With Daniel Ricciardo becoming Yuki Tsunoda’s team-mate at AlphaTauri for the rest of the season, all signs would seemingly point to this being an audition for the Red Bull seat for 2024.
While this is a harsh point to make on Sergio Perez, whose Red Bull contract runs through to the end of next year, if there’s one thing that Red Bull have shown over the years, it’s that they’ve not tended to let contracts get in the way when a driver has not met their exacting standards for a long enough period of time.
Nyck de Vries became the latest victim of this phenomenon after being ejected from AlphaTauri after only 10 races, making his one of the shortest full-time stints in Formula 1 this century if he is unable to find a way back onto the grid. But for the new team-mate pairing, there is an awful lot at stake for the rest of 2023.
Daniel Ricciardo: Win – and win well – or bust?
For Ricciardo, he is being parachuted into the team to bring experience, stability and speed, and most importantly create a high benchmark for the team’s younger driver as a multiple Grand Prix winner.
Now, if you were to read that last sentence back, you could almost echo that sentiment word for word from when he made the move to McLaren for the start of 2021 (albeit with McLaren holding aims to get to the front of the field, of course), but that didn’t go too well in the end on the whole.
Lando Norris was able to step up to the plate back then, and Tsunoda has shown a significant improvement this season himself, not least through showing extra commitment to the all-important fitness side of Formula 1 – even recruiting Ricciardo’s long-time fitness coach Michael Italiano when the Australian moved to the sidelines.
But given that the eight-time race winner has made noises about landing a “fairytale” return to Red Bull in future and the time off the grid has fuelled his hunger to fight in Formula 1 again, the pressure is very much on to perform straight away.
And one gets the feeling he cannot just edge ahead of Tsunoda for the rest of the year, he needs to leave a sizeable gap between them if he is to show that he has still ‘got it’ to compete at the level he has been able to in the past.
Anything less than that could leave questions about whether or not the scars of his McLaren years are still yet to heal and, while Red Bull were impressed enough with him in tyre testing to hand him the AlphaTauri drive on the spot, getting back into the swing of racing is another thing altogether.
The uncompetitive package will not help either, and the AT04 was comfortably the slowest car of the weekend at Silverstone – so Tsunoda could well be Ricciardo’s only reference point at some weekends this year, making it even harder for him to stand out.
It’ll be hard enough for the Honey Badger to put himself in the shop window for Red Bull (and potentially others) coming into a team ‘cold’ mid-season, and anything less than firing on all cylinders for the final 12 races could see his Formula 1 dream over for good.
Yuki Tsunoda: Nothing to lose, or is there?
There’s yet to be a race between Ricciardo and Tsunoda, but if it doesn’t go the way the Japanese driver hopes, it feels as though there could be a touch of the same issue Mick Schumacher had last season.
Having shown up strongly against an underperforming driver, who is then replaced by a much more experienced head in the team, the onus is on Tsunoda now to make sure he does not get swamped by the experience Ricciardo has in the way Schumacher did when Kevin Magnussen arrived at Haas, particularly in the early races.
There are some differences, of course. Tsunoda is now halfway through his crucial third season in the sport where Schumacher had just come out of his rookie year.
But on the flipside to that, AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost has been a long-time advocate of a driver needing three seasons in Formula 1 to truly prove whether or not they are cut out to be in the sport at the top level – so in another sense, it really is approaching ‘crunch time’ for Tsunoda.
While he has performed extremely strongly in comparison to De Vries in the first 10 races, Tsunoda’s contract is still due to run out at AlphaTauri at the end of this season, so he still needs to perform to a good enough level alongside Ricciardo to convince Helmut Marko that he deserves to stay in Formula 1.
Either way, there is potential for at least one of these two drivers to not be on the grid at all next year, especially if the in-team battle is a one-sided one for the rest of the season, and Tsunoda could still be the fall guy if Ricciardo comes in and dominates at AlphaTauri.
Whatever happens, even though they are at the back of the field as it stands, we will watch on with interest as the dynamic plays out between the two of them.