There’s a lot to be said about Ferrari’s ‘curse’ when it comes to tanking the careers of highly promising Formula 1 prospects; just ask Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. In the 2020s, however, it seems that McLaren flipped the ‘cursed team’ dynamic when it came to Daniel Ricciardo — a hotshot Formula 1 prospect that seemed so promising when he signed up, fresh off the line from Renault.
After a much-hyped three-year contract was cut short this week, McLaren seems to have made up their mind regarding the 33-year-old Italian-Australian fan favourite, who despite his camera-friendly Drive To Survive appeal, failed to adapt to the vastly-different 2022 spec cars.
Why did things go so wrong, what seems to be on McLaren’s mind, and where will good ol’ Danny Ric go from here? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Despite having an eight-race win record in the bank and a pretty great 1-2 lead at Monza last year, Ricciardo started off 2022 on the wrong foot before the races actually began. Suffering from a Covid setback during the 10-12th March Bahrain tests, Ricciardo failed to get an early leg up on the new cars, which didn’t seem to suit his driving style, but more on that later.
McLaren, on their part, did quite a bit to help Ricciardo out during this phase. Teammate Lando Norris, who is currently 57 points ahead, admitted in a podcast earlier this week that indeed, throughout the early phase of the season, the McLaren MCL36 was largely tuned by the team’s engineers to help Ricciardo get over his performance slump.
“I’m surprised we didn’t get it to work because with everything Daniel has shown before, having won so many races before, we thought the transition would be easier and therefore it’s very unfortunate we ended up in this situation,” added McLaren Team Principal Andreas Seidl. “We had some shared challenges and also some shared responsibility for not making it work. We will go far away from putting the blame on Daniel for our position we have in the constructors’ championship.”
Seidl naturally remained in close contact between Ricciardo and team CEO Zak Brown through the process, with all sides reportedly remaining honest, forthright, and determined to push ahead for results from Ricciardo. While last year’s planted position as 4th in the championship promised good results this year, McLaren have instead traded shots throughout the season’s first half with Alpine — a fact made more frustrating with Norris’ clear ability to charge through the midfield.
“Lando is clearly one of the superstars of the sport and the goal is to have two drivers that can race each other hard, as you see in George Russell and Lewis Hamilton at the moment or Carlos and Charles and even Sergio and Max are racing each other hard, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to field two very competitive cars,” said CEO Zak Brown.
Norris himself has shared a few thoughts on this. For one, he admits that the 11-year age gap between him and Ricciardo leads to differing thoughts, especially while outside the sport. He even directly compares his off-grid relationship with Ricciardo to his feelings for ex-teammate Sainz, a considerably younger driver with whom the 22-year-old shares hobbies, personal interests, and most importantly, a rivalry.
It’s this very direct comparison to the sport’s big three that makes Brown’s choice clear and obvious. Becoming a top contender in Formula 1 requires two drivers that can work at pushing their limits alongside and against one another, and in order to do this, it was time to replace Ricciardo with someone more suited to the new cars, and a whole lot younger as well.
Whenever a successful driver has a bad stint with a team, it tends to stir up a whole lot of drama, debate, and nitpicking about the several factors that go into an F1 weekend’s performance graphs. Some blame McLaren for prioritising Norris over Ricciardo, while others point the finger at Ricciardo. It isn’t pretty, but I’m going to have to go with the latter take on this one.
Ricciardo’s best performances throughout his career combined an oversteer-heavy, aggressive cornering technique that depended on his innate sense of understanding a car’s handling characteristics. Long story short, most of his wins came during his Red Bull era, where the car’s powerful downforce and stronger front end played to Ricciardo’s natural talents.
Relying more on instinct than technical prowess, however, came back to bite Ricciardo once he found himself in a McLaren, which features an understeer-heavy layout that priorities exit speed over corner entry speed. Carlos Sainz, known for being an extremely technically proficient driver, was able to study and adapt to the McLaren over-time during his stint, while Lando Norris has preferred this style of chassis all the way back to his F3 days.
Ricciardo, despite McLaren’s best efforts, was unable to let go of his original driving technique, and subsequently suffered due to his inability to adapt, especially considering all the new aero changes in 2022.
Ricciardo decided to personally release a goodbye statement after yesterday’s announcement, never losing his signature smile:
What comes next for him? Brown said he would welcome conversations with Ricciardo should he want to do so for McLaren in one of their other series, as they are involved in Indycar and Extreme E and will join Formula E next year. “We will let him speak for himself, but I believe he is very focused on Formula 1,” they, however, added.
Clearly, Ricciardo seems primed to continue racing at the top tier of open-wheel motorsports, and certainly has the clout to continue. Openings seem slim, but with Alpine currently shopping for a replacement to Fernando Alonso, Ricciardo might not be out yet. He’s already had a stint (albeit a lacklustre one) with the former Renault team, and given that Alpine can finally shrug off Alonso’s third-highest £15m salary, they might want to snap up Ricciardo while they can; probably at a good price too.
Haas have also reportedly been in talks with Ricciardo’s representatives. Whatever happens across the next year, we’d bet that Ricciardo’s definitely not going to follow fellow Red Bull alumnus Vettel out of the sport, and surely has a few good years still left in him.
Lead Image: @McLarenF1/Twitter