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OPINION: Daniel Ricciardo’s ‘Fairytale’ Return to F1 Won’t Be as a Driver

Daniel Ricciardo may return to F1 not as a driver, but as a media personality. ...

Everyone likes Daniel Ricciardo whether it be as a personality or a driver. When he was sacked from McLaren, boss Zak Brown made sure to highlight how bad he felt about it. Since then Ricciardo has signed with Red Bull as a reserve driver with the optimistic idea of a return to the grid in 2024. Here’s the thing though, given his unwillingness to sign with a midfield team, that prospect seems unlikely and Red Bull’s own wishes may see Ricciardo remain in a media focused role whether he likes it or not. 

Now as an outsider looking in, Ricciardo is perfect as a media personality. He’s knowledgeable about the sport and has a bubbly, likeable personality. What Ricciardo doesn’t seem to realise is that Red Bull receive the most value from Ricciardo for his marketable personality, not his driving ability. 

Hell, Red Bull boss, Helmut Marko, just outright says why Ricciardo was signed. 

“There are show car runs and performances, especially in America, and who better than Ricciardo with his smiley and shoey?” 

The transformation from driver to media personality is already underway with Ricciardo hosting an alternative commentary format titled The Grandstand with Canadian actor, Will Arnett, on ESPN+ for the Canadian GP. Though, this segment hasn’t been met with praise with most of the ire directed towards Arnett.

Regardless, the seeds have been sown and this kind of transition isn’t unheard of in F1, far from it. Ricciardo’s career trajectory isn’t all that different from current F1 pundit, Martin Brundle.

Following in Brundle's Footsteps?

martin brundle and Daniel Ricciardo
Martin Brundle (left) with Ricciardo (right)

This is not to suggest that Daniel Ricciardo will be replacing Martin Brundle. As it stands there is no reason to, but one has to wonder if his new role at ESPN will expand further. 

There are similarities between the pair but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ricciardo will follow in Brundle’s footsteps.

Martin Brundle had a long racing career from 1984 to 1996, he was respected as a racer and delivered strong results despite never appearing in winning machinery. Like Ricciardo, Brundle also had no interest in leaving F1 after 1996, but he refused the one team, Sauber, who offered him a seat in 1997. Similarly, Ricciardo languished in midfield teams and then refused offers from Haas and even McLaren’s offer of a seat in their IndyCar outfit. 

In Ricciardo’s own words (via Fox Sports), “It’s maybe not necessarily that I’m not interested in [IndyCar]. I think there is some. It’s more that I still feel there is unfinished business here, there’s a little more Daniel here in F1.” 

That unfinished business might relate to his unfulfilled potential as a World Champion, but it seems that those days may be long gone. Much like Brundle, who after 13 years in the sport would never win a championship, Ricciardo’s 11 years in the sport haven’t produced the desired championship. 

The difference seems to be that Ricciardo doesn’t believe his dream is over, whereas Brundle understood his situation. 

Burning Bridges

Ricciardo (left) with Cyril Abiteboul (right)

Which of the top teams would even sign Ricciardo? He’s a risk having jumped ship from Red Bull for Renault (now Alpine) despite a “stratospheric” multimillion-dollar offer to stay, according to Christian Horner. So why take a risk on a potentially washed driver when he may just up and leave you when a better offer comes along?

Take for example his stint at Renault during 2019 and 2020. It was financially beneficial for Ricciardo having earned $42 million USD per season, but ultimately this wouldn’t see him challenging for the championship, registering only two podiums in two seasons. 

His explanation for leaving the team would be prophetic, “My longevity in the sport will be dictated on how competitive I am, in terms of, for example, if Lewis [Hamilton] wasn’t in a winning car the last few years, if he was in P8 and P9, would he still be in the sport? It’s questionable.

“If you’re winning, it’s hard to walk away. [Nico] Rosberg did, but for most of us, it would be hard to walk away while winning. I can say today I want to be done by 35, but if I’m winning at 35 and if I’ve still got a chance to win, it would be hard not to keep going.”

Ricciardo burned Renault by then moving to McLaren, a team with no greater championship prospects than Renault, for considerably less money ($18 million USD per year). He believed McLaren were on an upward trajectory, but we know how that turned out.

