Daniel Ricciardo’s move to an on-the-up McLaren Mercedes team certainly hasn’t yielded the results either party would have been hoping for.
Ricciardo himself has stated that the current season has been the most difficult of his lengthy career.
Considered by many as a superstar of the future and a guaranteed future champion in his HRT and Scuderia Toro Rosso days, Ricciardo made the better impression than Jean-Eric Vergne in their time as teammates – a good enough impression to ensure a promotion to Red Bull in 2014 in place of a retiring Mark Webber, and alongside the reigning 4-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
Ricciardo earned three victories in 2014, in a car far from being a consistent front-runner, as shown by his champion teammate who failed to take a single victory.
‘This was a decision many saw as career suicide’
Write author name (optional) Max Verstappen’s promotion alongside Ricciardo in 2016 was possibly not the news Daniel wanted given Verstappen’s track record as a ruthless competitor and fearsome driver. Verstappen’s shock victory capitalising on Mercedes’ infamous Lap 1 collision in his first race for the main team would have certainly vexed Ricciardo too. Their subsequent rivalry was intense, although fairly contained publicly.
The summer of 2018 played host to a shock decision from Daniel. He wouldn’t renew his contract and instead chose to exit the front-running Red Bull squad in favour of a drive in the midfield at Renault. This was a decision many saw as career suicide, but many in the know could see the appeal, however small it was. Red Bull’s tendency to favour Max Verstappen – made obvious by the team’s handling of the infamous collision in Baku – meant the Aussie felt he would never have a realistic chance of becoming champion unless Max was to leave.
A works team getting stronger each season, with a sizeable bank account and the passionate weight of the French nation to go with it, was an opportunity Ricciardo thought he just had to grab. Ofcourse in hindsight, it was a mistake leaving Red Bull.
During the 2020 lockdown, having spotted a chance to jump further up the grid, Ricciardo signed a deal with Zak Brown and McLaren for the 2021 campaign and beyond. A deal originally earmarked in 2018 – but the dwindling performance of the British team at the time worked against them.
As of the summer break, he is yet to find his feet at McLaren throughout the first half of the season, being comfortably and consistently beaten by his less experienced teammate Lando Norris. Ricciardo has struggled to adapt to the MCL35M’s peculiar characteristics – something Carlos Sainz noted after witnessing Ricciardo’s obvious struggles in pre-season testing, the Spaniard having jumped ship from McLaren to Ferrari.
The reason Sainz and Norris could be so evenly matched in their two years alongside each other in 2019 and 2020, is that it just so happens Carlos Sainz could tailor his driving style to that of the MCL34 and MCL35 with relative ease. Possibly thanks to Sainz’s prior experience of often switching between midfield teams (including an in-season swap from Toro Rosso to Renault in 2017).
By emergency regulation, thanks to the pandemic forcing the new regulation’s delay, the 2021 MCL35M is essentially an upgraded 2020 MCL35, so Ricciardo not only has to get used to a brand new team of people in a somewhat overwhelming McLaren Technology Centre, he must also adapt to a car originally designed with Sainz and Norris’ preferences in mind.
‘This style of driving requires absolute trust in a car and the MCL35M doesn’t react how he is used to’
Write author name (optional) His teammate Lando Norris has been a part of the team since 2017, two years before his full-time F1 career began. He has therefore been a major player in McLaren’s development path even from the confines of the simulator – the continuity of keeping him in the team means his driving style and preferences for how a car handles and reacts will naturally lead the designers and engineers down a particular path. This would have even been taking place when Alonso and Vandoorne were at the helm.
Norris’s historically unique and drastic driving style (particularly the violent way he tends to steer on corner entry) is the polar opposite of Daniel Ricciardo’s style and so the car’s attitude is too. The Aussie explained how he likes to carry a high minimum speed through a corner, even if it compromises other aspects like getting back on the throttle. This style of driving requires absolute trust in a car and the MCL35M doesn’t react how he is used to.
McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl admitted at the Monaco Grand Prix, where Ricciardo was knocked out in Q2 and subsequently lapped by his teammate who ended up on the podium, that “he has lacked confidence in the car.” Any lack of confidence in a racing car will immediately stop you getting anywhere close to extracting the maximum out of the car, which it seems Norris is able to do at many an occasion even when it requires refining his own driving style. It’s therefore strange how a proven supremely talented driver like Ricciardo hasn’t adapted to the new team and car over a matter of a few races, which makes this one of the more surprising stories of the season.
Ofcourse 2021 offers the challenge of essentially carry-over cars, but Sainz at Ferrari, Vettel at Aston Martin, Perez at Red Bull and even Alonso at Alpine have found their feet, after a handful of races at the latest. And with half the season over there has yet to be a single weekend where Ricciardo looked comfortable throughout.
However he does remain confident, at least in public, of finding small gains throughout the remaining half of the season, but conceded any car upgrades or gains he can make personally “will not be a game-changer.
“Unfortunately for Daniel Ricciardo fans, the shadow in which Lando Norris is casting over Ricciardo looks set somewhat permanently for the rest of the 2021 season. The hard reset of 2022 is surely the only light at the end of the tunnel for the popular Australian.