Daniel Ricciardo has been touted for a potential return to Red Bull as Max Verstappen’s team-mate, due to his “tough as nuts” mentality.
The Australian driver has found a way back onto the F1 grid in 2023, rekindling his relationship with Red Bull by signing up as a reserve driver after McLaren elected to buy him out from his contract following two difficult years with the Woking-based team.
Replacing the underperforming Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri from the Hungarian Grand Prix onward, Ricciardo now has the chance to impress Red Bull and potentially raise his status to become a candidate for the second seat at the senior team alongside Max Verstappen.
David Kennedy: There are still question marks about Daniel Ricciardo
Ricciardo had been Verstappen’s team-mate at Red Bull between 2016 and ’18 before jumping ship to Renault, with the pair making for a formidable pairing as the Dutch driver found his feet in F1.
Remaining highly rated by Red Bull, his availability for 2023 was initially overlooked as they brought in former Mercedes Formula E World Champion De Vries, only to abandon that idea midway through the season.
Ricciardo has had a solid start to his return, with scrutiny set to intensify in the second half of the year as the Australian has made it clear he has his eye on the target of Sergio Perez’s seat alongside Verstappen – the seat will be up for grabs at the conclusion of Perez’s contract at the end of 2024.
“I’m surprised he wasn’t there earlier,” former Shadow F1 racer and three-time Le Mans winner David Kennedy told PlanetF1.com, when asked whether he was surprised Ricciardo wasn’t given the nod over De Vries earlier.
“I think his standard, when he ran as a team-mate with Verstappen, was really respectable. I think maybe there were other issues that came to play there but, in terms of a tough-performing driver, Daniel is top stuff.”
The Irishman said that, for now, he doesn’t believe Ricciardo is being used as a means of applying pressure on Perez, and that his appointment at AlphaTauri is to evaluate his current level of performance after sliding to the back of the pack while at McLaren.
“There’s always an issue that, when you come back after a bit of a sabbatical, there’s a little bit of an edge loss. So there’d have to be a question mark about him,” Kennedy said.
“I don’t think [Red Bull] would work off a level like that. I think you will look at who is the best driver out there, that can support our number one driver and will accept a number one driver already in the team.
“That’s hugely difficult because, all the time, there’s got to be that conflict if you can match someone, to match a top driver, you end up with a conflict.
“Sometimes that works, where they lift the game together. Other times, they take each other out of the race, like [Alain] Prost and [Ayrton] Senna. It was incredible, but they lifted the standard.
“So who would you sit in alongside Max?”
David Kennedy: Daniel Ricciardo lacks ‘magic dust’, but he’s the perfect team-mate
While Ricciardo cut and run from Red Bull five years ago in a bid to shape his own destiny, a move that backfired, Kennedy believes the Australian is the right man to slot in alongside the relentlessly strong Verstappen as long as he’s willing to accept the strength of his team-mate.
With Perez having crumbled on track during 2023 as he struggled to match the performances of Verstappen, his public acceptance of chasing second place appears to have calmed him and restored the Mexican’s usual performance level in recent races, and Kennedy believes Ricciardo could easily do the same – perhaps even to a higher standard.
“It is the toughest role in the world to be the team-mate of someone of that outstanding ability,” Kennedy explained.
“There are very, very few, in my experience, that could handle that. Who comes to mind is Eddie Irvine. Eddie sat alongside, ostensibly, one of the best racing drivers ever [Michael Schumacher]. And could, every time, get out there and really push and get within a whisper of Schumacher.
“I think this is a real difficult situation now that [Red Bull] find themselves in and so, would Daniel be the man to sit in there?
“I always thought he is such a solid player. He might not have that magic dust that Verstappen has, but he is so incredibly close that he would be the perfect team-mate. Someone who is tough as nuts and can accept that somebody can out-qualify him by that fraction.
“Because, if you’re a smart racer, you can still win races.”