Daniel Ricciardo is the big question mark on the grid right now and everyone wants to know how his performance is going considering his lacklustre form over the last two years. We only have two races to go on, but how have those two races gone? In truth, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Something to keep in mind is that all Ricciardo’s performances this year have to be taken in context. The AlphaTauri AT04 is often the slowest car on the grid so the best way to gauge Ricciardo’s performance is to compare him to his teammate, Yuki Tsunoda.
The Hungarian Grand Prix
Right off the bat, Ricciardo’s first race back was realistically the best he could have hoped for. The Australian managed to get out of Q1 with a 1:18.906, while Tsunoda was eliminated with a 1:18.919. Ricciardo wasn’t light years ahead of Tsunoda, who only qualified 0.013 seconds behind.
The margins between drivers in the midfield are miniscule but that’s what the drivers are fighting to achieve, mere hundredths of a second advantage over their opponents.
Ricciardo was eliminated in Q2 with a 1:18.002 but that was good enough for P13, a solid start for the AlphaTauri.
Off the start, Ricciardo was caught up in the Turn 1 incident that saw both Alpine’s taken out of the race and Ricciardo being rear-ended by the Alfa Romeo of Zhou Guanyu. Despite that, Ricciardo managed a phenomenal drive that saw him return to P13 which, given the context, is maybe the best the car was capable of, and better than Tsunoda who finished in P15.
The important thing for Ricciardo is to impress the heads at Red Bull, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko. Ricciardo is on loan to AlphaTauri for 12 races and it’s no secret that he is hoping for Sergio Perez’s seat at Red Bull when his contract expires at the end of 2024.
The good news for Ricciardo is that Horner was very happy with his performance in Hungary.
After qualifying, Horner said, “He’s done a great job. He’s in a very foreign environment after seven months out of a seat, [so] it was a really solid, mature performance from him today and the team will really benefit from his experience and knowledge.”
Ricciardo said of the race, “Aside for lap one, turn one, it was a good day.”
There is a caveat here. It certainly looks like Ricciardo was quicker but Tsunoda didn’t have the upgraded front wing that Ricciardo had at Spa. That was because he broke it during the Friday practice session and as the part had only been introduced at the British Grand Prix, and the team were limited with spares and didn’t want to incur any parc ferme infringements should there be more damage over the weekend.
Now look at those qualifying times and you realise that Tsunoda almost out-qualified him in an old spec car. So while it was a good return for Ricciardo, he still has some work to do.
The Belgian Grand Prix
While it was an impressive return in Hungary, Spa may have been something of a reality check for the Australian.
In qualifying, Ricciardo finished a dismal P19 with a 2:02.159. Comparatively, Tsunoda made it to Q2 with a 1:59.044, an almost three second difference. Tsunoda would go on to qualify in P11 with a 1:53.148.
Things were much better for Ricciardo in the Sprint Shootout, who once again got into Q2 with a 2.00.177, while Tsunoda was eliminated from Q1 with a 2:00.568, qualifying P16. Ricciardo would go on to qualify P11, though neither Williams or Aston Martin ran in the session.
The Sprint went well for Ricciardo managing to jump from P11 to P8, though he lost two places on the final lap as struggled for grip finishing P10, well ahead of Tsunoda in P18.
While P10 would have been good for points in the race regular, it wasn’t good enough in the Sprint. That’s where Tsunoda got it right, in the sessions that were worth more points, where it mattered most.
Ricciardo had a dismal race on the Sunday, finishing P16 with Tsunoda proving to have pace and grabbing a point finishing P10.
“Honestly, it was tough in traffic,” Ricciardo explained. “Maybe a race with more clear air could’ve been better, but in general I’m not convinced we had great pace today. It felt like we never got the peak out of the tyres, and we couldn’t generate enough grip in the second sector.
“The reality is, these were my first dry laps in this car on this track, and I don’t know this car that well yet, so I still felt there was a little missing, but we’ll figure it out.”
For the most part, Ricciardo’s return has been solid. He isn’t blowing anyone away, but how can he given the AT04’s pace? He is keeping up with Tsunoda in qualifying so far with the deficit much lower than the driver he replaced, Nyck de Vries.
It is still too early to tell if he is a genuine contender for the Red Bull seat, but he will likely have pleased Red Bull management with what he’s been able to do in such a short amount of time at the ailing AlphaTauri team.