INTERVIEW: The Daniel Ricciardo conundrum

There are a number of mysteries in Formula 1, but one of the more perplexing ones over the past 18 months has been Daniel Ricciardo’s form.

This is a driver who walked into the Red Bull team and stamped his authority over reigning four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, then went toe-to-toe with Max Verstappen for much of their time as teammates.

The move to Renault was a slow burner, but Ricciardo finished ninth in his first season with the team and fifth in 2020, on beating his teammates comfortably in both cases as he dispatched Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon respectively.

But at McLaren, it just hasn’t clicked. A tough start was followed by improvements in the latter half of 2021 – and a win in Monza, no less – but this year hasn’t yet delivered the desired step forward, and Ricciardo himself admitted he expected the new regulations to provide a reset opportunity.

“Yeah, but – and maybe this is with experience now – I’m always just a little cautious of how much to hope for, or how much to expect or wonder. You never know,” Ricciardo told RACER of how 2022 has panned out so far. “I think that’s everything, even if it’s updates of whatever. If they’re like ‘this is going to be 0.3s’, let’s see it on track.

“Even if the team said we’ve got an update this weekend that’s worth a second, I’m not going to do cartwheels until the stopwatch says that. And obviously that’s nothing against the team; I just think it’s important not to get too high in this sport because it can certainly bring you back you back down just as quick.

“It was exciting (to have a reset), but then I also look back at the second half of last year and, although it still wasn’t the best second half of a year that I’ve ever had, it was a lot better than the first. I’d built up a little bit of momentum with that car, so I was also like, ‘if the rules don’t change, I think I’m in a good spot to start the second season now’.”

But it hasn’t panned out that way so far. Ricciardo won’t blame COVID for the slow start – he missed the official test in Bahrain and struggled at the first race due to the virus – and can point to a strong run to sixth in Melbourne as proof that he was over his illness quickly enough. But from the opening 10 rounds he finished in the top 10 just twice, before back-to-back ninth places in Austria and France hinted at a bit of momentum.

A sixth place on home turf in Australia has been the highlight of Ricciardo’s season so far. Carl Bingham/Motorsport Images

The similarities to a year ago still exist, but Ricciardo says he’s in a much better headspace than he was at the same point in 2021.

“Twelve months ago I was kind of like screaming for it in a way – I was craving the break,” he says. “I just needed to get away from it, because I was going through the grind without much on the other side, so I knew it would be good for me.

“I wouldn’t say I’m screaming for it at the moment. OK you could say it’s the same as last year, but I haven’t allowed myself to get properly burned out by it or anything.

“In saying that, I still understand the value of a break and I still want it. I still think it’s going to be good for me – and good for probably most people in the paddock. But yeah, last year it was a non-negotiable kind of thing; it was like ‘I need this f***ing break’, whereas now I’ll take it.”

That positive outlook was before Oscar Piastri’s potential move to McLaren emerged, throwing further scrutiny on Ricciardo’s future. But however that plays out, when it comes to his actual driving, Ricciardo is more sure of where he stands.

The Australian wears his heart on his sleeve. When he’s angry, you know he’s angry, it’s just rare that he’s in that state of mind. But similarly, he has often allowed himself to admit to mindset when he’s struggling, and it’s through comparing how he felt heading into the break a year ago to now that gives him more optimism this season.

“This time last year there was probably a little more head-scratching from everyone, and I think that’s because… the truth is, I think they just expected me to get into the team and kick ass,” he says. “So there was probably still some pure head-scratching, like, ‘Hmmm, what’s happening?’.

Ricciardo says there’s been less “head-scratching” and more emphasis on solutions for getting the car to his liking from the team around him this year. Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

“And that was probably overriding what needs to happen – I’m just speculating, but maybe too much energy was put into the why’s and this and that before it was, ‘What do we need to do now to make him feel better?’.

“But this year, there’s more understanding and they know me now after a year, so I think it’s very clear what I like in a car, and even I’ve found this out. So when I do struggle, the team now are like, ‘Oh, I can see it in the data, this is what Daniel is feeling and he’s proven in the last 18 months that this is what he doesn’t like to feel. This is what’s holding him back from pushing the car to the limit, it’s this area here’.

“So in terms of development, but even things like tools – on the switches, diff and these sorts of things – we’re able to play with and there’s a bit more of a clear direction on that. So that’s where I feel like we’re more on top of what I need; the path is more clear of how to get there. Last year it was still a little bit of ‘F***, what is it? What’s holding him back? Why’s he so much off the pace?”

In many ways, Ricciardo’s current handling of the situation will have been made easier by the fact he experienced similar a year ago. But a new experience for him is his future being questioned, despite having a contract with McLaren for 2023.

That led to him putting out a statement reiterating his commitment to the team and intention to stay put, but the 33-year-old is handling the scrutiny remarkably well.

“I mean, it’s different, for sure!,” he says. “But it can also be grounding… You never want to get too far ahead of yourself in this sport and I don’t think I allow myself to, but it’s clear that I won a race less than a year ago yet people are like ‘Ah this guy’s no good for Formula 1 anymore’. It just shows you need to just be on all the time, and you can’t give people a reason to write something or have an opinion.

“But it is what it is. I know it’s the nature of trying to be the best in the world at something and [the scrutiny] comes with it, so I certainly accept it. Sure, you sometimes have to do things like put out a statement to try and shut down some of the noise.

“And I also put my own spin on it: look, people care. People think I should be doing better, it’s like they all want to see the kid that can win races, so it’s not all negative.”