A return to F1 for Daniel Ricciardo was inevitably going to become a major talking point at some stage of the season, with the Australian driver taking up a reserve role at Red Bull for 2023.
The eight-time race winner endured a torrid time during his two years at McLaren, and found himself without a seat after the team decided to pounce on youngster Oscar Piastri midway through last season.
Ricciardo has returned home to Red Bull, with whom he spent five years from 2014 to 2018, after spending two years with their sister team Toro Rosso (now known as AlphaTauri). His responsibilities included simulator and ambassadorial duties, as well as several test days, and filling in as the Red Bull and AlphaTauri reserve driver at certain events.
With AlphaTauri's new man Nyck de Vries going through one of the poorest debut runs in F1 history, a flurry of rumours have emerged linking Ricciardo with a move to replace the Dutchman at Red Bull's "junior" team - but there are a few reasons this would be a bad move for each of the parties involved.
Daniel Ricciardo: AlphaTauri swap would be wrong move for all involved
When Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull in 2018, it took the F1 paddock by surprise - but his stock was incredibly high. Brilliant race wins at China and Monaco in 2018 had brought his tally to seven wins in five years, during a period when Red Bull were not the dominant force they have since become.
But the intervening years have not helped his reputation. A driver-of-the-year contender at Renault in 2020, Ricciardo has since put in two pretty dire shifts in 2021 and 2022 with McLaren. Granted, there is the caveat that he delivered a race win on pure pace in the third best car on the grid at Monza 2021 - one of his greatest moments in F1 - but that was, in truth, the only bright spot of a period in which he saw his confidence utterly deteroriate and his form drop off a cliff.
What it means 💪
Look at how the emotions poured out of Daniel Ricciardo after such a hard-fought win - his first for McLaren! #ItalianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/J32TemwOcx
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 7, 2022
And so, to 2023. Ricciardo is now without a drive, sidelined to take a third driver's role at Red Bull. There is a cruel irony at play there - Ricciardo left the team in 2018 as he felt he was being shepherded into a number two role behind Max Verstappen. He now returns as number three.
Ricciardo is said to have turned down an offer from Haas to drive for the team in 2023, preferring to assess his options in the hope of a full-time return from 2024 onwards.
This week, rumours swirled that Ricciardo had arrived at AlphaTauri's factory in Faenza, Italy, for a seat-fitting, leading to speculation that the team were preparing the Aussie for a full-time return in place of the struggling Nyck de Vries.
There would be precedent for such a move - in 2016, Red Bull infamously demoted Daniil Kvyat to Toro Rosso from the main team, promoting 18-year-old Max Verstappen. Wonder how that one worked out.
The suggestion that Ricciardo had a seat-fitting seems to have been quashed, but reports have emerged that Helmut Marko (the head honcho of the Red Bull F1 operation) has given de Vries until June's Spanish Grand Prix to prove he deserves to keep his seat. Red Bull are ruthless and, if they believe de Vries is holding AlphaTauri back, they won't hesitate in binning him.
But replacing Nyck de Vries with Daniel Ricciardo mid-season would be a bad move for all parties involved.
Firstly, Ricciardo himself. If it is true that he turned down the offer of a Haas seat for 2023 in order to position himself for a more competitive drive in future, this would be a disastrous u-turn. As much as de Vries has struggled, it's abundantly clear this AlphaTauri is a similarly underperfoming car, and Ricciardo would have little scope to do much of note at the team.
For Ricciardo, 2023 has been billed as a year of reflection and rehabilitation, with the happiest man in F1 left visibly weary, beleagured, and lost by his two year nightmare at McLaren. On a personal level, it seems to be doing him good, with a sense of vigour returning to the Aussie as he has carried out his media duties with Red Bull.
To return to the pressures of a full-time seat in what would naturally be a hugely scrutinised move would be a mistake. At this stage, he has committed to the sabbatical - a u-turn could have disastrous consequences.
Ricciardo, on his day, is one of the greatest drivers of his generation but we can't beat around the bush - the perception of his driving ability has just about hit rock bottom. If he were to go to an underperforming team and put in more underwhelming performances, what reason would any genuine contenders have to take a punt on him?
What if he were to go to AlphaTauri and resoundingly lose out to Yuki Tsunoda, whose superb form is one of the main reason punters are now doubting Nyck de Vries? Judging by their respective trajectories since Tsunoda arrived in F1 in 2021, there's nothing to suggest Ricciardo would walk into the team and beat the Japanese youngster.
Yuki was cooking on the first lap 🥵#MiamiGP #F1 @AlphaTauriF1 pic.twitter.com/llr5sKsIEA
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 8, 2023
And, if he were to come in and decisively beat Tsunoda, what would be the effect on Yuki? Finally given the scope to push on and act as team leader, impressing just about everyone on the grid as a comfortable number one - only to be undermined and beaten by a man many have already written off?
AlphaTauri would be the main party who would stand to gain from this - if Ricciardo were to come in and improve on the performances of de Vries, then they would suddenly have two drivers capable of challenging for points in arguably the most uncompetitive car on the grid. But even so, it would be a massive gamble, which would risk upsetting the balance of the team and their future star.
Daniel Ricciardo deserves to be in F1 and we hope to see him back - but the high pressure mid-season AlphaTauri switch we've seen rumoured is not the right move for him. Time will tell if rumours is all that they are, and whether we will ever see Daniel Ricciardo back on the F1 grid.