Nyck de Vries’ Formula 1 dream rapidly descended into a nightmare and within 10 races of his rookie campaign he was put on the chopping block by Red Bull, paving the way for the surprise return of Daniel Ricciardo to the sport that he was ousted from at the end of 2022.

While Red Bull swiftly moved to deny increasing rumours that a mid-season driver switch was impending and there’s a valid argument to suggest de Vries wasn’t afforded enough time in his debut season, it’s hard to ignore that the ruthless decision to end the Dutchman’s persistent struggles was something that increasingly became a matter of when rather than if recently.

After impressing with a deputy appearance that took him to ninth for Williams at last year’s Italian Grand Prix in place of the unwell Alex Albon, de Vries took advantage of the fall-out emanating from the Alpine and McLaren driver market merry-go-round to earn a spot on the 2023 grid.

Having produced an assured F1 debut performance at Monza and proudly displaying a CV that included title wins in both Formula 2 and the all-electric Formula E series for Mercedes-Benz, de Vries was expected to shine as the more experienced figurehead within the AlphaTauri ranks.

However, the 28-year-old massively underdelivered in an underperforming set-up to be one of only two F1 drivers yet to register a points finish in 2023. Whilst the failure to score in a car often languishing towards the back of the grid hardly warranted being replaced this early, being regularly outpaced by a younger team-mate and prone to avoidable accidents did.

Tsunoda had the upper hand in 18 out of the 20 qualifying and race sessions combined, bringing home a single point on two occasions. The Japanese driver – responsible for his own series of mishaps in his first two years – has served as a reliable hand, while de Vries was slammed by Lando Norris after he tagged the back of the McLaren driver at the start in Miami.

That error of judgement in the States came after de Vries threw away a promising weekend in Azerbaijan by tagging the inside wall at Turn 6 only 10 laps into the race, which succeeded hugely uneventful weekends – and not in a good way – at the first three flyaway rounds of the year.

Nyck de Vries (NLD) AlphaTauri AT04 and Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Haas VF-23 run on at the exit road and reverse back on to the circuit. 18.06.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 9, Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, Race Day.

Ending up over half-a-second behind Tsunoda at Silverstone and last of the classified runners last Sunday proved to be de Vries’ final outing in the AT04 and an accurate portrayal of his time. Incidentally, the venue of his last appearance within AlphaTauri’s ranks came right as Ricciardo was about to test the Red Bull RB19 and deliver the final nail in his coffin.

Following declarations of several solid outings in the Red Bull simulator back at its Milton-Keynes base, Ricciardo’s return was also cemented on the day he was present at the exact same circuit where he embarked on his F1 venture with the hopeless HRT outfit 12 years ago – one that would take him to the summit as an established multiple-time grand prix winner.

However, like back then, Ricciardo will get behind the wheel of F1 machinery with everything to prove: the Perth-born racer is aiming to rebuild his damaged reputation following a disastrous two-year stint at McLaren that had left him on the sidelines without a race seat and mentally bruised.

A battered and demoralised Ricciardo conceded at the end of last year that a period away from racing was required to rediscover his mojo. But only seven months into his sabbatical he is mounting a comeback with a side rooted to the bottom of the order, having previously concluded he would only become a permanent fixture again in a front-running outfit.

But with vacancies already appearing short in supply for 2024, hedging his bets on AlphaTauri’s affiliation with Red Bull opening up the possibility of a route back to the senior team he vacated at the end of 2018 certainly makes sense from his perspective.

This opportunity with AlphaTauri indisputably represents Ricciardo’s last chance saloon in F1. However, it constitutes a risk worth taking when the upside to a successful secondary stint with the Austrian camp’s second-string side could yield an unlikely revival of his Red Bull career.

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull Racing Reserve and Third Driver and Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing. 17.06.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 9, Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, Qualifying Day.

But to do so, Ricciardo must immediately hit the ground running in a troublesome machine. He claims he isn’t concerned by adapting to the worst car on the grid at present and that alone will provide an interesting element of hindsight into the extent of his McLaren troubles. Ricciardo is set to encounter the same braking and corner entry instability that plagued his spell with the papaya squad and exercising those demons will be pivotal to his chances of success.

As will ensuring he has the measure of new team-mate Yuki Tsunoda, who has enjoyed an outstanding renaissance in his third campaign with AlphaTauri this season. Previously slammed for committing too many preventable errors, Tsunoda has eradicated the mistakes this year and delivered an exceptional level of consistency amid challenging circumstances.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to truly nail down how good the Japanese representative has been when his team-mate was regularly off the pace. Has his improvement been flattered by de Vries’ troubles or is Tsunoda coming of age and unlocking the potential that he showcased all the way through the feeder categories and has at times been on display since his promotion to the top tier?

Ricciardo in that sense should provide a true benchmark of Tsunoda’s capabilities. Despite his troubles adapting during his ill-fated McLaren spell, a version of Ricciardo anywhere close to his best level would provide a serious challenge for Tsunoda to overcome in equal machinery.

Beating Ricciardo would serve as a glittering audition in itself and one that might clear the path for future promotion to Red Bull. If Red Bull stood by Tsunoda – in spite of the lack of alternatives – during his hugely inconsistent first two years, Marko clearly sees something in him that suggests he can eventually warrant being an option for the senior team. Therefore, what better way of testing his credentials than going up against a former Red Bull race winner?

Even if a Red Bull drive fails to materialise, a reasonable record against Ricciardo could elevate Tsunoda to the front of other teams’ wishlists. Conveniently, there have already been reports that Honda is eyeing up Tsunoda moving across to Aston Martin once the Japanese manufacturer begins powering the British marque from 2026.

Either way, Ricciardo and Tsunoda will likely be locked in a three-way shootout along with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for the second seat alongside Max Verstappen for 2025. The Mexican is out of contract beyond the end of next year and has suffered an alarming slump in form as of late that has witnessed him fail to advance through to Q3 across the previous five qualifying sessions.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing. 30.06.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 10, Austrian Grand Prix, Spielberg, Austria, Qualifying Day.

Both Horner and Marko have moved to reassure Perez that his place is secure for the time being – but his current blip transcending into a permanent rut could position his seat under threat.  

Whilst the upside for either current AlphaTauri pilot could be to land the most prized but challenging seat in F1 currently, the worst-case scenario could be the worrying prospect of losing their place on the grid altogether.

Despite not being granted his F1 bow on this occasion, Red Bull junior driver Liam Lawson absolutely remains in the conversation regarding a 2024 opening with AlphaTauri.

Lawson remains highly regarded by Marko and the door hasn’t shut on his avid hopes just yet. The Kiwi has certainly not done his chances any harm by responding admirably to being handed the Pierre Gasly treatment and getting shipped off to the Japanese Super Formula series for 2023, registering three victories in six races to sit only one point shy of the championship lead.

Whilst taking on a tried and tested 35-year-old Ricciardo is invariably a damning indictment against the purpose of the Red Bull academy – especially after Lawson was already overlooked in favour of de Vries for this year – throwing the 21-year-old in mid-season with a capricious car would have threatened to derail his F1 career before it had properly built up any momentum.

Whether bringing Ricciardo back into the fold transpires to be a worthwhile choice will be determined in the months to come, but the popular Australian’s comeback definitely makes sense for all parties involved in the Red Bull motorsport stable.

Through an atmosphere of unpredictability, Ricciardo’s return has unquestionably provided one certainty by ramping up the stakes considerably on a plethora of drivers between now and the end of the 2023 season.

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