Cyril Abiteboul, the then Renault team principal, discussed Ricciardo’s departure on Drive to Survive, “We need to be in a position for podiums and then fight for wins and then fight for championships – but Daniel has put a stop to all of that. 

“What’s hurting the most is it’s not the long-term project I thought we signed up for.”

Abiteboul here implies that behind the scenes it was understood that Ricciardo was at Renault for the long-term. Ricciardo’s signing cost the team extraordinary amounts of money and they got little to no return on their investment. 

Maybe that’s why Abiteboul believed that Ricciado moving to McLaren in 2021 was a “mistake” stating that the key to success is stability. 

“The drivers with the biggest results, biggest success have also been the ones that have been able to take the time and bring stability in their own life, in their own career.” 

So he made poor career decisions, burned bridges while doing so, and now has his driving ability questioned. What is left for Ricciardo in F1? 

The Fairytale Ending

In 2021, Ricciardo said that driving in F1 is his “dream job.” So this isn’t about what makes the most logical sense, it’s about giving up on his dreams. Could you do that especially after coming so close? 

It might make good sense for Ricciardo to lean into his marketable personality and knowledge of the sport for media purposes, but is that what he really wants? 

No, it isn’t.

“Honestly, the fairytale ending [would be] to finish my career here [at Red Bull] if I could have it all my own way,” Ricciardo indicated to ESPN (via Reuters). “But we’ll see. I’ll probably have to work my way up a little bit but it’s really nice to be back here.” 

Formula 1 is a cutthroat sport, Ricciardo knows that. You are as valuable as the results you bring in and Ricciardo’s value in recent years has plummeted. Why would a team risk signing him, particularly a top team, if there is plenty of young talent out there waiting to be given a chance. 

If Ricciardo wants to avoid becoming a media personality, he needs to lower his asking price and lower his expectations. Based on his recent comments above, he’s acknowledging that he needs to get back on the grid in some capacity to show that he still has what it takes to win races. 

Though his previous comments in April 2023 contradict this, stating that he doesn’t want to “start from zero.”

“I knew this was going to be a risk obviously removing myself from a seat,” Ricciardo said. “But I think it’s clear what I don’t want. I don’t want [just] any seat next year… I don’t want to just start from zero, and kind of build my career from scratch.

“It’s not coming from an arrogant place. But I’m just past that. I don’t think that’s going to stimulate me or give me that second wind I’m looking for. So it makes the top seats even scarcer. But that’s where I know I will be able to perform at my best and thrive.” 

Here’s the thing, every driver on the grid believes that they will perform at their best and thrive at a top team. As Red Bull’s reserve driver, he’s part of a top team and realistically, he won’t be replacing Sergio Perez. Ricciardo left Red Bull to get out of Max Verstappen’s shadow, and any driver alongside Verstappen will play second fiddle. Verstappen is a phenomenal talent alongside the greats and Ricciardo is no longer in his prime. Christian Horner made it clear that this is exactly why he left Red Bull in the first place.

“Daniel could see Max [Verstappen] in the ascendancy and he didn’t want to become the second driver,” Christian Horner told The Weekend Australian (via Fox Sports). 

In contrast, look at how Christian Horner talks about Ricciardo’s return to Red Bull. 

“His popularity in Formula 1… even though he’s not driving, he’s still probably the most popular driver here, and for us, it’s just positive to have him in the team, contributing to the team, to the drivers, to the engineering team.”

To translate, “He’s so popular even if he isn’t driving so why bother sticking him in a car when he’s perfect for Red Bull PR and marketing?” 

So where is he to go? Mercedes have a very comfortable driver pairing with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, the former of which has removed any doubt about his retirement. Charles Leclerc has publicly committed to Ferrari for the long-term and Carlos Sainz’s contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2024. Aston Martin could remove Lance Stroll, but considering his father owns the team this seems unlikely and Fernando Alonso’s form has been stellar. 

Ultimately, it feels like Ricciardo is fighting against the humongous machine that is F1. He might have plans, but they differ from the F1 organisation’s. If (and when) his 2024 return doesn’t work out, Ricciardo may finally realise that if he wants to stay in F1 it won’t be as a driver. 

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