Forget a Red Bull seat – Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 future is in jeopardy once again

Daniel Ricciardo perhaps could not have believed his luck when, just four months into the 2023 F1 season, a route back to the highly-craved 20-spot grid opened up last year. But if the affable and popular Aussie is not careful, he could fall victim to the precise course of change that relaunched his career last summer.

Because patience is not a word associated with Red Bull Racing.

You only need to ask Nyck de Vries that, booted out of the team altogether after 10 point-less races last year for AlphaTauri. A few years earlier it was Alex Albon and before that Pierre Gasly, who was afforded 12 races before his demotion to the sister team. Whatever their differences off-track currently, team chief Christian Horner and adviser Helmut Marko are firmly aligned in one way: they’re not afraid to make bold changes. And quick.

In Japan on Sunday, as the mothership Red Bull team secured another one-two finish with Max Verstappen back in the winning groove, RB driver Ricciardo was a tad unfortunate. Deemed a racing incident by the stewards, Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin on the left triggered a slight shift to the right for Ricciardo at turn two, which resulted in a collision with Alex Albon, who the Australian admits he didn’t see.

Rather refreshingly, neither complained about the incident or the heavy shunt afterwards – it was simply one of those things that happen on lap one of a motor race.

But the timing could not have been much worse for Ricciardo, who endured a frustrating weekend at Suzuka, a fortnight after a home grand prix to forget in Melbourne. Then, teammate Yuki Tsunoda scored six points, exhibiting genuine pace in this iteration of RB car. Ricciardo started last on the grid at Albert Park, finishing an unimpressive 12th. This weekend, Tsunoda again finished in the top 10, this time at his home race, while Ricciardo watched on from the garage.

Sitting out the first practice for Japanese junior Ayumu Iwasa on Friday, drops of rain in the second practice session effectively gave Ricciardo just one hour of Saturday practice to get up to speed. A session where he spun his car. Yet in qualifying he came close to matching Tsunoda, his Q2 lap time just 0.055 seconds off his team-mate and a top-10 starting spot. But as he has done throughout the first four races of this season, Tsunoda has the clear edge.

With his teammate on seven points, a scoreless Ricciardo is under pressure. Sure, because of his form. But also because of Liam Lawson, waiting in the wings as a reserve who would be fully deserving of a permanent seat on the grid.

Daniel Ricciardo could lose his RB seat to Liam Lawson if his form does not improve (Getty Images)
Daniel Ricciardo could lose his RB seat to Liam Lawson if his form does not improve (Getty Images)
Yuki Tsunoda secured a top-10 finish at his home race in Japan (Getty Images)
Yuki Tsunoda secured a top-10 finish at his home race in Japan (Getty Images)

While reports a few weeks back that Ricciardo could be ditched after the next race in China – if things do not improve – seem too hasty even for Red Bull, there is no doubt that the 34-year-old will be looking over his shoulder. In fact, the F1 production team did not miss a beat on Sunday when Ricciardo, in conversation with his engineer post-crash in the garage, need only look over his shoulder to see Lawson glaring inquisitively, with the look of a man ready to pounce.

New Zealand youngster Lawson impressed when stepping in for Ricciardo last year after the Aussie broke his hand in Zandvoort. He scored points, finishing ninth in Singapore. By the time Ricciardo was picked for 2024 alongside Tsunoda anyway, the disappointment from camp Lawson was palpable. There is no doubt that RB and their new team principal Laurent Mekies have a ready-made replacement available.

Ricciardo, however, is keen to play down his current form: “I think today is a singular moment,” he said after his crash.

“I don’t look at today and think ‘Oh man this year, when it rains it pours.’ I feel it was just one of those things. It obviously sucks when they do.”

At the start of the season, Ricciardo made no secret of his ambitions to salvage a second shot at Red Bull in 2025. Yet Sergio Perez insists his future will be sorted within the next month and, after three second-place finishes out of four, he is looking closer and closer to sealing a return as Max Verstappen’s teammate.

But forget the world champions, Ricciardo has a big battle on in the short term. Charisma and personality will only get you so far in Formula 1; Ricciardo knows that after his McLaren axing in 2022. As they all say, the stopwatch does not lie – and the Honey Badger needs to show some signs of his former self quickly.