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How Ricciardo showed first glimpse of Red Bull F1 seat claim

Fourth place on the grid for Daniel Ricciardo in Mexico is one of the biggest surprises of a Formula 1 season that has lacked dramatic narratives.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

After all, his AlphaTauri team currently lies at the bottom of the world championship table, and it had scored just five points all season until Yuki Tsunoda doubled that total with a strong race in Austin, helped by the disqualifications ahead.

But really the story in Mexico on Saturday was about Ricciardo himself, and his quest for redemption after being bundled out of McLaren at the end of his nightmare 2022 season.

Many observers thought that we might never see the Australian race an F1 car again, and that he’d drift into a media and ambassadorial career, taking advantage of the profile that Drive to Survive has given him.

To their credit, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko had faith that the driver who served them so well for several years could, in the right environment, still get the job done.

But there were no guarantees. The failure of Nyck de Vries to fully capitalise on his chance with AlphaTauri opened the door for Ricciardo to return in Red Bull’s second team.

With Sergio Perez struggling at the senior outfit the obvious conclusion was that Horner and Marko were keeping their options open. Getting Ricciardo back up to racing speed would at least ensure that he was a viable candidate should they opt to replace the Mexican in 2025.

With little preparation Ricciardo had a couple of low-key outings in Hungary and Belgium before the practice crash at Zandvoort that left him with a hand injury. It cost him five races, and gave Liam Lawson a golden opportunity to throw his hat into the ring.

Marshals repair the barriers and deal with the damaged car of Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Marshals repair the barriers and deal with the damaged car of Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Ricciardo finally returned in Austin. He admitted to being a little race rusty, and yet he enjoyed a solid weekend, even if 17th and last in the race hardly stole the headlines.

Ever the optimist, even he could not have predicted that just a week later he would qualify fourth – and outpace Perez at his home race. In one afternoon he completely transformed the general perception of what his true potential is as this new chapter of his career starts.

"I mean, look, it's cool,” he said shortly after the end of the Q3 session in Mexico. “I got asked, ‘you're ahead of Checo tomorrow. How does that feel?’ And I mean, it feels cool. But I'm ahead of a lot of people.

"It's just cool to be that far up the grid again. It's been a while. I mean, I'm going to guess it's probably Monza or something, somewhere in 2021, that I was second row of the grid.

“So yeah, it's cool. There's part of me which I think for the next like hour wants to celebrate today, because it's certainly a day that should be celebrated. I think the team as well, it's not often they qualify this far up the grid, especially this year.

“But I don't think the car we had this weekend is a P10 in the constructors' car. It's definitely been a more competitive car, and I'm just glad that I got the most out of it.

“So the next hour we'll enjoy, but then definitely focus on tomorrow [Sunday], and try and turn this into a big bag of points.”

Ricciardo was competitive from the start of the Mexico City weekend, taking eighth and sixth in the two Friday sessions, well above of the team’s usual level this season. Rivals concurred that the car seemed to have genuine pace, and that continued into FP3, when he was ninth.

Daniel Ricciardo, Scuderia AlphaTauri

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, Scuderia AlphaTauri

“From lap one yesterday [Friday], I felt good,” he explained. “All weekend I think we were a well inside the top 10 car. I think this morning we were still there, P9, but honestly, I was not happy with my lap this morning.

“So I knew that we could show more than that. You never know, in quali obviously everyone turns it up. But I was confident in myself that I could definitely get some more tenths out of the car.”

He was helped by some clever teamwork from AlphaTauri. Thanks to a power unit grid penalty Tsunoda had little to gain in qualifying, so he was designated to focus on giving his team-mate a tow.

Often such plans go awry, but it worked perfectly as the Japanese driver helped Ricciardo to progress from Q1 in fourth, and from Q2 in fifth. Crucially along the way that strategy helped to save a set of tyres for Q3.

Then like a pacemaker in a race Tsunoda dropped out, leaving Ricciardo on his own. And yet even without help, he earned fourth, splitting the two Red Bulls.

“Q1, Q2, Yuki was great, he gave us a tow, just to obviously make sure that we got into Q3,” he explained. “But then Q3, we didn't have a tow, and we still showed really good pace.

