What Daniel Ricciardo’s shaky 2024 start means for his F1 future

Daniel Ricciardo’s first Australian Grand Prix since returning to the Formula One grid, two years on from his last home outing with McLaren, was supposed to be a moment of celebration.

Lining up as the 18th and final car on the grid, after Zhou Guanyu’s pit lane start and Logan Sargeant’s withdrawal, was never part of the plan.

While Ricciardo recovered to 12th in the race, he was well behind teammate Yuki Tsunoda, who led the way for RB by converting his Q3 charge into six points for P7. Given how limited the points-scoring opportunities could be for the ‘B-tier’ teams this year, it may end up being a decisive score.

Considering this was meant to be the year that Ricciardo made his case for a return to Red Bull in 2025, a goal he made public last summer when he got back on the grid, it’s been a disappointing beginning to the season.

“Having a full preseason and all that, and all the races last year, I honestly thought that this year, we would start a lot stronger,” Ricciardo admitted after the race in Melbourne.

The Australian ended last year with all the momentum when it came to the race for the Red Bull seat now occupied by Sergio Pérez, highlighted by his brilliant Mexico weekend that coincided with Pérez crashing out at the first corner. Prior to Lewis Hamilton’s shock Ferrari switch blowing a hole in the driver market, not to mention talk of a Max Verstappen exit, it seemed like a straight fight between Ricciardo and Pérez for 2025, with Ricciardo seemingly the favorite.

The first three races of the season have started to change that picture. Not only has Pérez been doing all that he needs to do, finishing second in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before a grid penalty and some floor damage limited him to fifth in Australia, but Ricciardo simply hasn’t found his form.

‘A struggle so far’

The gap to Tsunoda, a driver whom Red Bull has never seriously considered as a candidate for its senior team, is a surprise. Australia marked the second race in a row in which Ricciardo trailed Tsunoda. He only finished ahead in Bahrain thanks to team orders to switch the cars, and hasn’t scored a point this season.

The Australian is 0-3 in their qualifying head-to-head, having dropped out in Q1 in Australia after his lap time was deleted due to a track limits breach. Through the first three races, Tsunoda has an average qualifying gap to Ricciardo of 0.446 seconds, the biggest between teammates on the grid. Had Ricciardo’s lap in Melbourne not been deleted, that average would be 0.240s — still a surprising margin.

Ricciardo opened up about his struggles after qualifying on Saturday in Melbourne. Unlike at McLaren, where he lacked confidence and understanding of how to drive the car, he said he feels comfortable in the RB, particularly with the balance and under braking. It’s just not translating into a quick lap time.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: 8th placed Yuki Tsunoda of Japan and Visa Cash App RB, 12th placed Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Visa Cash App RB and the Visa Cash App RB celebrate in the Pitlane after the F1 Grand Prix of Australia at Albert Park Circuit on March 24, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

Through the first three races of 2024, Yuki Tsunoda has provided all of RB’s points. (Peter Fox/Getty Images)

“I’m still a bit puzzled, because I know what those laps normally mean, and I crossed the line being like yeah, that was a good one,” Ricciardo said of his qualifying lap. “Those ones are normally enough, more than enough, and it’s still not.

“Then looking at the time (Tsunoda) is doing in Q2, I could tell you now, I can’t get seven more tenths (of a second) out of it than what I got in Q1. There’s still some things we’ve got to look at, because it’s definitely been a struggle so far.”

Ricciardo was more encouraged by his race pace as he finished 15 seconds behind Tsunoda, and highlighted the need to talk to the team about where the speed might be missing. “I want to reiterate to the team as well that it’s not a confidence thing,” Ricciardo said after the race. “It’s not like, ‘what the hell is this car going to do when I brake or when I turn?’ It’s not that.

“It’s just I feel like a lot of the time I’m not able to carry the speed maybe that I see Yuki able to. (I’ll) see what I can do better. I’m asking plenty of questions to the team as well, so it’s a two-part process.”

Building pressure

The nature of F1’s ‘silly season’ and the spotlight on Ricciardo, an eight-time grand prix winner, means he will be an inevitable talking point. Red Bull’s outspoken adviser, Helmut Marko, wrote in a column after Jeddah that Ricciardo would “come up with something soon” after his tricky start; Ricciardo said on Thursday in Australia he knew he had to step things up.

But he said on Sunday he isn’t worrying about what is being said on the outside. “In terms of the noise, people tell me in the media, ‘so and so said,’ and it’s the first I’ve heard,” Ricciardo said. “I know that I’m on this little process or journey at the moment, and I just need to focus on myself.

“If I let any of the noise in, it’s going to kind of distract me from the path I’m on. I think it’s been really good, I haven’t let any of that negative stuff creep in.”

It’s an encouraging mindset shift that harks back to his time away from F1 through the winter of 2022-23, when he stepped away and let the hunger come back naturally. Yet it also needs to translate into an on-track uplift sooner than later.

There’s already that expectation within the Red Bull setup, particularly with Liam Lawson waiting in the wings after his impressive five-race cameo in 2023, when Ricciardo was out with a broken hand.

Suggestions there is any looming deadline for Ricciardo to find his form or face being replaced by Lawson at RB are wide of the mark, according to a source briefed on the matter, but there is pressure for him to pick up his performance levels.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner spoke about the need to support Ricciardo after his tough Australia weekend. “He’s a big boy, he’ll pick himself up,” Horner said. “But sometimes being a Formula One driver can be a bit lonely, so a bit of encouragement is never a bad thing.”

With regards to 2025, Horner said it was “still very early in the year to even be thinking about next year” and the team was in no “desperate rush”, also noting how well Pérez had started the season. But he did acknowledge the fluidity of the market.

“We want to field the best pairing that we can in Red Bull Racing, and sometimes you’ve got to look outside the pool as well,” Horner said. “You’ve had a very fast unemployed driver win today (in Australia, Carlos Sainz, who is unsigned for 2025). The market is reasonably fluid with certain drivers.”

Red Bull may be in no rush for 2025, but Ricciardo quickly needs to get to the bottom of his early struggles if he wants to get back into that conversation — and gain greater security even in his current position with RB.

(Lead photo of Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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