After a week off, Formula 1 is back this week, as the grid heads to the Hungaroring for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
But F1 is not the only thing making a comeback.
Yes, Daniel Ricciardo is back, with AlphaTauri making the stunning decision to slide the Red Bull reserve into Nyck de Vries’ seat hours after the conclusion of the British Grand Prix. But while his return is one of the major storylines in F1 this week, it is not the only one.
Here are some other major storylines to watch as the grid heads to Budapest.
Daniel Ricciardo: The return
Thanks to the dominance from Max Verstappen and Red Bull, it looked like the rest of the 2023 season was going to be a snooze-fest.
Then in the blink of an eye, it all changed.
When AlphaTauri announced that Ricciardo was coming back to the grid with “immediate effect,” it injected some much-needed intrigue into the Hungarian Grand Prix. Despite his status as a reserve driver entering the season Ricciardo remains one of the more popular figures in the sport, for a variety of reasons. His previous success on the track, as well as his magnetic personality, are two big ones, but the success of Drive to Survive is anther. The first season of the Netflix docuseries focused in large part on his shock decision to leave Red Bull for Renault, and he remained a focus in each of the subsequent seasons.
Now after some time away, he is back.
But how is he going to fare at AlphaTauri?
Ricciardo’s return is going to be a major storyline not just this week, but the rest of the season. The announcement that he was taking Nyck de Vries’ spot at AlphaTauri opened the door to immediate speculation about an eventual return to Red Bull, helped in no small part by recent struggles from Sergio Pérez. After all, since he left Red Bull the team has cycled through Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, and now Pérez alongside Verstappen.
Could the door be open to a reunion at Red Bull?
Perhaps. But it is also as likely that the team is going to take a harder look at Yuki Tsnoda, who might have some competition now at AlphaTauri with Ricciardo in the fold. Albon may even be an option for them, along with some of the younger drivers in their program. The team might ultimately decide that Pérez, whose contract runs out at the end of 2024, remains the perfect teammate for Verstappen.
Then there are the rumors of Liberty Media, F1’s ownership group, eying a potential “dream team” at Red Bull.
Ricciardo’s return comes at an ideal time for F1, and frankly, for F1 writers like yours truly.
Red Bull upgrades
Red Bull is running away with things this season. Verstappen leads the Drivers’ standings by 99 points over Pérez and 118 points over Fernando Alonso, and the team leads the Constructors’ standings by 208 over Mercedes.
And while Team Principal Christian Horner indicated that the team has begun work on their 2024 challenger, the Bulls are not done with upgrades for this season. Red Bull is bringing an upgrade to Budapest this weekend, one that is expected to shave as much as two-tenths off per lap:
⚠️ | #AMuS Major upgrades In Hungary— RBR News (@redbulletin) July 16, 2023
The reports expect the upgrades to give Red Bull an extra 2 tenths with visible changes to the design of the sidepods
Newey with the opportunity to do the funniest thing in F1 history? pic.twitter.com/m8OUFWH5pC
And yes, Red Bull has the chance to do something absolutely hilarious, given the mention of “visible changes to design the sidepods.” Can you imagine if the RB19 unveiled in Hungary has a zero-pod configuration, but Red Bull makes it work where Mercedes could not?
Tracking the MCL60 in slow-speed corners
The biggest winners at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix?
Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri both qualified in the top three, with Piastri in third just behind his teammate in second. While the team could not get both drivers on the podium, Norris finished second in his home race for his first podium of the year, while Piastri came across the line in fourth, for his best result in F1.
That finish might lead some to believe that McLaren has turned the corner with their recent upgrades to the MCL60, but the Hungaroring could pose some unwanted challenges for the team.
As Norris himself outlined following the British GP, the MCL60 still struggles in slow-speed corners:
“But we do have a poor car and I say poor, I would say pretty terrible in the slow-speed corners, extremely difficult to drive. I feel if we’re getting excited and I accept that, but we’re going to go to a couple of tracks coming up where I’m sure people are going to be saying “what have you done now? Like, how has it got so bad all of a sudden.” So, we’ve improved a lot of things: tyre degradation, there’s always little things you try and do with tyre cooling and blah, blah, blah, but nothing big from that side. It’s just this track’s allowed us to look after the tyres nicely, keep them in a good condition. Simple as that. So a lot of it is track-specific.”
That could be a problem this weekend. The Hungaroring is a technical, twisty circuit with a number of slow-speed corners. Described in the past as “Monaco without the walls,” this circuit has a few different turns that could pose problems for the MCL60, such as the right-handed Turn 1, the slow-speed chicane at Turns 6 and 7, and the ending series of Turns from 12 to 14, where drivers navigate a quick series of turns going right, left, and then right again:
Unless McLaren has figured out these slow-speed corners, Hungary could look nothing like Silverstone for them.
Can Aston Martin rebound?
Aston Martin got out to a hot start this season, with Fernando Alonso beginning the year with three-straight podiums. That start saw Aston Martin push to second in the Constructors’, and had Alonso nipping at Pérez for second in the Drivers’ standings.
But Alonso’s last podium came a few weeks ago, with a second-place finish in the Canadian Grand Prix. That, coupled with some improvement from other teams — such as Mercedes and McLaren — has seen Aston Martin’s fortunes change somewhat. Mercedes has pulled ahead of them in the Constructors’ standings, and Ferrari has inched closer to them over the past month.
Making matters worse, they are coming off their toughest result of the season. Alonso managed just a seventh-place finish at Silverstone, while teammate Lance Stroll finished outside the points.
Aston Martin’s performance in recent races might blur expectations somewhat. As mentioned above Hungary has been described as “Monaco without the walls,” and in Monte Carlo this year Alonso threatened for pole, and finished second in the Grand Prix.
Hungary has also drawn comparisons to Barcelona, where Alonso finished seventh.
Silly season is here
For many, the most thrilling part of the F1 calendar comes during the summer “silly season.”
If that describes you, then last week must have felt like the start of a new season.
The news of Ricciardo’s return to the grid kicked silly season into full gear, and now the F1 media space is filled with speculation about what the 2024 driver lineup could look like, as well as theories about what the grid could look like in 2025 and beyond.
While only a handful of seats are on track to become available at the end of this season — currently Zhou Guanyu, Tsunoda, Nico Hülkenberg, Lewis Hamilton and Logan Sargeant are the only drivers with expiring contracts — in F1, you’re only as good as your last race.
Just ask De Vries, who had a “multi-year” deal with AlphaTauri. Until he didn’t.
The Ricciardo return has kicked silly season into high gear, with rumblings about Carlos Sainz Jr. heading to Sauber/Audi for 2025, Norris having some kind of “pre-contract” with Ferrari, and Charles Leclerc off to Mercedes at some point in the future.
Some of this might be true. None of it might be.
But that is the beauty of silly season, which is truly upon us.