief was visible to see.
“I was just pleased to see that he was still able to operate at that level,” he said.
“I mentioned to him that that would have put him on the front row of the grid, and you could see the relief in his eyes, and almost the pressure release off of his shoulders, that he could still do it and that he wasn’t going mad.
“The old Daniel was still there. And then his long runs were very impressive in the work that he did for Pirelli was absolutely on the money.”
With Nyck de Vries needing to be told the bad news that he was out of his seat, and Ricciardo in, Horner said it was all done and dusted by the 11th lap of the Pirelli tyre test.
“It all happened a little quicker than expected, bearing in mind that we hadn’t completed the test,” he said.
“But Helmut spoke with Nyck and he was the one that obviously had recruited him. He was the one that spoke with Nyck on about Lap 11 of the test.
“Nyck is a very capable driver, and a Formula E and Formula 2 champion but he’s obviously got lots of experience. He’s not a young driver as such from an age perspective and I just didn’t see how it fitted within the Junior Programme. It was a stop-gap.
“Obviously, before the test, there was some element of discussion with Daniel to say, ‘Look, if this goes well, would you be up for driving an AlphaTauri’?
“Because things weren’t quite going as we’d hoped with Nyck but would he be up for that challenge? And he was like ‘Yeah, absolutely!’ He was prepared, if you like, to take a step backward to try and take two steps forwards.”