It's another Formula One season and another driver under-pressure in the Red Bull family whose future looks uncertain. Nyck de Vries appears to be joining the ranks of former Red Bull drivers Pierre Gasly, Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat, and arguably even his teammate Yuki Tsunoda in feeling uneasy about his career after a shaky start to a year.
Daniel Ricciardo having a seat fit for AlphaTauri has set the rumor mill turning extra fast at such an early juncture of 2023. Although the official explanation surrounding De Vries' team sizing Ricciardo up is that the Australian's third driver role spreads over Red Bull and AlphaTauri, the timing couldn't be worse. De Vries has a best finish of P14 from five attempts, while Tsunoda in the sister AT04 has finished P10 and P11 at every grand prix. The points don't lie, and De Vries is 20th and last in the championship.
There'll always be extra pressure on any driver at either of the two Red Bull teams, with the reputation for ruthlessness coming from their mid-season swaps. As we saw with Daniil Kvyat in the mid-2010s, just because you're in vogue at one point doesn't mean those at the top will keep a favorable view forever. One suspects that the already-harsh Christian Horner and Helmut Marko duo expected a Formula E champion coming into the fold to show more than he has.
It must be said that the Ricciardo seat fit might be a long-planned exercise and is entirely separate from De Vries' form. After all, Ricciardo is a race-winning driver that any team would want to have as a backup, so ensuring he can jump in a car at a moment's notice is logical. However, the timing (following some incident-filled weekends from De Vries) must raise eyebrows.
Zero points from a driver can't tell much of a story when that driver is in one of the slower cars on the grid, but the qualifying errors and race crashes do. A self-inflicted spin at Saudi Arabia meant a Q1 exit and a P18 start. Two races later, in Azerbaijan, a qualifying smash at the Turn 3 walls somewhat prophesized his grand prix, where a suspension-breaking crash ended his race as the Baku barriers bit hard. Finally, and most recently, a Lap 1 mistake in Miami had De Vries go into the back of Lando Norris to scare both racers, who thankfully could continue — with De Vries finishing P18.
Against that backdrop, it's understandable that Ricciardo entering the conversation can set imaginations racing. But this is the same Ricciardo who passed on racing in F1 in 2023 because he didn't want to drive at a backmarker team. His time at a McLaren that often struggled in the midfield saw him lose his famous smile and, arguably, his once-stellar reputation. AlphaTauri in 2023 doesn't look like they'll fare any better than McLaren did during Ricciardo's 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Yet the Australian is now a contracted Red Bull driver, and the decision as to which car he does or doesn't drive will not lie with him. After time at the top team, Kvyat and Gasly ended up with demotions down to Toro Rosso, AlphaTauri's former team name.
While Gasly and Kvyat continued racing in F1 for the remainder of their demotion seasons, they went from Red Bull down to AlphaTauri. It's a far more tragic possibility lying ahead for De Vries, who would go from AlphaTauri to nothing, or presumably the reserve/third driver role Ricciardo currently holds. Should such a chastening situation unfold, there'll be no coming back for him, and his F1 dreams will come to a premature end.
What's even worse for the Dutchman is that Red Bull also possesses a seven-strong stable of drivers who all want his seat, even if Ricciardo doesn't. Liam Lawson won on his Super Formula debut and could take the Japanese route to F1 that Gasly did before. In addition, Formula 2 has half a dozen Red Bull-backed drivers all hoping to make the step up. If De Vries has already shaken Marko and Horner's confidence, it's just a matter of time before he goes if he can't turn his form around.
Should De Vries step up in Monaco, and Barcelona, all the speculation about his immediate future would disappear in a little over two weeks of racing. They say you're only as good as your last race, and De Vries' entry to F1 is the epitome of that after his last-minute Monza trial back in 2022 sufficiently impressed enough to earn him a full-time seat.
De Vries has tasted success at these venues, with Formula 2 wins at Monaco and Barcelona in his junior racing days. That track familiarity may be just what he needs to recover from what could easily become an inescapable spiral of self-doubt. If there's more of what we've seen already in 2023, however, don't be surprised to see another name, Ricciardo or otherwise, partnering Tsunoda before the European leg of the season is over.