🇲🇽 F1'23: R19 - Formula Sabbatical

A year away is no longer a career-ending move in Formula 1

“Deep down I knew this would come, so thanks for having my back. And for anyone who thought I had left, I never left. Just moved aside for a while.”

The words are from Monza 2021, but Danny Ric’s back.

Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be a win for it to matter. Daniel Ricciardo’s seventh-placed finish in Mexico was the latest edition of a frustrating (before Mexico at least) redemption arc for the Australian, but his first points finish since leaving McLaren will have meant a lot to the veteran driver.

Watching Ricciardo fall from Red Bull driver to super rich and happy at Renault before seeing sad Danny at McLaren was not fun to watch, and not fun for him either. The win in Monza a rare bright spot in a season which saw him wear FEA on his helmet (the last two words are “‘em all”) as he lost his confidence and eventually ended up the odd man out as doors shut around him.

Red Bull offered a lifeline, and in a familiar system, was able to find himself again. As the season developed, it was clear that it wasn’t working for Nyck de Vries, and the rumours circulated about Ricciardo’s return, eventually becoming true before the summer break (de Vries has since returned to Formula E with Mahindra), and Alpha Tauri got a senior driver and the experience of a multiple Grand Prix winner.

But, as we saw, it didn’t work like that, with an accident in practice on the Zandvoort banking which ruled him out for several races. Despite Liam Lawson’s impressive performances, he made way again at COTA and Ricciardo was back. 

But after a 15th in Texas, the thin air and straight line speed of the Alpha Tauri suited the Mexican circuit, with Ricciardo getting a tow in qualifying from Yuki Tsunoda and then converted that Q3 opportunity into fourth. Tsunoda was no slouch either during the race and was on pace for a points finish before a clash with Oscar Piastri.

Ricciardo stuck on and although he was passed by his former team-mate Lando Norris, the six points is enough to lift Alpha Tauri off the bottom of the team’s championship, and actually moving them up to eighth - something like a 20-40 million dollar difference, depending on who you believe. With a few races left, refreshed Ricciardo could be the catalyst needed to save the season for the team’s highest finish since Baku 2022.

Ricciardo is not the only driver to take at least one year out of F1 before coming back in. Fernando Alonso went on his mid-life crisis, trying to win the triple crown of motorsport (and actually succeeding in adding Le Mans, if not the Indy 500) before coming back to Alpine and now Aston Martin. I still believe that he’ll head to Ferrari for one more romantic attempt at F1’s summit in 2025 after the silliest of seasons.

Alonso is a very drastic example of that sabbatical. And when you’re so highly regarded and a former multiple-time World Champion, that opens doors. For other drivers, they don’t often get the choice to go off and do something else before coming back to F1.

Two other drivers who scored points in Mexico City have also spent at least one year out of the spotlight. Alex Albon, going from Toro Rosso to Red Bull to odd one out got the reserve driver gig at Red Bull, combining that with a year in DTM. He won a race in the aggressive series, finishing sixth in that year’s championship. The less said about the finish of that season, perhaps the better. 

Albon was re-recruited by Williams and has slowly but surely impressed and is the star driver at the historic team. It remains to be seen whether his head could be turned by another team, but he could be the driver Williams have cried out for for years to truly get them up the grid. Someone like Pierre Gasly and how he anchored the Alpha Tauri team so well.

In Mexico, Albon finished ninth - his ninth points finish of 2023 and his second consecutive points finish.

Directly one place above Albon in the Drivers’ championship is Esteban Ocon. It feels a bit weird for him not to be on the F1 grid, but this is exactly what happened, all the way back in the before times in 2019. Ocon was replaced by Lance Stroll at Aston Martin (no, really) and there were no other spots available.

While he was off the grid, watching the likes of Robert Kubica and Daniil Kyvat line up, Ocon joined Mercedes as their reserve driver. He didn’t supplement this with another racing series, but being alongside Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas while they were winning 15 races that year must have been a transformational experience for the Frenchman.

Ocon then joined Renault as their mandatory Frenchman (not really a thing) alongside Ricciardo where he has remained ever since, helping the team rebrand as Alpine and taking a shock win in Hungary 2021 and a classy podium in Monaco this year. 

There is more competition than perhaps there was a year ago, but it wouldn’t be a massive shock if Ocon rejoined Mercedes when Lewis Hamilton does eventually hang up his gloves. There are drivers in the junior formula (Frederik Vesti, Andrea Kimi Antonelli) who might disagree.

Then there is the pairing at Haas. Both veterans missed the 2021 season. Kevin Magnussen had a miserable 2020 at Haas and went off to try his hand at IMSA racing in America, getting the call again when Haas terminated the contract of a Russian driver after the invasion of Ukraine. 

Magnussen did brilliantly on his first race back, with a fifth in Bahrain. He has not since hit those heights, although he did take a memorable pole position in Brazil ‘22, but has done enough to keep the seat alongside Nico Hülkenberg in 2024. Hülkenberg had a weird absence, moving into a media position after leaving Renault at the end of 2019. 

During the pandemic season in 2020, the German driver stood in for both Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll at two races, scoring points at both, and finishing higher in the championship that year than drivers like Kimi Raikkonen and George Russell.

The Hulk was Aston Martin’s reserve driver for the next couple of years, stepping in in 2022, but not scoring any points. Mexico was his 200th F1 outing, and shows the value in longevity.

Throughout this blog (and please do send it to your F1 friends), I’ve mentioned the word reserve a fair few times. These extra drivers might never see the track, but they’re so important and add to the infrastructure of any successful F1 team. Some teams might use a young driver as their reserve, but the fashion for bigger teams is to employ someone a bit more established. Mick Schumacher currently runs the simulator for Mercedes and is actually McLaren’s backup, while F2 champion Felipe Drugovich is one of the options for Aston Martin.

Alfa Romeo are among those with a young option in Theo Pourchaire and Alpine are the same with Jack Doohan. These reserve drivers will only be more important as time goes on, either for marketing or simulation purposes. Eventually, it might be seen as a legitimate route back into F1, as proved by Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon and Alex Albon.

The triple-header moves onto its third and final leg, with the Interlagos rollercoaster being the venue for a late-season showdown. There’s a sprint element too, with the Sao Paulo circuit hosting sprints in the previous two seasons and truly becoming the home of the format. With the demands on younger drivers, that year away from the spotlight may feel hopeless to begin with, but as Ricciardo, Albon and Ocon proved in Mexico, sometimes in F1 you have to go one step back to go a few more steps forward.

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