Similar to some other Formula 1 teams — such as Stake F1, who we discussed in the previous installment of this series — Red Bull’s sister team is going through a bit of a transition period.
They broke cover on their 2023 campaign at an event in New York City, with a driver lineup of Yuki Tsunoda and rookie Nyck de Vries. However the AT04, their challenger for the 2023 season, struggled in the early going, as did De Vries himself. The rookie was given multiple warnings by management to improve his form, most notably from Red Bull senior advisor Dr. Helmut Marko.
But when De Vries continued to struggle, he was sacked midseason, and replaced by a familiar face.
When Ricciardo joined the team ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, AlphaTauri was languishing in last place in the Constructors’ Championship with only two points on the season, a pair of tenth-place finishes from Tsunoda. But before Ricciardo could add to the tally, he was sidelined, due to a hand injury suffered during practice at the Dutch Grand Prix.
He was then replaced by Liam Lawson, the team’s fourth driver of the year.
Lawson impressed during his short stint with the team. He got behind the wheel of the AT04 at the Dutch Grand Prix for just a single practice session — and a rainy one at that — but managed to finish a respectable 13th after starting last on the grid (Kevin Magnussen started from pit lane). Then after a P11 in Monza, Lawson broke through with his first F1 points in Singapore, where he qualified tenth and finished ninth.
But it was over the final five races of the season where AlphaTauri made their move up the table. Ricciardo returned for the United States Grand Prix with the team still sitting in last place, but an eighth-place finish from Tsunoda in Austin pulled them within two points of Haas. Ricciardo then stormed to the second row during qualifying for the Mexico City Grand Prix, and his seventh-place finish in the race saw AlphaTauri pull ahead of Haas and level with Alfa Romeo.
Then in Brazil, it was Tsunoda’s turn again. While Ricciardo missed out on the points in the F1 Sprint race at Interlagos, a sixth-place finish from Tsunoda added three more points to the tally. Tsunoda added two more with a P9 in the Grand Prix, and suddenly AlphaTauri was in eighth all alone, seven points behind Williams with two races to go.
Ultimately they fell short of catching Williams. Both teams failed to score in Las Vegas, and while Tsunoda’s P8 in Abu Dhabi — and the resulting four points — pulled the team close, they could not catch Williams in the season finale.
Still, it was a tremendous effort down the stretch to pull the team out of the cellar. Now they look ahead to 2024 with renewed hope, and a new team boss calling the shots.
And a new name as well.
2023 highlight: Mexico City Grand Prix
AlphaTauri was one of the few teams that did not see their drivers put together a double-points finish, but the highlight of their 2023 campaign was probably the Mexico City Grand Prix. It was evident from early in the week that Ricciardo and Tsunoda would be on the front foot in Mexico City, as both drivers were strong in practice.
Following FP2 where Ricciardo finished in P6, just three-tenths behind Max Verstappen, Ricciardo went as far as to say he had a top-ten car in the field ahead of qualifying.
He made good on his word, qualifying fourth for the Grand Prix. He got some help from Tsunoda as well, thanks to a smart strategy call from the team. With Tsunoda facing a start at the back of the field due to changes to his gear box, he gave Ricciardo a good slipstream in both Q1 and Q2 to make sure Ricciardo advanced to Q3. It worked, and the result was a second-row start for Ricciardo in the Grand Prix.
From there, he managed to keep his AT04 in the top ten, and while he slipped a few spots during the race he was battling with George Russell in the closing laps for P6. Russell ultimately held on, but for him to be fighting with a Mercedes at the end was a huge moment for the team. “On the last lap, we got close but didn’t quite make it. Regardless, to be fighting with a Mercedes at the end is exciting,” said Ricciardo after the race. “Overall, it was a good weekend during which we gained six important points. Now let’s keep the ball rolling.”
2023 lowlight: Austrian Grand Prix
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix. Neither driver advanced out of Q1 — although Tsunoda came up just two-thousandths of a second — and they both started at the back, with Tsunoda in P16 and De Vries in P20.
Sunday saw some improvement, as De Vries came across the line in P15 and Tsunoda in P17. However, like many drivers that day they were hit with a bevy of penalties for exceeding track limits and when all the calculations were completed, De Vries was pushed down to P17, and Tsunoda down to P19.
“Overall, we didn’t have the pace to challenge for points,” said Jonathan Eddolls, the team’s Chief Race Engineer after the race.
It was the theme of the first half of the year for them.
Outlook for 2024
The first thing we needed to figure out this season?
AlphaTauri is out as the team’s naming partner, and when the FIA announced the grid for the 2024 season they were listed as Scuderia AlphaTauri RB. That has led to speculation about whether they would be competing as “Racing Bulls” for the 2024 season, or under another name. In recent days internet sleuths uncovered the fact that Red Bull not only registered the domain name “Racing Bulls,” but also the domain name “VisaCashAppRB.”
That speculation was recently confirmed. Meet Visa Cash App RB F1 Team.
Then there is the other transition underway: The departure of long-time Team Principal Franz Tost, who stepped down at the end of the 2023 season. In his place? Laurent Mekies, who departed Ferrari in July of 2023 after serving as their Deputy Team Principal and Racing Director for the better part of three seasons.
As for how the team will fare on the track, having the driver pairing of Tsunoda and Ricciardo in place to start the season should put them on the front foot. The team has decided to forge ahead with veteran drivers, rather than using those two seats as more of a proving ground for Red Bull.
Then there is the excitement about their 2024 challenger, which is rumored to be implementing many features and components of the RB19. That could also see the team on the front foot to start the 2024 season, although it has led to some complaints from other teams — most notably Zak Brown at McLaren — about the relationship between Red Bull and their sister team.
Person under the most pressure to perform in 2024: Laurent Mekies
When you are replacing a long-time figure like Tost, you are going to be under pressure. Certainly Ricciardo and Tsunoda are going to be feeling the heat — given the looming presence of Lawson and how well he performed in limited action last season — and the second one of them has a bad weekend, you can bet the calls for Lawson to slide into their spot will be roaring around the F1 world.
But with a veteran driver pairing and hopes for a much-improved challenger to start the season, Mekies will be under the most heat when the season begins.