How Ricciardo is rediscovering his best self

Austin was a strange weekend for Daniel Ricciardo.

It’s a city that he has a real affinity with, and in turn he enjoys enormous support there, as he generally does throughout the United States. But after his hand injury meant he arrived with only two race starts to his name this year, there was a little bit of uncertainty surrounding him.

That also translated to the way he was approaching matters off-track, where a little bit of trepidation was evident despite some cool sponsor activations he’d lined up. At the heart of it all, Ricciardo is a racing driver and is as hungry as ever to deliver at the day job, even if he enjoys so many of the additional opportunities that then provides.

So when a solid start to the Austin weekend faded with a difficult Sunday – albeit partly induced by damage – it made for a frustrated Australian. And all he wanted to do was put it right.

“Where my head was at, it’s kind of the most excited and hungriest I’ve been to get going…” Ricciardio said. “Sunday night in Austin, all I wanted it to be was Friday in Mexico. I just wanted to get back in the car. So there was definitely a positive chip on my shoulder after Austin. After making some car set-up changes I definitely had a very good feeling from lap one, P1.”

After a strong Friday, to follow up with such an impressive Saturday might have been enough in itself. I expected Ricciardo to be “tripping major nutsack” – to borrow one of his own phrases – after qualifying fourth, but was surprised to find him in a much calmer and more focused mood, almost like the session hadn’t happened.

That was because Ricciardo was not satisfied with just one lap. He knew he had a car that was capable of scoring big points, and while outqualifying Sergio Perez and both Mercedes drivers was an achievement that he could rightly take credit for, reaching Q3 was something he simply felt the car was capable of.

“P4; you’d look at it on paper and say it’s a crazy result in qualifying for AlphaTauri, but it wasn’t a fluke, we did it on merit,” he said. “The car has performed so well, it’s not the ‘P10 in constructors’ AlphaTauri.”

It was a telling bit of insight into his mindset that he was not dining out on Saturday. He wanted more on Sunday and knew that the race result was going to be the more meaningful aspect that Red Bull would be looking at.

And Red Bull is definitely looking.

That’s been true since Abu Dhabi last year, when Ricciardo put pen to paper on his return to the team in a reserve driver capacity, carrying out marketing and promotional duties for the team, too.

Ricciardo’s performance in Mexico caught Red Bull’s attention. Mark Thompson/Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull – and particularly team principal Christian Horner – wanted to understand what had gone wrong for Ricciardo at McLaren and why he was struggling so much to match up to Lando Norris and find the form that had brought him multiple grand prix victories in the past.

Initial signs were of bad habits picked up in a very different type of car, and once those started to recede with time in the Red Bull simulator, both Ricciardo and Red Bull were interested in seeing how it would translate onto the racetrack. Hence the urgency with which he was brought back into the fold at AlphaTauri when Helmut Marko decided he had seen enough from Nyck de Vries to know he wasn’t going to move up to the lead team.

This weekend was just Ricciardo’s fourth race back, and yet he made himself impossible for the entire Red Bull set-up to ignore by splitting Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez on the grid. The fact he was ahead of Perez at the Mexican’s home race was regularly raised, but Horner was focused on something else.

“Look at the delta to Max, though, as well,” he said. “It was less than a tenth, pretty much, to Max. A remarkable performance by him.”

The actual gap was 0.119s, and in pipping Perez by 0.041s Ricciardo’s presence actually overshadowed a much smaller gap between Red Bull drivers than usual. But Perez then put himself firmly back in the limelight with his Turn 1 incident and instant retirement, leaving Ricciardo the rest of the afternoon to strengthen his chances of replacing the Mexican at some stage.

While Horner had to address Perez’s situation – and insisted “Checo has an agreement with us for next year, and that’s our intention, for him to be in the car in 2024” – he was effusive about what he had seen from Ricciardo.

“It was great to see Daniel performing so well, and fully endorsed the reason why we brought him back into AlphaTauri just prior to the summer break,” Horner said. “I thought he was outstanding this weekend, fighting a Mercedes in an AlphaTauri and had it not been for the red flag, he would have probably finished further up. A great performance from him, and certainly it looked like the Daniel of old this weekend.”

The key to that performance, according to Horner, was the headspace Ricciardo was in. The right balance of confidence and determination, coming off the back of a week in a city he loves, even if the result in the United States hadn’t followed.

“I think that’s a bit of a fallacy, to say (it’s about a specific type of car),” Horner said. “Sport is as much in the head as it is anywhere else, and I think he’s back to his old self. You can see he’s relaxed, he’s confident. And I thought this weekend, he came into the weekend fully motivated after a tricky Austin. Coming back from injury, I thought he did a great job this weekend.”

That the mental side can have such a big influence is not just true of Ricciardo, of course, and Perez retains the ability to prove to Red Bull that he can more regularly access his best self, too. There were positive signs in that sense with his Saturday performance in Mexico, despite the final grid positions.

Replicating that over the final three race weekends will help repel any threat from the Australian, but even if that were to be the case it will still be a success for both Red Bull and Ricciardo if his return has helped him deliver to his full potential once again.

Story originally appeared on Racer