Red Bull’s brewing driver dilemma

Some of you might hate me when I tell you this column is actually about AlphaTauri drivers, but then Red Bull has full control of the drivers it has under contract in terms of which of its two teams they race for, and it could be about to have a problem on its hands.

A good problem, admittedly, but a problem nonetheless.

And it’s largely a problem of Daniel Ricciardo’s making, for both positive and negative reasons.

When he returned to the team at the end of 2022, there was some surprise within Red Bull about the bad habits that Ricciardo appeared to have picked up during his time with Renault and McLaren. And there was understandable uncertainty over whether he would be able to regain the sort of form that had allowed him to enjoy such success up until leaving at the end of 2018.


Over the first half of this year he had clearly dispelled some of those doubts, and at the very least put himself in a position where Red Bull wanted to know more about the levels he could reach. So the AlphaTauri drive became his in July.

At the time I was under the impression it was as much about Ricciardo as it was about Nyck de Vries’ performances, but have since learned that patience had run out with the Dutchman and he was going to be replaced either way. If it wasn’t going to be Ricciardo, then Liam Lawson was set to be promoted.

That shows how highly Helmut Marko rates Lawson, and perhaps why it shouldn’t be a surprise that the New Zealander has been impressive in his two outings as Ricciardo’s replacement so far.

But it has only been two outings, as was the case for Ricciardo with his race appearances in Hungary and Belgium that hinted at a return to previous form – or at least, the potential to get there. Even Friday practice in Zandvoort had delivered promising signs before Ricciardo’s crash that broke his hand.

So it’s a small sample set so far, but one that shows Red Bull was right to want to take a closer look at Ricciardo, and also right to be considering Lawson for a mid-season opportunity as well.

And that’s where the problem starts, because they’re sharing the one seat.

The team’s attitude towards Yuki Tsunoda was fairly indifferent ahead of this season. The Japanese driver had shown flashes of potential but was still viewed as a Honda-appeasing choice, which was highlighted by de Vries being the only one of the original AlphaTauri pair to have had a seat fitting with Red Bull, meaning it would be him, and not Tsunoda, who would be called upon as reserve if either Max Verstappen or Sergio Perez were unable to drive for any reason.

But it’s hard to overlook the improvement that Tsunoda has shown so far this season. It was perhaps tougher to gauge the step forward when he was paired with de Vries, but now having seen Ricciardo and Lawson alongside him, it’s still Tsunoda who has picked up a further point in Belgium.

He’s also responded well to the recent overhauls, having earned the unofficial position of being the team leader prior to the changes. Tsunoda has spoken of what he can learn from different teammates, both drawing on Ricciardo’s experience and approach but also helping the rookie Lawson.

Lawson has done a solid job after being thrown in at the deep end as stand-in for the injured Ricciardo. Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

So what does Red Bull do about getting three drivers to fit into two AlphaTauri seats next year?

If Ricciardo hadn’t broken his hand, the equation might have been more simple, as a clean run at the second half of the season would have likely shown whether Tsunoda had the beating of the Australian – and therefore that Ricciardo was unlikely to be ready for a Red Bull return – or that the Japanese driver was flattering to deceive against de Vries.

Instead, there isn’t a clear picture of that, and it would be unfair to judge either driver based on the two races they had together in July. Similarl,y Lawson has been thrown into the deep end and so far performed admirably, but will need the next few races to cement that.

The 21-year-old will get the next two races at least to stake that claim, but then will have to step aside again when Ricciardo returns. It all adds up to a complicated set of data that currently reflects positively on all three drivers.

Ironically, it might be the driver that is performing the best that misses out.

After three years with AlphaTauri, Tsunoda has certainly not hurt his reputation within Red Bull, even if there are no serious noises to suggest he’d be considered for a race seat in future. But to learn more about him, he could well be moved into a reserve position with the main team, carrying out simulator duties and working closely with Verstappen and Perez.

It’s a role that Alex Albon used productively to recover from a tough spell and earn himself a seat on the grid again – with Red Bull’s backing – and now he is one of the highest-rated drivers of 2023. Similarly the likes of Fernando Alonso, Nico Hulkenberg and even Ricciardo himself have shown a break can be used positively.

That trio chose to take time away from racing because they felt they needed it, but Oscar Piastri was in the opposite situation and also hit the ground running in his rookie F1 season. So if Tsunoda could impress Red Bull up close, he might actually be setting himself up for an even brighter future.

In that scenario, the AlphaTauri line-up could become Ricciardo and Lawson in 2024, allowing the experienced driver one last chance to re-establish himself – a chance you’d have to say he deserves so far – but also ensuring the rookie has a strong benchmark who is a known quantity so to be able to judge him against.

Of course, if Lawson fails to build on his early momentum or Ricciardo struggles upon his return then the problem goes away. But Red Bull would rather have that dilemma than not.

Story originally appeared on Racer