Daniel Ricciardo is a Formula 1 driver refreshed. And armed with a new attitude after what doomed him at McLaren.
The eight-time grand prix winner is back on the F1 grid with AlphaTauri for the rest of this season, starting with this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, eight months or so on from leaving McLaren one year early and entering a sabbatical that Ricciardo knew could become a permanent exit.
At the end of 2022, Ricciardo did not want to drive for a lower-midfield team. Now he does. Partly because he’s had time to reset and partly because the long-term goal, he admits on his first day back in the F1 paddock as a racing driver, is not to keep racing for the team that’s currently last in the championship but to win a “dream” Red Bull Racing return.
To do that, Ricciardo must avoid a repeat of his McLaren nightmare. By the end of a damaging two-year stint struggling to adjust to the curiosities of that team’s cars, his driving style had been contorted beyond recognition and he was a shadow of the fearsome, instinctive driver who had been such a force with Red Bull and even Renault.
So, when it emerged he would replace Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri, and drive a car with a pronounced weakness on corner entry, it also raised the prospect of Ricciardo being confronted once again with a limitation that exposed him at McLaren.
“That was probably what hurt me the last couple of years,” Ricciardo admits.
“I probably started just falling into a little bit of a trap where, ‘Oh yeah, this car doesn’t suit me, and I need to work around this and this’.
“You can be your own worst enemy as well. Go back to my first quali with McLaren, I did a great quali, and that was when I didn’t know so much yet.
“I know the car will have limitations, I’m sure it’s not going to feel as good as the car I drove a week ago, but I’ll just work with that. I drove it on the sim last week and it seemed OK.”
It cements a feeling that by the end of 2022, Ricciardo had come to regret working so hard to tailor his driving to what team-mate Lando Norris was doing to get the most out of the McLaren.
While that just reflects McLaren’s desire to help Ricciardo as much as possible, and Ricciardo’s willingness to try, in hindsight Ricciardo feels that he would have been better suited driving more naturally. It may not have been exactly what the McLaren needed but overall it would probably have had a better end result than the counterintuitive mess.
Ricciardo and Red Bull have had to unpick all of that on the simulator. And having returned to the wheel of an F1 car in his decisive Red Bull tyre test at Silverstone, after a clean eight-month break from anything, Ricciardo is adamant that the best approach is to drive his way and make the best of it.
“There’s a lot I learned,” Ricciardo says when asked if dealing with whatever limitations the AlphaTauri has is about avoiding going down rabbit holes.
“Not just singling the last two years or whatever, but over now my career.
“Having the last six months to actually reflect on my career, I’ve been able to see a few things where, ‘Oh yeah, I would have done that differently and I should have changed that or spoke up about that’.
“But you’re right. The fact is I’d driven the simulator but I hadn’t driven a car in eight months. Hadn’t really been doing anything driving-wise. Just been really switching off from that.
“I appreciate the car [the RB19 he drove at Silverstone] is very good, it’s the best on the grid at the moment.
“But I just got in it and I drove. I didn’t really think about anything. I just drove and had fun. The times were good and I was competitive.
“There’s going to be a lot to learn but I’m not going to solve everything this weekend so it’s really just about focusing on using things I do well.
“That will all translate into some more positive outcomes.”
It remains the case that what happened to Ricciardo at McLaren was ultimately his weakness. Norris did a better job with cars that could be strange to drive. And if the AlphaTauri has anything nasty about it, maybe Ricciardo isn’t going to adapt to that as well as other top drivers might.
But beyond whether Ricciardo trips up over anything specific about the AT04, it will be extremely interesting to see if he can maintain the freedom he felt in his driving last week in the Red Bull – and if that will manifest itself in a higher level of performance.
As he put it: “Everything I felt driving the car last week is how I want to go racing again. I just want to be in the moment, enjoying it, not thinking too far ahead.”
It’s a fresh perspective, albeit one born from driving, as he acknowledged, the best car on the grid.
The new attitude might be harder to maintain once the reality of life in an AlphaTauri sets in. But this all feeds into a bigger picture for Ricciardo, who just wants to “get back behind the wheel and just show my true self”.
There’s a clear, if long and difficult, path to a Red Bull seat again. Perhaps that broader motivation will withstand any specific issues and keep bringing out the best in him.
After all, it’s already telling that Ricciardo missed F1 enough and wanted to prove himself enough that he’s now willing to get in a car that in 2022 he didn’t want to drive.
“I had enough time to reset but also just kind of enjoy it again,” says Ricciardo.
“I already felt that on the simulator so far this year. But that’s why I wanted to drive the car and really make sure it’s still truly what I love doing the most. I was up to speed really quickly and it felt so good again.
“I knew everything that happened the last few years, and taking some time off, it would be very hard to go back in at the top.
“Of course that was my wish but I think also you need to be realistic at some point and say, ‘OK, if I want to get back to say a Red Bull seat, then it’s going to take a bit of a process and a path’. This for me is the best path at the moment.
“Also, six months ago I probably wasn’t in a place to jump at an opportunity like this. But that’s been the luxury of time now.
“I’ve fallen in love with it again and I feel like I’ve been myself again.”