The timing of Daniel Ricciardo’s return to Redbull as a third driver is perfect for sprouting hundreds of conspiracies and rumours. With his return to his former team announced just last week, it appears to leave a cloud of uncertainty surrounding Sergio Perez – Redbull’s current second driver.
Redbull Racing is a Formula 1 team with a track record of bad PR and a not-so-great reputation. Whether it’s a financial scandal or team drama, Redbull is often in the spotlight for everything but its successes. With the recent controversy surrounding Verstappen’s refusal to give a place to Perez in order to secure P2 in the drivers’ championship, paired with Verstappen’s personal controversies involving his mother’s comments against Perez, Redbull has left Perez defenceless. Following the incident between Verstappen and Perez during the penultimate race of the 2022 season, the team did come out with a statement ensuring that there was a misunderstanding that has thankfully been cleared up. Although, there are many who would doubt the integrity of Redbull’s PR given its history.
After a successful career with Redbull taking 7 wins and nearly 30 podium finishes, Ricciardo left the team after 4 years to join a rival team, Renault. With a clear success streak and a promising future, it came as a surprise to most when Ricciardo joined a less successful team. Many wondered why Ricciardo would make a decision that would detrimentally damage his career, until looking at Redbull as a team and how they operate. Ricciardo was initially replaced with Pierre Gasly until he was dropped mid-season and replaced by Alex Albon. Albon stayed on for another season until he was dropped and replaced by Sergio Perez in 2021 with a contract in place until 2024.
In just a few years, Redbull managed to boost and then harm the careers of multiple drivers while searching for a perfect number 2. From looking at the treatment of their second drivers, it is evident that Redbull has a problem finding a suitable match for Verstappen. While some teams like Williams, Alpine, and perhaps Ferrari not explicitly defining their number 1 or 2 drivers, there are many teams who undeniably prioritise one driver over the other – which is arguably Redbull’s most prominent issue.
When Ricciardo left Redbull in 2018, he gave multiple reasons: the uncertainty of the new Honda engines, the lack of comfort within the team, and the growing turn of the tide in favour of Verstappen. With Verstappen proving himself to be a promising talent, priorities within Redbull shifted to elevate Verstapen’s position to what we now understand to be the number 1 driver. This can be reinforced by the treatment of Gasly, Albon, and now Perez, with decisions within the team always favouring Verstappen. Whether it comes down to developing a car entirely to suit Verstappen’s driving style, with little wiggle-room for another driver, or condoning Verstappen’s refusal to help his teammate, it is clear that uncertainty lies for everyone but Verstappen.
With Redbull’s prioritisation of Verstappen in mind, Ricciardo’s return as a third driver may plant uncertainty ahead for Perez. The role of a third driver varies in comparison to what most teams call their reserve drive. This role appears to be especially suited to Ricciardo’s return to his glory days with his winning team, giving him a clearer and steadier future in Formula 1. While this is perfect for Ricciardo, it puts Perez’s position at risk with his contract ending in 2024. This leaves Perez one more confirmed season in Redbull before he must begin fighting for his seat yet again. Having the option of Ricciardo gives Redbull a backup option in case of Verstappen-Perez tension, a tension that began showing in the second half of the 2022 season.Embed from Getty Images
The tension comes as Perez begins to flourish in the car, coming to grips with all components and suggesting that he is ready to fight for wins. While the two drivers have supposedly come to terms with that brief moment of conflict at the São Paulo Grand Prix, the radio messages and interviews seemed to underline a brewing conflict between the drivers. Perez disappointingly remarked that “this shows who he really is” on the team radio, then told ESPN in Spanish “if he has two championships, it’s thanks to me”. Also going on to call this act by Verstappen “disappointing” to Sky, Perez made it remarkably clear that feelings were hurt. Yes, Redbull has claimed that tensions are clear between their drivers yet there was no active reprimand for Verstappen.
True sportsmanship is allowing your teammate to pass to solidify their position as P2 in the drivers’ championship having secured P1 yourself many races ago. The team’s failure to reprimand Verstappen, only shows where their priorities lie as there was simply no logistical effect on Verstappen’s championship to not give up the place. Verstappen himself credits Perez for aiding him to victory during the final race of the 2021 season by holding up Hamilton for laps, taking off seconds of his lap time. After all the work Perez has put in, it is only fair for him to feel hurt by Verstappen and Redbull.
Bearing all this in mind with tension brewing between Perez and the team, where does Ricciardo’s return to Redbull leave Perez? Should Perez be more threatened by the evident prioritisation of Verstappen or the looming threat of Ricciardo, or will both components be his eventual demise?