Daniel Ricciardo is without a race seat for the first time since 2011 but where could the popular Australian rectify this next term?
For some, it may have felt like lights out forever on the rollercoaster career of Ricciardo when he lost his drive with McLaren and accepted a reserve role with Red Bull.
The Australian made his first appearance back in Red Bull colours at his home race in Melbourne with Sky Sports reporter Ted Kravitznoting that he cut a forlorn figure sitting on the pit wall, watching his former team-mate Max Verstappen win a chaotic and exciting race.
Over the weekend, the rumour mill kicked into gear after Ricciardo updated select media on his position, saying: "The signs are pointing towards getting back on the grid... It's only been a few months (out of an F1 race seat) but I think some itches have been scratched, so to speak.”
A storied history in Formula 1
The 33-year-old, who has eight wins under his belt, has driven for several teams, but his Formula 1 story began with Red Bull. He first tested for the team in December 2009 and became a test and reserve driver for the 2011 season.
After a brief spell with Spanish team HRT that year, Ricciardo joined Toro Rosso and remained with the team for two seasons. His impressive performance saw him promoted to Red Bull in 2014, where he remained for four seasons before becoming disillusioned with the team over its commitment to Max Verstappen.
Ricciardo moved from Red Bull to Renault in search of a team that would prioritise him more, partnering Nico Hulkenberg and then Esteban Ocon. His 2020 season saw him earn two podiums for the French team, but after two years the Aussie jumped ship from yellow to orange, joining McLaren in 2021.
Despite a painful ending to his McLaren career, when he finished 85 points behind team-mate Lando Norris in the 2022 season, his tenure with the British team wasn’t all bad.
Ricciardo was responsible for the team’s first race win since 2012 with his victory at the Italian Grand Prix in 2021, and finished that season in 8th place. Unfortunately, 2022 did not go well, with Ricciardo placing 11th and scoring only 37 points.
As the driver dons the Red Bull suit only to look on from the sidelines for his first full season off the grid since 2010, the consensus is that his talents are being wasted. Ricciardo would prove a catch to several teams on the grid - but where we see him next year depends on the desire of other teams to switch it up.
So which drivers have contracts ending after the season finishes, and what is the likelihood of Ricciardo taking their place?
The seven-time world champion’s contract ends this year, but he has insisted that he doesn’t plan to leave the Brackley-based team, despite a disappointing season last year and a slow start to 2023.
Ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, he said: “I still have 100 per cent belief in this team, it is my family and I've been here a long time, so I don't plan on going anywhere else.”
Team principal Toto Wolff has also expressed a desire to keep Hamilton on for as long as possible, telling Sky Sports: "The more we are in these difficult situations, the longer I want to have a deal with him because we owe him a quick car.
"I think he's on his absolute peak performance and has all the ability, compounded by the experience, and we just need to have a quick car so that he and George (Russell) are able to win races and fight for the championship.”
That makes Mercedes an unlikely fit for Ricciardo, as both Hamilton and team-mate Russell appear to want to stick with the team until it is back on top.
Magnussen signed a multi-year deal to return to Haas in 2022 after it ended its relationship with Nikita Mazepin, and that season seemed to experience a resurgence.
But comparing his early results last year - where he scored 5th, 9th and 14th in the first three races - with this year, the contrast is stark. He placed 13th, 10th and 17th in the first three races of the 2023 season, raising questions about his contract being renewed at the end of the year.
Formula 1 fans would be sure to appreciate a reunion between Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, currently at Haas.
But the Aussie driver received a massive payout of $18 million to leave McLaren and may expect to return to the grid and earn a similar salary.
Magnussen’s estimated contract worth of $11 million might not cut it, and Ricciardo’s ambitions of winning races again may be scuppered if Haas failed to improve upon its car.
The Japanese driver, still only 22, is performing consistently in the final year of his contract with the Red Bull-owned Italian team. A strong performance in Australia saw him claim his first points of the season, and there has even been chatter about the young driver being slated for a Red Bull entry in 2025, replacing Sergio Perez.
If that rumour had a basis in fact, however, it would make no sense for Tsunoda to jump ship from AlphaTauri this year - better to stay in the Red Bull fold until the top team was ready for him.
However, should Ricciardo wish to remain in the Red Bull family, a move to a team owned by Red Bull - and which he previously raced for when it was Toro Rosso - would certainly make sense.
Zhou’s 2022 season, his first on the grid, was consistent enough to earn him a contract extension until the end of 2023. So far this year, the Chinese driver’s results have improved race-on-race, earning 16th, 13th and 9th place in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia respectively.
Unless his performance drops off severely or Alfa make sudden car progress that catches Ricciardo’s eye, Zhou’s seat seems relatively safe.
Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant: Williams
Both of the Williams drivers are due to be out of contract after 2023 ends - but barring a catastrophic season, neither looks likely to be dropped by the British team.
Alex Albon had a relatively successful first season with Williams, and earned a contract extension for this year. Jost Capito, the former Williams team principal and CEO, praised Albon before the season began, saying: "Alex is, from the personality side, exactly what we needed where Williams is right now.
“He is pushing, but he understands the situation Williams is in, and he's prepared also to stick with [the team] long-term and be together with the team to bring the team forward.”
A move from American rookie Logan Sargeant also looks unlikely. Williams has nurtured several young drivers to further would be unexpected.
But, as with everything in Formula 1, anything can happen - and Ricciardo will not be the only hungry driver searching for a spot on the grid in 2024.
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