With a single press release, Red Bull turned a routine Pirelli tyre test into one of the biggest news stories of the Formula One season.
Daniel Ricciardo is back on the Formula One grid with junior team AlphaTauri, effective immediately, replacing Nyck de Vries and placing Red Bull's Sergio Perez under enormous pressure to turn his poor form around.
It's a remarkable turn of events given Ricciardo's stance for so long that he wanted to take the full year off. It was also another chapter to Red Bull's history of incredibly harsh driver decisions, with De Vries cut loose just 10 races into his rookie season with the team, likely signalling the end of his F1 prospects going forward.
Things moved incredibly fast on Tuesday as Ricciardo tested the 2023 Red Bull at Silverstone. Sources told ESPN that Red Bull principal Christian Horner called team adviser Helmut Marko an hour or so into it to tell him just how impressive the pace was. Marko called back shortly afterward to tell Horner he had just fired De Vries, although it is understood the Dutchman had feared the writing was on the wall on Sunday evening after the British Grand Prix.
After the Marko call, several prominent Dutch journalists were made aware of the situation, which is how the story broke around midday Tuesday. That then forced Red Bull's hand into announcing fairly sharply that afternoon when the desire had been to go public with the news later this week.
By all accounts, Ricciardo's pace was remarkable. Ricciardo's best lap was reportedly quick enough to have been on the front row of the grid at the British Grand Prix four days earlier, although there are differing accounts of the times. One source present at the test told ESPN comparing headline times was a bit like comparing apples and oranges -- track conditions were different, weather conditions were different, fuel loads were different. Ricciardo was also testing the 2024 Pirelli range, not driving with the 2023 Pirellis Max Verstappen used to claim pole position on Saturday last week.
But however you slice it, Red Bull was blown away by what they saw from a driver who many suspected was damaged goods after his struggles at McLaren. It was exactly what Red Bull had wanted to see and why, behind the scenes, Ricciardo had placed such importance on the test from the moment it was first confirmed. He had treated the test like an audition for a race seat, and the performance is what pushed things over the line.
Horner is understood to have been especially impressed. Earlier this year Horner said Ricciardo had picked up bad driving habits since leaving Red Bull that the team had noticed from his early simulator sessions. Horner also mentioned on numerous occasions that the Ricciardo racing at McLaren in 2021 and 2022 was unrecognisable from the man who had claimed seven wins for Red Bull between 2014 and 2018. Ricciardo's lap times were the final piece of the puzzle in terms of making the decision to run with him in De Vries' place.
While Ricciardo was for so long this year against the idea of racing in 2023, it is understood things changed over the Silverstone weekend when the reality of the De Vries situation became apparent. While De Vries had originally been told he had until his home race at Zandvoort in August to turn things around, that soon became the Austria/Silverstone leg of races.
Suddenly a choice had to be made. Stick to his guns about waiting it out until 2024, and Ricciardo risked Red Bull junior Liam Lawson coming in, doing a great job, and taking that seat longer term. Ricciardo and those close to him have always known Red Bull was never going to promote him straight to the top team.
It is understood Horner told Ricciardo as much over dinner earlier this year, when the Australian said directly he wanted to race for Red Bull again. The conversation clearly had a positive impact on Horner, who started seeing Ricciardo to AlphaTauri as an easy way to move on from De Vries, who he had been against the company signing in the first place.
For the Aussie, who told ESPN last month the "fairytale" end to his career would be a return to Red Bull, it was AlphaTauri or bust. Ricciardo sees this step as part of the long game, which finishes with that fairytale move back to Red Bull. On top of all that, in preparing for the Silverstone test Ricciardo had come to realise how ready he was to get back into an F1 cockpit again.
From speaking to Ricciardo this year, whether at the team's New York car launch in February or throughout the months since, it is clear that the weight he was carrying on his shoulders in the McLaren spell has gone. Much like Kevin Magnussen talked about when he returned from a year out to race for Haas in 2022, Ricciardo has been able to gain a fresh perspective on racing in his time away and seems better off for it.
