It was less than two days ago we thought Fernando Alonso had blown up the driver market. Little did we know how explosive the silly season was about to become.
When Alpine declined to immediately name Piastri as Alonso’s successor — the logical choice given the triple junior champion’s pedigree and standing inside the team — it was clear a twist was coming.
That twist was the manifestation of the long-running rumor that his Mark Webber-led management team was attempting to crowbar him into a seat at McLaren.
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Williams on loan had been shaping up as Piastri’s most likely destination in 2023 while Alpine held on to Alonso, but the backmarker with slim prospects was thought too likely to slow the Aussie’s already disrupted momentum.
Webber thus started lobbying McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl — who was his own team boss in his championship-winning World Endurance Championship campaign with Porsche — to replace the struggling Ricciardo.
Piastri’s social media protest that he “will not be driving for Alpine next year” can only be a sign that Webber is confident he’s got the job done.
But Piastri can claim a set of orange overalls only if F1’s other Aussie isn’t already in them. And so this latest — but not final — chapter of silly season shenanigans begs the question: what’s in store for Daniel Ricciardo?
NO DEAL: Piastri denies he’ll race for Alpine next season, but Enstone hits back
REVEALED: How F1 star’s exit left team blindsided — and the big ‘question’ hanging over Aussie
ALONSO OUT: Why the two-time champion is moving to the second-worst team on the grid
OPTION 1: STATUS QUO
The first alternative is what’s officially the case at the moment. With McLaren unwilling or unable to comment, with Alpine insisting Oscar Piastri will drive for Enstone next season and with Piastri himself not divulging what he expects to be doing next season, the official information is that Ricciardo and Lando Norris will drive for McLaren in 2023.
And that’s not just a matter of ignoring what’s being written between the lines of Piastri’s contract denial and Alpine’s slapdash press statement attempting to stake its claim on the young Aussie.
Ricciardo has a contract through to the end of next year, and reportedly the options to break it are entirely on his side of the ledger — a reminder of just how highly rated he was when he joined McLaren for last season.
Without termination triggers, McLaren would need Ricciardo to decide to walk away before it would have a vacancy to offer to his younger compatriot.
And we know what Ricciardo’s said about the prospect of wrapping up his deal early.
“I am committed to McLaren until the end of next year and am not walking away from the sport,” he
If he has to say in it, he’s going nowhere.
Of course that doesn’t preclude him from changing his mind in changed circumstances — more on that below.
It also doesn’t mean he can’t be paid out in full if McLaren wants to move him on.
But Woking would only undertake such a costly exercise if it were guaranteed Piastri’s services, which is also not a given.
Alpine is clearly attempting to lay claim to the 21-year-old despite his intention to drive elsewhere, and while its legal standing is unclear, there’d be precedent for him getting stuck with Enstone.
Jenson Button attempted to join Williams in 2005 despite BAR insisting it had the right to exercise an option on his contract to retain him. F1’s Contract Recognition Board — set up specifically to handle these sorts of situations — ruled in favor of BAR, keeping the Briton tied to the team.
So while all signs point towards Piastri taking up a seat at Woking, it’s never over until it’s over.
OPTION 2: RETURN TO ALPINE
But with McLaren apparently clear in its intention to switch Ricciardo out for a younger alternative, the eight-time race winner may admit the writing is on the wall and seek employment elsewhere.
Conveniently enough, in those circumstances the best available seat would be at Alpine.
Would it be embarrassing to return to the team he spurned after only one season racing there?
It all depends on perspective.
The Renault that Ricciardo left at the end of 2020 is a different team to that we know at Alpine now, and those changes are deeper than just the name. The old management has been cleaned out, replaced by Laurent Rossi at the top as CEO and Otmar Szafnauer as team principal, neither of whom would hold a grudge for his departure from him.
When Ricciardo decided he’d walk away, there was also considerable speculation that Renault was considering ending its Formula 1 project after progress up the field had proved substantially more difficult than hoped.
Instead it decided to change tack and brand it with the name of its specialty sports car business, and just this year the team said it was increasing its headcount to 900 staff, which is in line with the sport’s frontrunners after years of trying to tackle F1 on the cheap. It’s also investing considerably in capital works at the factory.
Combined those things address many of the reasons Ricciardo will have been tempted away from Enstone, and the team has proven since that it’s at a minimum not slipping backwards. The appeal of racing for McLaren has also obviously been substantially discoloured by his unhappy experience adapting to the car.
He’d also have the opportunity to rebuild his reputation, which was at stratospheric levels at the end of his tenure at Enstone, having built the car around him in a relatively short period of time.
And considering Alpine is ahead of McLaren in the constructors’ standings — admittedly in part because Ricciardo isn’t scoring as heavily as Norris — he’d technically be trading up.
OPTION 3: TAKE A PUNT ON A SMALLER TEAM
If returning to Alpine were too bitter a pill to swallow but Ricciardo definitely wanted to continue racing in Formula 1, there are several teams with openings for 2023.
Alfa Romeo is yet to re-sign Zhou Guanyu, Mick Schumacher is still uncommitted to Haas and neither Williams driver is signed up for next season, though Alex Albon reportedly has an option on his contract the team is poised to exercise.
AlphaTauri is expected to recommit to Yuki Tsunoda once Red Bull finalises its new commercial terms with Honda after its overnight announcement of a renewed technical partnership.
Alfa Romeo is the most attractive given widespread speculation it’s close to agreeing to a sale to Audi, which will turn it into a works constructor. It’s also in decent shape as it is at the moment considering its low base in recent years and is on track for one of its most lucrative point scores ever.
It would also facilitate Zhou’s return to Alpine, which brought him through the junior categories alongside Piastri.
Haas is less likely despite rumors Schumacher is looking to move elsewhere on the grid given his low prospects of a Ferrari call-up. Williams, meanwhile, would be least attractive of all given it’s a long-term project. The team is reportedly in talks with reigning Formula E champion Nyck de Vries to replace Nicholas Latifi.
OPTION 4: REMOVE
The last option will be the most crushing to contemplate for fans of the forever likeable Aussie, but Ricciardo may decide to call time on his F1 career after 232 starts and at least eight wins and 32 podiums.
McLaren was supposed to be the team that delivered him back to the front of the grid and into title contention, but not only has he not been able to achieve the highs he managed at previous squads, but McLaren itself has failed to fulfill its competitive ambitions .
Even under new regulations the chasm between the frontrunners and the midfield remains wide. The prospects for upwards mobility among the teams is still limited.
And with all the leading teams committed to their drivers for the medium term, Ricciardo may decide it’s not worth continuing in the infinity of the midfield and turn his attention to other pursuits.
But can you really imagine Ricciardo, at just 33 years old and in what is conventionally regarded as the peak age for a driver, wrapping it up?
“The more people ask me [about retirement]I’m like, ‘F*** that, I want to stay longer!’,” he told RacingNews365 in May.
“What’s my shelf life? I still think there’s a good handful of years left in me competitively.
“It’s relative as well to competitiveness [and] desire.
“I think I’ve still got the desire in me for a good handful of years, results aside.”
Whether he gets that handful of years remains to be seen — and if he does, the significant matter of where he spends them is still unclear.