Formula 1: Daniel Ricciardo's immediate future already at risk?

Daniel Ricciardo was expected to push for a 2025 Red Bull seat when he returned to Formula 1 in mid-2023. Three races into 2024, his future is already in doubt.

Daniel Ricciardo, Formula 1
Daniel Ricciardo, Formula 1 / Peter Fox/GettyImages

An eight-time Formula 1 Grand Prix winner, 32-time podium finisher, and three-time polesitter, Daniel Ricciardo has found himself on the ropes for the second time in three years.

Just three races into the 2023 season, Ricciardo has not had an easy time of things. All told, he's been outqualified by RB (formerly AlphaTauri) teammate Yuki Tsunoda in all three rounds, with an average gap of 0.446 seconds between them, has been outraced in all three races, and has been outscored 6-0.

The 2018 Monaco Grand Prix winner has also made some clumsy mistakes, including a spin into turn one while running well outside the top 10 in Saudi Arabia, and he missed Q2 in Australia because of a track limits violation at turn four.

Following that Q1 elimination in his home race in Melbourne, Ricciardo alarmingly didn't seem to have any answers for his deficit to his teammate when speaking to The Race.

"I felt like I got everything out of it (the Q1 lap) and then when I saw it still wasn’t good enough compared to Yuki, that for me is… yeah, 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’. But those ones are normally enough, more than enough, and it’s still not.

Then looking at the time he’s doing in Q2, I could tell you now I can’t get seven more tenths out of it than what I got in Q1. I’m sure there’s a bit of track evolution, but honestly there’s still some things we’ve got to look at because it’s been definitely a struggle so far."

Daniel Ricciardo

Despite Tsunoda's solid performances, Ricciardo's past success and high-level experience makes his start to the 2024 season nothing short of a disappointment. Even before his unspectacular efforts in Australia, he was issued a subtle warning by Dr. Helmut Marko for his lack of performance.

Not having any answers to his deficits only echoes the painful lows he suffered during his two-year stint at McLaren that saw him bought out from his contract.

The driver sometimes known as "the only one to challenge and beat Max Verstappen in the same car" was uncoincidentally the one best poised to replace Sergio Perez and join Verstappen at Red Bull for 2025, especially given his reportedly strong Red Bull test at Silverstone Circuit in 2023.

Now it could be just a matter of weeks before the Aussie is out of a seat all together, 21 races and 11 months before that season even begins.

Since the report of Ricciardo's RB seat being at risk was published, trusted sources from the Red Bull camp have quickly denied the claims outright. But whether you agree or disagree with -- or love or hate -- their methods, Red Bull have a history of dropping drivers very quickly if they don't perform. The all-around harsh environment gives these reports credibility, and likely a good dose of truth.

Even if they are 100% untrue, however, they speak to how poorly Ricciardo has performed to start the 2024 season.

With Ricciardo under pressure, standout prospect Liam Lawson could be next in line, and soon.

For as good as Red Bull's junior driver program is, they have also been very fortunate to have several strong talents to come through the ranks and have success in Formula 1. Look no further than multi-time world champions Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel, or even proven winners such as Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly.

Ironically, it was Ricciardo's wrist injury just two races into his Formula 1 return with AlphaTauri in 2023 which allowed one of Red Bull's brightest future stars, Liam Lawson, to get some time in the spotlight. And boy, did he ever run with the opportunity.

In four races alongside Tsunoda while Ricciardo was out of action, Lawson was out-qualified by his more experienced teammate 3-1, but perhaps more importantly, he out-raced the Japanese driver 3-1, and in the three races that both drivers finished, Lawson held a 2-1 advantage.

The Kiwi's highlights included finishing in 12th place the Dutch Grand Prix, ahead of Tsunoda, despite having had only one practice session before a chaotic, rain-soaked race. And best of all, he made Q3 in Singapore by eliminating Verstappen's Red Bull in Q2, and he scored his first career points the next night. He also had a solid drive to 11th place in the Italian Grand Prix, again finishing ahead of Tsunoda.

It was a short but extremely impressive stint that showed everyone Lawson's talent is for real.
It's why Ricciardo taking up a seat at the Austrian outfit's junior team for parts of 2023 and now 2024 was an interesting decision that called the overall purpose of the program into question.

How can Ricciardo make a case for himself to stick around?

The simple answer is to perform better, score some points, and beat Tsunoda. As things stand, that is much easier said than done.

Ricciardo is understandably putting a ton of pressure on himself to perform. After all, this is likely his last chance in Formula 1 if he doesn't do well. He wants and believes that he can win again, and the only realistic path that he has to reach that is to head to Red Bull.

However, given his unspectacular performances in both 2023 and 2024, bar the Mexican Grand Prix last season, partnering Verstappen at Red Bull simply isn't going to happen at this stage. It would probably be in his best interest to forget about the prospects of the future to focus on the present, in order to take some pressure and frustration off of himself.

But another thing that a lot of people seem to forget is that Ricciardo wasn't just signed up to RB to find himself after a brutal two years at McLaren and to audition for a Red Bull seat. He was also brought in for the marketing side of things -- think of his famous smile and sense of humor -- and more importantly, to assist the Faenza squad in car development.

The problem with a junior team such as RB is that they almost always have young, inexperienced drivers. While that does bring a lot of raw talent and speed to the team, it comes at the cost of having two drivers who may not know how to set up a car or how to describe its limitations to further influence development.

That is a key accolade that Ricciardo possesses, given the top teams he's driven for, and it is something of extreme value to a team in the thick of the midfield.

But as we have seen time and time again in Formula 1, having all the smarts, experience, marketability, and even a wealth of past success means nothing if said driver is performing even a smidge below expectations.

Lawson was admittedly and understandably disappointed and frustrated to miss out on a 2024 RB seat, solely to make room for Ricciardo.

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Should things not improve soon for the Aussie, however, Lawson's time could be coming sooner than anybody, including himself, ever imagined.