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How AlphaTauri can cater to Ricciardo's F1 needs the way McLaren couldn’t

Daniel Ricciardo's mid-season Formula 1 comeback hit a road bump through injury, but in Mexico he showed signs he may have finally found a car that suits his style.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri

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For two seasons Ricciardo and McLaren tirelessly worked to make the Australian comfortable in the Woking squad's machinery.

McLaren's current lineage of cars has a notorious low-speed weakness, which the team still hasn't been able to address, and its drivers have been forced to compromise their braking and cornering style more than they would like.

While Lando Norris, and now Oscar Piastri, have been able to drive around the weaknesses to score a string of podiums at circuits that suit the current MCL60, Ricciardo never managed to overcome the discrepancy between how its predecessors needed to be driven and his own driving style.

Fast forward to the second part 2023 and AlphaTauri, which has handed Ricciardo a lifeline after half a season on the sidelines, has made similar observations to McLaren about the Australian's needs.

"We can see that he drives the car differently to some of the other drivers that we've worked with, and with Yuki [Tsunoda],"  head of trackside engineering Jonathan Eddolls explained on Sunday before the Mexico GP.

"The way he attacks the corners, the way he hits the brakes. The driving style is different."

But while Ricciardo chased his tail at McLaren to reduce his deficit to Norris, which eventually proved counterproductive and sapped him of confidence, he now appears to have found a car that does give him the flexibility to deploy his natural driving style.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Ricciardo's wrist fracture seriously delayed that process. During his five-race lay-off AlphaTauri brought a steady stream of incremental upgrades to its AT04, which meant that it had to go back to basics in Austin to get Ricciardo up to speed with a car that was substantially different to the one he drove on his initial comeback.

The sprint format's restrictive parc ferme rules meant Ricciardo was soon stuck with a set-up that wasn't optimal as he finished a lapped 15th.

"We had that the question mark [in Austin], which is why we sort of put him back on Yuki's set=up, because the car has developed a lot since we brought many aero updates and characteristics had changed," Eddolls added.

"And then he was stuck because it was parc ferme, so that was the frustration of that weekend. We came out of it knowing that probably there was more performance in the package that we didn't have the opportunity to unlock."

In Mexico, however, Ricciardo and his engineers had the luxury of three regular practice sessions to fine-tune his car.

The Faenza team found a set-up breakthrough that, together with its track-specific strengths, enabled Ricciardo to take a shock fourth place in qualifying, just a tenth behind Max Verstappen.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

He converted that into a seventh place in the race on the tail of Mercedes' George Russell, which could have been fifth if it hadn't been for the timing of a mid-race red flag. The stoppage allowed Russell and Norris to bolt on the faster medium tyres, with Ricciardo had no usable set of.

"Coming here as a normal and free weekend has allowed us to spend the most of the Friday working on different set-ups to try to unlock a bit more potential from the car based around his driving style," Eddolls commented.

"We're not talking big numbers, but we can see differences in the way he drives. And he makes the lap time in different parts of the corner. And therefore the car exposes different weaknesses to the way Yuki drives it.

"One of his big limitations has been the front end, so the [set-up] directions have been able to improve the front end of the car for him."

AlphaTauri has shown glimpses of promise since its latest round of frequent floor upgrades and fully exploited its mechanical grip at the high altitude Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

But while its eye-catching Mexico form is not expected to carry over to 2023's remaining races to the same degree, Eddolls believes Ricciardo's set-up gains will persist, and they will also benefit Tsunoda.

"I think that this will continue with Daniel," he said. "But we've also got to remember Yuki has been strong here. He missed out on FP1 with Isack [Hadjar] in the car.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

"By the soft tyre run in FP2 he was up to speed and nearly matching Daniel. It's not like this set-up direction is going to unlock potential just for Daniel."

When asked why AlphaTauri was able to make things work for Ricciardo when McLaren could not, Eddolls thinks the AT04's lack of specific weaknesses, compared to McLaren's low-speed struggles, has made it a more benign car to handle.

That has given Ricciardo a stable baseline to further extract performance from, rather than having to walk on eggshells.

"I can't speak for McLaren, but the car we've got behaves," he explained. "Maybe we haven't quite got the load or efficiency of some of the top teams, but there are no big fundamental weaknesses.

"The fact that it does the same thing every lap, corner to corner, has given him the confidence to be able to throw the car into the corners and knows that it's going to stick and that it is going to do the same thing every time.

"It's a car that's given him the confidence to be able to push it closer to the limit than maybe he had at McLaren.

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Expanding on his Mexico progress a buoyant Ricciardo said: "The direction we went with the set-up, I knew that would allow me to just have a bit more confidence with the car.

"Last week Yuki got five points and it was huge for the team. Everyone was cartwheeling and backflipping. So a week later to get six points, I'm very happy. 

"For sure there are some things I can still improve on, but overall I'm very, very happy with the weekend."

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