Veteran Daniel Ricciardo has plenty to smile about after getting another shot at Formula One.
The driver with the biggest grin in F1 is making a shock return for the AlphaTauri team after being released by McLaren last year. The 34-year-old Australian’s comeback starts Sunday at the Hungaroring, nestled in rolling countryside outside of Budapest, where he won for Red Bull in 2014.
“It’s good to be back, it feels familiar,” Ricciardo said. “Getting back into the Red Bull family, it brings back a lot of old feelings.”
The eight-time Grand Prix winner was given the F1 seat at AlphaTauri — which is Red Bull’s junior team — for the rest of 2023 after Nyck de Vries was cut last week.
“Be prepared, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Ricciardo, who looked drained in the past two seasons and made the most of his break.
“I went to a buddy’s bachelor party, which I’ve never done. It was a place called (Las) Vegas as well,” he said, grinning. “It gave me some time away which I felt was definitely needed. It energized me and I (am) definitely ready to go again.”
Ricciardo is heading back to familiar surroundings, having raced for Red Bull’s junior team from 2012-13 when it was called Toro Rosso.
“Ten years is a long time. That team’s changed, I’ve changed. I feel like we’ve both evolved,” he said. “I’m just happy to have this opportunity.”
Smiles aside, the stark reality is that AlphaTauri sits rock-bottom in the constructors’ championship.
“There will be challenges,” Ricciardo said. “I know it’s a car we’re going to need to work at, probably every weekend.”
Ricciardo’s F1 career looked doomed after he was deemed surplus to requirements by McLaren following two underwhelming seasons. Although he won the Italian GP in 2021 it was his only podium with the British team.
Having failed to land a seat for 2023 he returned to Red Bull as its reserve driver, before AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost gave him another shot.
Immediately, Ricciardo impressed Red Bull team principal Christian Horner during a tire test at Silverstone last week following the British Grand Prix.
If he does well at AlphaTauri it might open the door once more at Red Bull given Sergio Perez’s poor recent form.
Since taking pole position for the Miami GP in May, the Mexican driver has failed to qualify in the top 10 for five races — qualifying 16th, 11th, 12th, 15th and 15th, despite having a leading car.
Perez, who is under contract until the end of 2024, has been on the podium once during that spell. Ricciardo’s return has spiced up talk that he could yet be reunited at Red Bull with Max Verstappen, the two-time defending F1 champion and runaway championship leader with Perez still in second spot.
Ricciardo won seven of his eight races with Red Bull from 2014-18, including a career-best three in the 2014 season when he outperformed four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel. He left the team after it focused more on Verstappen.
De Vries, meanwhile, was hired by AlphaTauri at the beginning of this season but was cut after failing to score any points in 10 races. The 28-year-old Dutch driver crashed several times and had a best finish of 12th at the Monaco Grand Prix in May.
“Of course it hurts that the F1 chance I dreamed of for so long ended prematurely,” De Vries said. “But life is not a destination, it’s a journey. Sometimes you have to take the hard road to get to where you want to.”
Axing De Vries so soon may seem harsh considering that AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda mustered only two points, but Verstappen said the timing is irrelevant.
“If the decision was already made then I don’t think it really matters a lot when it happens … You need one or two moments when you shine, get one or two points. These moments didn’t happen,” Verstappen said about his countryman. “I’m good friends with Nick, so it’s sad to see him go. It’s how this world works, I don’t think there are any hard feelings.”
Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press