Any F1 race can be defined by a coming together. Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo look to be on a collision course of a different kind. A collision course more like two galaxies destined to crash into each other sometime in the abstract future. They continue to operate in their systems but stand back far enough and you can see them slowly lumber towards the other, weekend by weekend, race by race.
The Red Bull second seat
The volatility of the second Red Bull seat will always generate conversation. They require such a specific type of driver; good enough to consistently podium, but not good enough to challenge Max in any real way. Perez seems to have had the most success playing that role so far. He was an integral part of Verstappen’s 2021 WDC and brought home 3rd in the 2022 WDC, only 3 points behind 2nd.
However, this year has proven to be a step too far for him. After trading 1st and 2nd with Verstappen weekend by weekend in the opening stages of the season he has had a considerable fall from grace. The lack of consistency has created a swirl of discussion over whether he is the right man to carry on through 2024, despite already holding a contract that guarantees him the seat.
This is where Daniel Ricciardo steps in. After an equally disappointing 2022 with McLaren, he was ousted into the F1 wilderness. No team opened up their seat for him, and he returned to the familiar arms of Red Bull, operating at the start of the year as their 3rd driver.
A position even he knew was mostly there to lessen the media load on the two main drivers. After a lacklustre, but brutally short, rookie season for Nyck De Vries, Ricciardo was brought in to add some experience and stability to Alpha Tauri’s lineup, and oh yeah, I suppose he could probably do a job in that Red Bull seat if we needed? But we don’t, right? Checo’s there and he’s our man.
And that’s how we get here, three races from the end of the season and Sergio Perez fighting for his life, week in, week out. And despite not having driven for the majority of his stint with Alpha Tauri, Ricciardo’s claim on the Red Bull second seat seems to have only gotten stronger.
Let’s break down, race week by race week, how one man can be out on track every week but still slowly see his career stability slip away from him, threatened by someone who couldn’t even hold a steering wheel properly.
Dutch Grand Prix (25-27 August)Embed from Getty Images
Rounding Turn 2 into the banked Turn 3 at Zandvoort, Ricciardo could do very little to avoid slamming into the tyre wall opposite his countryman, Piastri. Still holding onto the wheel as he crashed, he left the vehicle clutching at his left hand, later diagnosed as a fractured metacarpal.
As FP2 resumed, Perez put in a drive that saw him finish the session 7th quickest, .487 seconds behind leader Verstappen. Later in the weekend, Perez would go on to qualify 7th on the Saturday and come home 4th on the Sunday.
That same Sunday, Christian Horner confirmed that Ricciardo had visited a hand specialist in Barcelona and had successfully undergone surgery to repair the break in his hand. Horner, however, would not confirm a return date and noted Ricciardo would miss the upcoming Italian Grand Prix.
Italian Grand Prix (01-03 September)Embed from Getty Images
With Ricciardo already confirmed out and recovering from successful surgery, Perez put in the kind of weekend expected of a Red Bull driver. Finishing 3rd, 3rd and 10th in the weekend’s free practices, he then went on to qualify 5th on Saturday before gaining three places during the race to cement a Red Bull 1,2. It was the kind of weekend that Red Bull would be hoping for time and time again from Perez; finishing 6 seconds behind Verstappen, but also 5 seconds ahead of Sainz.
Towards the end of the weekend, Christian Horner provides another update on Ricciardo’s expected return. The recovery is taking longer than expected, and he’s likely to miss Singapore and Japan.
Singapore Grand Prix (13-17 September)Embed from Getty Images
Between the Italian GP and the Singapore GP, Ricciardo shares an update on his recovery via his Instagram. An image of the gruesome scar running up the left side of his hand is followed by a video of him sweating while riding an exercise bike. The effort and intensity of his desire to return are clear, and Alpha Tauri confirms he will be joining the team in Singapore, though acting in an ‘engineering’ capacity. He still isn’t fit enough to race.
On the back of the toughest weekend for just about every driver, with reports of drivers fainting behind the wheel, vomiting in their helmets, and a general sense of peril, Red Bull as a unit slumped to their worst weekend of the year.
Verstappen’s 10-race win streak and Red Bull’s 15-race win streak were both snapped. Checo qualified 13th on a difficult Saturday but made up five places on the Sunday to finish 8th in a weekend that Red Bull would sooner forget.
Japan Grand Prix (22-24 September)Embed from Getty Images
This weekend feels like the beginning of the end for Checo. An almost perfect storm of events transpires to spell out that he is both replaceable and surplus to requirements with Red Bull.
Perez put in some very average drives through the free practices, before raising hopes with a 5th-place qualification. On that same Saturday, Alpha Tauri announced their 2024 driver lineup. Daniel Ricciardo was confirmed to still be driving through 2024, and stood now as a consistent threat to Sergio Perez’s seat.
