Could Daniel Ricciardo make a shock return to Red Bull? It seems inconceivable, and people always warn about going back.
This is Formula 1, though, and stranger things have happened — like when Fernando Alonso went back to McLaren in 2015. However, that second marriage didn’t exactly go to plan.
This week, Red Bull sent shockwaves through F1 when Pierre Gasly was demoted to Toro Rosso, with 12-race rookie Alexander Albon moved alongside Max Verstappen in the senior team.
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Immediately, gazes were cast towards the 2020 driver market. Should Red Bull’s ‘Plan A’ work out, a confident and firing Albon will retain the seat.
However, should the Thai driver struggle in the ilk of Gasly, suddenly Red Bull will have three contracted drivers that will be out of favour for the drive, considering the obvious reluctance to give the more experienced Daniil Kvyat the seat.
The supposed deterioration of the Red Bull-Ricciardo relationship played out in full public view before he left for Renault, and was amplified in the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner believed the Aussie was “running from a fight” with Verstappen.
However, while Ricciardo conceded several factors behind leaving Red Bull, there are some factors that could also encourage a return, however unlikely it may seem.
This is the obvious one. It would be a great shock should Red Bull find a way to tempt Ricciardo back to the team, but the Aussie isn’t having a great time of it with Renault.
The 30-year-old has a deal for 2020 with the French team, but this season has not gone to plan, and you’d be daft to think there’s no discomfort. After 12 races, Renault has slumped to sixth in the constructors’ standings behind McLaren and Toro Rosso.
It would perhaps seem desperate should Red Bull throw the chequebook at Ricciardo and tempt a release, in the same way they could lure the in-form Carlos Sainz from McLaren. Hell, Sebastian Vettel could even lose patience with Ferrari and look for something fresh.
All three drivers were part of the Red Bull family for years, so there would be some considerable pulling power.
But Ricciardo has been more than willing to express his frustration, saying after his Hungary non-points finish — his eighth from 12 starts — that Renault were down on confidence and were keen for a reset over the summer break.
Honda has proven to be strong
One of the great unknowns that contributed to Ricciardo’s departure from Red Bull was the Honda package, which left the Australian sceptical following the Japanese company’s sluggish development.
However, the Honda power unit has proven more than capable in 2019, with Verstappen snapping at the heels of Mercedes while keeping Ferrari at bay.
Ricciardo cited his impending split from engineer Simon Rennie as another factor, with the engineer moving into a factory role for 2019.
Running blindly into a new season with a new engine package loomed as a great challenge, and one that Ricciardo opted against. However, in hindsight, Honda and an existing Red Bull relationship may have kept him in the title hunt this season.
“There were a lot of reasons, but losing Simon Rennie … I knew he wasn’t going to engineer this year if I stayed at Red Bull,” Ricciardo said.
“I felt I had a really good relationship with him and there were some unknowns as well, not knowing who I was going to have.
“I was certainly comfortable with him. If I knew he stayed, I don’t know if that would have been the deciding factor, but it was another.
“Obviously when you’ve got the Honda unknown and a few others, I guess that was another thing.”
Gasly demotion a question of driver, not car
In his final season at Red Bull, Ricciardo was out-qualified by Verstappen 15 times. However, the Australian took the team’s two pole positions that season, and despite a late-season run of reliability nightmares, his racecraft never wavered.
Sadly for Gasly’s, the Frenchman’s deficit has been much more pronounced. Analysis by lightsoutblog.com revealed that, when adding drivers’ best three sector times in qualifying from all 12 Grands Prix this season, Gasly was a combined 6.28s down on Verstappen. That’s over half-a-second per session.
Gasly has also scored just 63 points to the 181 amassed by Verstappen, who has taken two victories and a further three podiums.
Ricciardo — whose driving style suited the Red Bull chassis and its braking capabilities — suggested it’s a question of Gasly struggling to adapt to the Red Bull package, which is being maximised by the Dutchman.
“The reality is reality — he is a long way off Max,” Ricciardo said of Gasly.
“So on one side they are happy with Max and the first pole for him [in Hungary]. But on the other hand I think deep down they know that they could be scoring a lot more points.
“I don’t know what it is at the moment with Pierre because last year he got some big results with Toro Rosso, which was clearly not as good a car as the Red Bull.
“A tough one. I know Max as a teammate … and I didn’t expect Pierre to come out and beat him.
“I’m not surprised that Max is beating him, but I am surprised at the gap.”