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The numbers behind Daniel Ricciardo's return to F1

Daniel Ricciardo put pressure on Sergio Perez in Mexico with a stunning performance for AlphaTauri – but can he continue his form and stake a claim for the Red Bull seat?

A scenic view of Interlagos

A scenic view of Interlagos

Andrew Hone / Motorsport Images

The chances of Daniel Ricciardo replacing Sergio Perez at Red Bull next year have risen after last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix – and the next three races could be crunch time for two of the most popular drivers in the paddock.

Ricciardo’s stunning fourth place in qualifying put him ahead of Perez on the Mexico grid in the AlphaTauri – the supposedly lower-performing sister car to Red Bull – and Perez’s first-lap crash and retirement was a marked contrast to Ricciardo’s seventh-place finish. 

It was a surprising turn of form, significantly bettering AlphaTauri’s past performances this season, and it came just two races after Ricciardo returned to the grid for a second time this season following his hand-breaking practice crash at Zandvoort.

In Brazil, Ricciardo has two more chances to deliver and he will be keen to continue his form straight away in the Sprint. It is a long shot, but his odds of a podium are at 250/1, a top six finish at 16/1 and points at 3/1, while the odds of points for both AlphaTauris at 22/1.

Uninspiring return

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren last year but returned just 11 races into the season. Rescued from retirement by a Red Bull reserve role, his performance in mid-season testing, coupled with Nyck de Vries’ poor performances at AlphaTauri, got him the nod.

However, Ricciardo did not make an immediate impact on his comeback in Hungary – he set a time just 0.013s faster than team-mate Yuki Tsunoda in qualifying and while that was enough to get him into Q2, he was knocked out in the next session and started 13th.

In the race, the Australian dropped to last after being rear-ended by Zhou Guanyu and then hitting the back of Esteban Ocon. He recovered to finish in the same place he started, while Tsunoda climbed two spots from 17th to 15th.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

In his second race back, at Spa, Ricciardo was knocked out in a rainy Q1 while Tsunoda went through to qualify 11th. Ricciardo was 10th in the sprint, but in the main race, Tsunoda finished 10th while his team-mate suffered car damage and could only end up 16th.

The second coming

Ricciardo was sidelined by a crash in third practice at the Dutch Grand Prix and only returned in the US, five races later. He made it into Q2 there but qualified 16th and was almost three-tenths off the pace of Tsunoda, who again qualified 11th.

After a 12th-place finish in the Sprint – two places ahead of Tsunoda – Ricciardo finished last in the main race, a lap down on the leaders, while Tsunoda climbed into the top 10, secured an eighth-place finish and set the fastest lap. It was all shaping up to be the end of a career.

But then something happened in Mexico. At a track that has always been a Ricciardo favourite, the Australian set the eighth and sixth fastest times in the Friday sessions and was ninth in the third practice. Encouraging, but not spectacular. Then came qualifying.

Ricciardo was third in Q1, just over a quarter of a second behind Verstappen, then he knocked a second off his time by the end of Q3 to finish fourth overall, less than two-tenths slower than pole sitter Charles Leclerc and within a tenth of Verstappen’s Red Bull.

What made Ricciardo fast?

It was a big swing from one weekend to the next, but it was actually a long time in the making. Whilst Ricciardo was healing his broken hand, AlphaTauri had introduced an aero upgrade in Singapore, but its full potential had not yet been unlocked.

Heading to Mexico, the team had still only qualified in the top ten at four events, with a best position of eighth, and although Ricciardo had spotted a way to extract more performance in the US, the Sprint race format gave him no time to fully develop the opportunity.

The key to it all was changing his set-up to give him more confidence in corner entry, allowing him to carry more speed all the way through each corner – and the three practice sessions in Mexico gave him the flexibility and time to develop this new approach.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04.

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04.

He had already changed his set-up before the first session of the weekend, making the car more stable on turn-in, with a looser back-end that was still manageable to drive. He then tweaked the set-up to suit his driving style and the track and it just got better and better.

Can it continue?

Mexico is a quirky circuit. Its high altitude of 2,285m can change aerodynamic performance, which can make it unpredictable – and although Sao Paulo is the second highest track on the calendar, it is much lower, at just 800m, so the effects are far less.

That could reduce the relative benefits the AlphaTauri had over other cars in Mexico, but if Ricciardo has truly found a new direction, it should at least move him further up the pecking order, even if that is not to such lofty heights as seen last weekend.

Ricciardo thrives on good vibes and he will be buzzing from his experiences in the Mexico race. He was battling with the two Mercedes in an AlphaTauri and he will have loved that. If he can build on that positivity, he will be on a high – but it could also go the opposite way.

Mercedes are second favourites to Red Bull for Brazil, however, with the odds of both cars getting on the podium at 9/2 and the odds of either getting a top six at 4/7. The odds of an AlphaTauri being the first car to retire, meanwhile, are at 7/1.

Mexico demands good tyre management and Brazil is also tough, with medium degradation and high temperatures. Pirelli took C3, C4 and C5 tyres to Mexico, whereas Brazil will be C2, C3 and C4, so Ricciardo will need to adjust his technique to unlock the same performance.

The key point, however, is that Ricciardo now has a consistent and well-balanced car that allows him to adapt it to suit his driving style. He needed a few races to make it happen, but now he has found the route, his results will simply depend on track suitability.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Meanwhile, Perez’s continued poor form is reflected by his odds of 20/1 to win the Sprint – despite him being in the class-of-the-field car. It is 9/4 for both Red Bulls to get on the podium – and Perez needs to make that happen to defend his seat.

Ricciardo’s opportunity to stake a claim to the Red Bull is opening and while he may not reach the lofty heights of Mexico again, if he can take the AlphaTauri to places it has not been so far this year, he could leave Red Bull with an off-season headache.

Keep track of the action

To keep track of the action, wherever you are, the F1 Live Tracker from bet365 is a good place to go – covering all the information you could possibly need, from all the practice sessions, through qualifying, sprints and the race itself.

It allows users to track each driver’s position from the starting grid to the finish, live throughout the race, with current leaderboard information, the latest fastest lap, current lap times, number of pitstops by driver, current tyre settings and driver gaps.

To make it simple to catch up, a timeline details all the important race updates – including all the key overtakes and incidents – and it also allows two drivers to be compared head-to-head within the race, highlighting them on the tracker.

On top of that, all the safety car updates, red flags and yellow flags are covered, while track information such as temperatures, humidity and chance of rain makes it possible to keep tabs on potential changes and challenges and more easily predict what could happen.

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