What’s Eating Daniel Ricciardo?

Daniel Ricciardo is one of the grid’s most talented and liked drivers, but he could be on a career precipice.

byHazel Southwell| PUBLISHED Jun 2, 2022 4:20 PM
What’s Eating Daniel Ricciardo?
McLaren F1
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Daniel Ricciardo is a highly-rated driver and one of the biggest personalities in Formula 1. However, his move to McLaren in 2021 has seen him crushed by his relatively less-experienced teammate Lando Norris, leaving both he and the team struggling for answers as to where to go from here. Is this really how it ends for the popular Australian?

There's been a lot of speculation recently about the 32-year-old's future at his current team, after McLaren CEO Zak Brown bluntly stated that the results, so far, hadn't lived up to the expectations for the partnership. On Sky's Any Driven Monday TV show, Brown claimed that mutually, both McLaren and Ricciardo had expected more, which can’t be anything but true. Eighteen months into Ricciardo’s stint at Woking, the reason why it hasn’t worked out yet seems further away than ever. 

Making this intra-team drama more headline-grabbing is the fact that fans adore Daniel Ricciardo, especially if most of their F1 knowledge has come from Netflix's F1: Drive To Survive, where he is one of the main characters. He easily boasts the most charisma and enjoys a consistently accurate portrayal of anyone in the series.

In case you haven't watched the show, you should know that he once drove for Red Bull Racing, where he was winning races. But then the team began favoring Max Verstappen in every call made, so Ricciardo decided to take control of his own future and switched to Renault. The Renault switch worked, thrashing his teammate Esteban Ocon and taking the team's first podium in years—up until 2020 when Ricciardo decided to leave for McLaren.

For whatever reason, the McLaren switch just hasn't worked out the way that people (myself included) might have expected. In 2021 Norris didn't exactly wipe the floor with Ricciardo, but in the end, the young Brit did take all but one of McLaren's trophy haul and spent a good chunk of the season third in the drivers' championship. Yes, Ricciardo took McLaren’s first win for a very long time after a grueling race at Monza, but didn’t have any other standout moments. In the end, Norris beat Ricciardo 160 points to 115. Still, 2022 presented a new chance at success.

This season started out about the worst it possibly could for both McLaren and Ricciardo. First, the team broke the car with a front axle update that made it literally impossible to drive, unable to set more than a hundred or so laps in three days of testing in Bahrain. And then, Ricciardo got Covid and had to sit things out. He was ultimately able to come back in time for the first race but clearly the team was about the worst prepared it could possibly be anyway, even with Norris having volunteered for extra testing time.

The McLaren 2022 car has turned out to be a fascinating beast, seemingly well in control of the porpoising problem but otherwise still baffling to the team and drivers on a lot of levels. Norris says he's had to re-learn how to drive it, since the chronic embarrassment of a points-free Bahrain opener and it still seems to be a lottery whether it'll be any good at most tracks.

Monaco and Barcelona have been the first tracks this year where that seems to have favored one driver over the other. In Barcelona, a dog-sick Norris just failed to make Q3 but hauled the car into the points over a race he'd been hurling on the grid just before. Meanwhile, Ricciardo slipped inexplicably backward with a sudden lack of grip, finishing behind the teammate he'd out-qualified.

In Monaco Norris, still sick enough to have skipped media duties, out-qualified Ricciardo and then outpaced him in the race. Norris took sixth and the fastest lap, after losing one place to George Russell over pit stops. Ricciardo, after a huge crash in practice, came home 13th. Their points gap is now an abyss: Norris has 48, Ricciardo 11.

The pressure on F1 drivers and teams to perform is severe, and anyone who's had the misfortune to monitor social media replies on a team account knows one pit-stop or strategy mistake during a race can turn fans furious.

Losing all expectations of you can be freeing. Last year, Monaco was such a nadir for Ricciardo that it seemed to also be something of a reset point. After getting lapped by Norris, he's seen on Drive To Survive asking his trainer and fellow Aussie, Michael Italiano, "What if I'm just a cunt?" Implying he could have suddenly forgotten how to drive.

Perhaps it's not that, but the fact that Ricciardo turned up at the team just as it switched to a Mercedes power unit, something he'd never used before (but then, neither had Norris). In addition, the 2022 cars are just a pain for every team, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton suddenly looking relatively ordinary or even bested by their team mates, too. Norris even says he’s not driving how he wants to, yet, casting further doubts about Ricciardo's performance.

And why lose patience now, only a few races into a long season? Ricciardo is a fast driver and is a much safer pair of hands than a junior formula driver or one from outside F1—like rising IndyCar driver Pato O’Ward—especially in an era where teams are brushing up against budget caps as damages from crashes piles up.

Since Brown’s initial comments, things have heated up. In a press conference at the Indy 500 he hinted at “mechanisms” to release Ricciardo from a contract that technically still runs until the end of 2023. If McLaren did do that then it’s hard to see where Ricciardo would go on the grid; though there are rumblings that Nicholas Latifi’s run at Williams might be over after this year but otherwise, things are pretty locked in—especially with Sergio Perez’s Red Bull extension

Ricciardo burned a bridge at Renault, not just in terms of breaking former team boss Cyril Abiteboul’s heart but in a sense they’re not likely to want him back, especially over Alonso, and after two years of not being able to get the McLaren to work. This probably leaves Ricciardo out of Formula 1 and in a very baffling way.

As a young, raw talent Ricciardo beat Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull, and he even held his own against Verstappen until he decided to leave and dodge the switch to Honda power. He seemed to have matured into a good development driver at Renault and then arrived at the McLaren Technology Centre a little lost, even though it’s pretty much only just down the road from Red Bull.

Maybe it’s how Netflix tells it and he’s being terrorized by Norris. That seems unlikely, though; as awkward as their vibes were when they were first teammates, McLaren is still trying to develop its way to the front of the midfield and it wouldn’t be in Norris’ interests, sporting or financial, to try to sabotage that. 

Usually, when things aren’t going well in F1, teams and drivers can point at things they know aren’t working. Whether it’s Fernando Alonso raging against Honda’s “GP2 engine” or the occasionally sharp criticism Red Bull directed at Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon’s results, generally someone knows who to blame. But not this time, however.

If the car’s not total junk (and Norris’ results suggest it’s not entirely) and Ricciardo’s not junk either, it seems no telemetry in the world can manage to correlate what’s happened here. If this is how it really ends for Ricciardo, then it’ll be one of F1’s big mysteries.

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