There was a point earlier this year when Daniel Ricciardo realized he was through with rediscovering normal life and that he still wanted to be a Formula 1 driver.
Ricciardo had spent two lazy months at home in Australia with family and friends after he was dropped by McLaren last year, trying to determine whether the love he once held for the sport still existed. During that period, he trained just once.
“Other than that day, I was living life,” Ricciardo said in an interview. “I wasn’t going stupid, but I was having beers with friends, camping, fishing, doing these things.
“Then, it got to the end of January, I’ve probably done eight weeks of just holidays, and I was starting to be like, ‘OK, I don’t really want to fall into this, having a beer every day, having fun.’ I didn’t feel I was at that point. I didn’t want to become a bit of a slob.”
Two months earlier, Ricciardo had left McLaren. After two difficult years, and with a season to go on a three-year contract, the team terminated the agreement in August.
Ricciardo was hurt, but he knew he needed to distance himself to reset and rebuild.
“At the time, it was a bit of a harsh reality getting fired,” he said. “It’s never the way you want to end something, but I feel like I needed out, to step away for a bit, to refind myself, refind my love for the sport.”
Ricciardo acknowledged that “the results weren’t there.” Aside from a victory in the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, his eighth in Formula 1, he was unable to extract the performance required from the car.
“By the end of the season, when I got home for Christmas, I thought, ‘OK, it probably doesn’t help my reputation’, but at that point, I didn’t care anymore. It was a blessing in disguise,” he said about being fired.
So it proved. Just three days after last season ended, Ricciardo was announced as the third driver with Red Bull for this season, assisting the team in testing and the simulator, a virtual environment that simulates the experience of driving a car.
Returning to the Red Bull family, where he was nurtured as a junior before two years with its sister team at the time, Toro Rosso, and five with Red Bull, would allow him to remain involved in Formula 1.
It was not until a visit to the Super Bowl in Arizona in February that Ricciardo first started to feel anxious about a return.
“It was a bit of a workweek as I was with C.A.A.,” he said, referring to his agent, the Creative Artists Agency, “and I met some people and talked about some projects, which got my work side firing again.
“Then, I went to the game, and I was like ‘I miss this.’ I was very envious of the players on the field, the anthem and just that feeling of competition, so when I got back from the Super Bowl, I went back to my place in L.A., got the weights out and started doing a bit of training. I knew I wanted to get back into it.”
The first day in the simulator told Ricciardo and Red Bull all they needed to know about where it had gone wrong for him at McLaren.
“We’ve spent the last seven months rebuilding him and getting the old Daniel back that we recognized from when he was last with us,” Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said in an interview.
“He had picked up a lot of bad habits. It took some of his old engineering team to unpick some of those and very quickly, and in a virtual world, get him back on a par with what we were used to.”
One problem, Horner said, was that Ricciardo’s braking technique “had changed dramatically.”
“He was trying to put a sticking plaster on a weakness of the car,” he said. “Once we sorted that, then everything started to become more natural.”
Ricciardo accepts Horner’s appraisal and said his two years with McLaren robbed him of a vital element: confidence.
“I genuinely do feel that I lost some of my technique, some of my strengths,” Ricciardo said. “Things that had worked in the past weren’t working anymore, so I had to throw them away. I’d then try some other stuff and they wouldn’t work, then my confidence would go down, and that was the biggest thing.
“I realized that when I got back into the Red Bull sim, that I was not a very confident person, so in a way it was a relief for me to see I wasn’t operating at the level I thought.”
It was not until his second run in the simulator that Ricciardo began “to unplug a few things,” and his confidence returned.
Over time, Ricciardo proved himself. In July, at the Silverstone circuit, two days after the British Grand Prix, he drove for Red Bull during a tire test for the supplier Pirelli.
His performance led to Nyck de Vries’ being replaced at AlphaTauri with Ricciardo. De Vries was a rookie who drove in only 10 races for the Red Bull sister team.
“It was always scheduled for him to do that test, and that was very much going to be a moment in time just to see where he was at,” Horner said.
“With Nyck struggling to get to grips with it, it just felt it took on more relevance, and to give AlphaTauri some direction with an experienced driver,” Horner said. “After his performance at the test, it was a no-brainer.”
Ricciardo never expected to return so quickly, even questioning whether it would be better to wait two more races until after the summer break. It was only after driving in the Hungarian and Belgian Grands Prix that he appreciated the logic of the decision.
“Having those two races before the break was the best thing because it gave me a platform, something to build on,” he said.
But on the third race of his return, the Dutch Grand Prix in August, Ricciardo broke a metacarpal in his left hand in multiple places in a crash during a practice session. He turned into a barrier to avoid hitting the McLaren driven by his fellow Australian Oscar Piastri, who had just crashed and was on the racing line.
Ricciardo underwent surgery, requiring screws and a plate, forcing him to miss the last race in Italy.
Despite the setback, he has been assured of his seat at AlphaTauri when he recovers, with his aim of earning a contract for next year and a return to Red Bull in 2025.
“I told Christian, ‘Look, now that I’m back in the family, I feel so much happier, like myself, and I don’t want to leave,’” Ricciardo said.
“The big picture is that I would love to work my way back up to the top team. I’m not talking to any other teams, I made that clear, and now it’s up to me to perform well because I’d love to remain.”