It's an ideal situation for Red Bull. Whether the team admits it or not, it places pressure on Perez, who's form has been in a downward spiral since finishing second at the Miami Grand Prix in May, and will act as a stark reminder that a ready-made replacement is waiting in the wings for him should he fail to turn things around.
Ricciardo will need to perform to legitimise this threat. Expectations about outright results will be low, given the fact that AlphaTauri might have the worst car in F1 right now, but Ricciardo's performance will be scrutinised massively within the team. His first task will be to do something he struggled to replicate at McLaren with Lando Norris: beat new teammate Yuki Tsunoda.
Multiple sources have told ESPN that Perez is safe currently, and that is supported by what Horner has said publicly. His position may be helped by the fact that Max Verstappen could just about win the constructors' championship on his own this year, but it is also true that without a proper read on Ricciardo, Red Bull was never going to do something as drastic as cutting Perez before the end of his 2024 contract. But there's clearly growing frustration at the situation, and if rival teams are closer in 2024, they cannot afford to have Perez in this form.
They've now given themselves a fallback option if things do not improve. Ricciardo remains wildly popular in the team due to his infectious personality and, if he returns to his old level, is just about as good a replacement as you could want for a team fighting for championships.
It is worth pointing out that Red Bull is very aware, just like everyone else, of the trend of what happens to Verstappen's teammates. Pierre Gasly lasted half a year before getting demoted. Alex Albon struggled to replicate Verstappen's performances, although the team still shoulders some guilt internally about cutting him loose when they did. Now Perez is struggling.
Horner has suggested the Mexican driver is overthinking and overdriving. Even if you are super critical and go back to 2018, the same trend was emerging at the end of that season. From the moment Ricciardo signed his Renault contract for 2019 in the 2018 summer break, he never scored a podium for Red Bull, while Verstappen scored seven, including victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. At the time, Horner suggested Ricciardo's move to Renault was him running away from a fight with the improving Verstappen.
With all of that in mind, it is understood Horner is reluctant to view the answer to Perez -- a man widely regarded as one of the grid's most underrated talents before he joined in 2021 -- as simply replacing him with another driver. Verstappen, with his relentless pace and unshakeable confidence, has turned into the ultimate teammate killer, and that is something Red Bull will have to manage long into the future. From conversations at Red Bull this season, it seems as though Horner is correct in saying a clean weekend or two for Perez should wipe the slate clean in the short term.
Speaking of pace and confidence, a final word for De Vries. The Dutch driver never seemed to get a fair shake at the AlphaTauri team, with Marko -- the man who signed him based off one strong result at his debut, the 2022 Italian Grand Prix, when he deputised for Alex Albon at Williams -- singling him out for public criticism within a few months of his rookie season.
There is an interesting dynamic at play internally, too, with Marko admitting last month Horner had been correct to doubt whether De Vries was the right man for the company's second team. Marko is famed as the godfather of the Red Bull driver programme, whose insistence to Dietrich Mateschitz that he should sign a 17-year-old Verstappen to Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) in 2015 probably what stopped the Dutchman ending up in the Mercedes stable of drivers. The De Vries debacle is a dent to his reputation for spotting driver talent.
There are mixed opinions about De Vries within the paddock. Some say he was difficult to work with, some say the opposite. What is clear is he came into AlphaTauri with a Formula E championship under his belt and the confidence to throw his weight around in terms of what he wanted from the team. In that sense, he was not your conventional rookie and it may have rubbed some important people the wrong way. While his results were not spectacular, it seemed as though Marko had decided a while ago he had purchased a bill of goods and nothing was going to change his mind.
While clearly talented, De Vries took multiple years to progress through Formula 3 and Formula 2, winning the latter in one of its most unimpressive years in terms of talent. While a Formula E championship is a strong achievement it is still viewed in F1 as a series for cast-offs and drivers who were not good enough to make the big league. Rightly or wrongly, he was always up against it, and when the results were bad from the beginning, he never stood a chance at staying on.
*This article was amended on July 12, having initially stated it was De Vries' manager who tipped off the Dutch press about Marko's phone call.