“So I think that's probably the coolest thing about today. It wasn't like, 'oh, okay, they did it, but they gained a couple of tenths from a tow.’ We had raw pace."

What gave Ricciardo most satisfaction was the margin to the established frontrunners.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04, leaves the garage

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04, leaves the garage

“Obviously P4 is amazing,” he noted. “But then you look at pole, it's two tenths. So it's not like Max [Verstappen] or someone is seven, eight tenths down the road. The gap is just as cool as the position.

“We're really there, and who knows what it means for tomorrow? But I don't think today's a fluke, I really felt like we had strong pace.

“With a perfect lap, going through it in my head last night, I thought alright, maybe today we could be a P6/P7 if everything goes well. So I definitely had confidence we weren't just a P10 car. But P4 is pretty cool."

So where did that pace come from? Ricciardo insisted that even before his enforced break he could see some potential in the package, and had started to hone a set-up that suited him. Since then the car has gone through a series of upgrades, which seem to have worked well as the pieces came together.

"We made some changes already in Zandvoort for P2, that session where we crashed,” he explained. “Those few laps I did, I remember on the hard we were competitive, and I actually felt alright, this is kind of the direction where we should start going with set-up.

“But then with Austin last week, we didn't really have enough knowledge on it, with obviously one session. You kind of have to race what you bring.

“So I was very kind of excited to come into this weekend, try it and see what it felt like, and I think with my driving style and kind of where I'm at with the car, it was the direction that made me feel a little bit more confident.

“I think already the car has been good to me. I felt good in it. But this just made me lean on it a little harder.”

Confidence is the key word. Last season it was a regular topic of conversation as Ricciardo tried to explain his struggles to a somewhat sceptical world, discussing the intricacies of his driving style, and what he needed from a car. He’s now hitting the sweet spot with the AT04.

"Definitely it's corner entry, I think,” he said when asked where that confidence is manifesting itself. “As drivers we'll complain about a lot of things, we want more traction, we want this, we want that. But if you can obviously have that confidence in the corner entry, that's where it all starts.

“You get the entry right, it then helps the mid-corner, helps the exit. And yeah, just that kind of confidence I've had turning the car into the corner, has been really important.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Erik Junius

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

“Even when I first drove it in Budapest, I think we qualified 13th or something, so it wasn't the fastest car, but it gave me a feeling which I knew was something I could start to kind of build on, and start to drive to my strengths. I feel a little bit like my old self.”

Confidence was something that was so obviously missing last year.

"That was definitely something with McLaren that didn’t suit me,” he noted. “And I couldn't quite understand or get my head around it. It's nice to be able to now kind of set the car up a bit more to my liking. Hopefully this is the start of a consistently faster AlphaTauri.”

It will be intriguing to see how he fares at the upcoming circuits, but in the meantime, he has Sunday’s race in Mexico to enjoy. Can he hang on to P4?

"Part of me kind of says why not?” Ricciardo said. “Because as I said, today was genuine pace. And all weekend, I felt like if I'd put the lap together, we were always like a top six car.

“By default, you kind of expect the top teams to have a little bit more race pace, and whatever it is, maybe with tyre management. But part of me also says, why not? Why can't we fight at the front tomorrow?"

There’s a bigger picture here than Ricciardo’s personal redemption, and he’s smart enough to know it. While it would be tempting for him to get stuck in and mix it with the Red Bulls on the first lap, he has to convert his good grid position into solid points for his team.

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Even a seventh place could potentially propel AlphaTauri from 10th to eighth in the table, ahead of Alfa Romeo and Haas, and that jump could be worth $20m at the end of the year. Ricciardo can’t throw this opportunity away.

“I think really lap one it's get your elbows out, but nothing too crazy,” he said. “It's one of those, you be too conservative and you're fourth, and then into Turn 1 you're ninth or something, you get eaten up pretty quick here.

“I think the nice thing being towards the front is you normally stay a bit more out of the chaos, obviously the mid-pack gets a little crazy.

“So that should hopefully help our cause in getting through the first few corners a bit cleaner. You still have to race pretty hard to not get eaten up. I’m experienced, hopefully I’ll use my head tomorrow, and it should be good.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing and Daniel Ricciardo, Scuderia AlphaTauri

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing and Daniel Ricciardo, Scuderia AlphaTauri

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