Daniel Ricciardo achieved all of this, despite not having stepped foot in a car for almost a month. Rumours in the paddock began to swirl that should Perez lose P2 in the WDC, Ricciardo was primed to step in.
The Sunday provides Red Bull with the opportunity to secure the Constructor’s Championship, and two solid drives would put that result beyond doubt. What followed for Sergio Perez was anything but solid. Two different collisions necessitated two changes to the front wing, before ultimately being called in to retire the car. The team then unretired Perez in order to send him out for two laps to serve a 5-second penalty, picked up as a result of a safety car infringement, before retiring him again, resulting in a DNF.
Despite Perez’s poor luck, Red Bull did finish the weekend as back-to-back Constructor’s Champions. The success of the team seemed to almost exist this weekend to spite him. In the space of one race, he had seen his potential replacement secure his seat behind him for the next year. He’d also seen his team bring home a championship despite no contributing points from him on the day. Replaceable and surplus.
Qatar Grand Prix (06-08 October)Embed from Getty Images
The Qatar Grand Prix was the target set by Horner at the outset of Daniel Ricciardo’s injury as a hopeful return date. After putting in some hours on the sim in the preceding week, it was eventually decided that Ricciardo wasn’t fit enough to race yet, and so one more week without Ricciardo on the grid passed by.
As a sprint weekend, Checo was provided with two more opportunities to impress, bring home some points and show the decision makers that he’s their man for 2024. What followed was less than convincing. 13th in qualification, 8th in the sprint shootout, a triple collision resulting in a DNF in the subsequent sprint, and a 10th-place finish in the race proper did little to quell the swell of discussion over his future.
United States Grand Prix (20-22 October)Embed from Getty Images
We’ve arrived at the return of Daniel Ricciardo. 57 days have passed since the crash. Counting the remaining days of the Dutch Grand Prix, six race weekends have passed, with some highs, but many more lows, for Sergio Perez.
The two drivers now have a chance to be directly compared, and the weekend comes out fairly favourably for Sergio Perez, though the damage may already have been done. He out-qualifies Ricciardo, then beats him for position in the sprint shootout, the sprint race, and the race proper. He also gets some breathing room from the other threat to his seat, Lewis Hamilton.
Having been warned that his seat rests on beating Hamilton to P2 in the WDC, the news that Hamilton’s car is illegal, and thus his P2 finish in the race is up for disqualification, is very welcome. It also moves him from 5th to 4th for the race, with the 2 extra points meaning more now than ever.
Mexico Grand Prix (27-29 October)Embed from Getty Images
It would be almost too cliché for any kind of fiction to make the driver under pressure have the defining weekend of their year be their home race. If this were a screenplay, you’d be asked to dial it back a bit. But here we are, what starts as an optimistic weekend for Perez, with some good times through the free practices, quickly turns very sour.
On Saturday, Daniel Ricciardo rolled the clock back and out-qualified Perez, pumping in a time good enough for 4th and Alpha Tauri’s best grid slot of the year. Perez put in a qualifying lap about a quarter-second off the pace to secure 5th and start the race on Sunday just behind Ricciardo.
As the lights went out and the race began, Perez got off to a flying start, attempting to go around the outside of Leclerc while Verstappen went under him around Turn 1. With nowhere to go, Leclerc was sandwiched between the two Red Bulls, Perez continued to turn in, collided with Leclerc and was sent careening upwards and off the track. Despite managing to make it back to the pits, there was nothing the mechanics could do to get him back out on his home track and Perez’s race was done. He pounded the steering wheel in frustration and there was nothing he could do but sit back and watch as Ricciardo put in a comprehensive drive to finish 7th and provide Alpha Tauri’s best finish in almost 2 years.
Brazil, united States (Vegas), abu dhabiEmbed from Getty Images
Seven race weekends, 66 days, that look set to define Sergio Perez’s future with Red Bull, and maybe even his future in F1. It is, of course, a pointless endeavour to try and predict the future, and Red Bull has come out over the past 66 days with various statements of support for Checo. However, these are harder and harder to read as anything more than a PR move given their historical absence of patience for underperformers.
There’s no one inside or outside of the sport that can help Sergio Perez now, except himself. If he can get his head down, finish off the year with some solid drives and take home P2 in the WDC, at the very least he can create a very difficult situation for the team at Red Bull. You can’t reasonably ditch the second-best driver in the sport by points for someone who has already struggled in that Red Bull seat and, at best, will have hit the tarmac only 7 times this year.
Ricciardo, on the other hand, has it all going for him. Seat secured for 2024, the least pressure he has maybe ever driven under in his entire career, and a trip to his spiritual homeland, Las Vegas, coming up. They are two drivers orbiting each other, existing in vastly different solar systems. You’d have to say that, right now, the sun seems to be shining on Daniel Ricciardo.