The timing of Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to leave Renault risked undermining his farewell season before it even began, condemning the relationship to an awkward year-long divorce.
But with just a few weeks left together, Ricciardo and Renault have never been stronger. Renault’s achieved more than it ever has. Ricciardo has returned to the F1 podium (twice). They may both end the season best of the rest, Ricciardo fourth in the drivers’ championship – his highest finish since 2016 – and Renault third in the constructors’ contest.
The graceless nature of Renault’s immediate reaction to Ricciardo’s confirmed departure, which would have rightly made Ricciardo feel like leaving couldn’t come soon enough, now seems a lifetime ago. When Ricciardo exits the paddock for the final time as a Renault driver, there’s unlikely to be any relief.
“I definitely want that ‘sad to leave’ feeling,” says Ricciardo. “When I announced my move to McLaren I didn’t want the next six months to be a painful or uncomfortable six months.
“As I guess you’ve noticed it hasn’t been like that at all, it’s been really good. The initial news, or the impact of such news, emotions do dictate how you feel and it is a little uncomfortable. Making these calls is not fun from my side either.
“But I think the blessing in disguise from that was the season hadn’t really started, we were still in isolation or lockdown so we kind of had some time to reflect on it, and then by the time we got racing it was already put behind us, and we’ve got 17 races to do what we got to do and let’s get our head down.”
It’s worth remembering just how thorny that process could have been. Renault’s statement confirming Ricciardo’s exit earlier this year brought the Australian’s loyalty into question, offered no comment on their short-lived relationship or wished him well for the future. Renault shunned any kind of sentiment and wanted to make a point: F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul clearly felt jilted by a driver he’d moved heaven and earth to tempt from Red Bull (or at least found the funds to undertake such a landscaping project).
Abiteboul accepts the words chosen at the time were an emotional, harsh reaction. And it seems that Renault did everything right in ensuring there was no wound left to fester. On Ricciardo’s side it was a similar experience to when he decided to leave Red Bull in 2018 then had the summer break for the news to be absorbed before he saw his team-mates again.
When it mattered, professionalism reined. Abiteboul was quite quick to rule out sidelining Ricciardo and focusing on confirmed-for-2021 driver Esteban Ocon, saying it would make “absolutely no sense” to freeze its lead driver out.
“Daniel will be fully involved in the development process of the car,” promised Abiteboul, who said the working relationship with Ricciardo would be “extremely normal”.
And now Ricciardo says “both sides have attacked it with a lot of maturity”. Well, apart from the juvenile excitement of Abiteboul getting tattooed after Ricciardo finally made good on a long-running bet over scoring the team’s first podium. But being competitive enough to be in that situation has also fostered “a lot of confidence” between team and driver.
That has been critical for Ricciardo to achieve the unthinkable and actually leave Renault on a high.
“I’ve never seen someone so excited not only the thought of getting a tattoo but now knowing he’s going to get one,” Ricciardo jokes. “It’s been fun. It’s how I want it.
“I want to leave this team with everyone content, happy, satisfied and feeling like we’ve built a solid two years.”
Ricciardo will hand over a much-improved Renault to Fernando Alonso than the one he inherited. A gruelling 2019 season set him on course for his exit but it also shoved Renault into action and put in place some key changes that are now paying the team back in kind. And Ricciardo’s been absolutely key to Renault making the most of that, which is why Abiteboul was so quick to praise his contribution to such a successful 2020.
Those kind words did not go unnoticed with his driver. “That was a nice compliment to receive,” says Ricciardo. And it has probably given Abiteboul and Renault absolute justification in awarding him his lucrative contract two years ago.
OK, they hoped he would stick around longer than two years. But it’s difficult to argue that Renault hasn’t got its money’s worth in 2020, with Ricciardo 55 points and nine places clear of team-mate Ocon in the championship.
At 31, Ricciardo is probably at his peak as a driver – or at least arriving into it. He has been a model professional in his Renault goodbye, not letting any potential ill-feeling get in the way of doing his job and not giving any less than his maximum on-track or off it.
“I am at an age and a point in my career where I feel with the experience and the years that I put in, I can have a positive influence,” he says. “You can break it down to so many little sub-categories.
“It’s just what you bring to the team as an atmosphere, an energy and an approach. When you walk into a room you can pick people up. It sounds so basic but that’s really one thing.
“When it comes to a technical point of view, it’s what I can feed back to the team, and try to guide them in the right direction, where to focus on development.
“And then obviously behind the wheel it’s what to show on a Sunday, the level of heart and determination and passion you have for the sport.”
This relationship has been mutually beneficial as well. Ricciardo says that even though he is “relatively deep” into his career he has been excited and motivated by throwing himself into a new team and project, and believes he has “learned and grown” even though “there’s still a lot more I can do for myself and for the team”.
Ricciardo joined Renault knowing it was a gamble, but it was a high-risk, high-reward move. And though it did not work as he hoped in the first year, leading to his arguably premature decision to leave, he admits “it’s really cool that this year it’s really come to fruition”.
“The work has started to shine through and it’s nice that it’s recognised,” he says. “But it’s not just me, the whole team stepped up this year.
“I think we’ve really worked together as a unit, and it’s a team sport after all. So, the teamwork is coming good.”
When this relationship comes to an end, Ricciardo will almost certainly get his wish for a “’sad to leave’ feeling”. Both parties deserve credit for that considering the spectre of the worse-case scenario loomed just a few months ago.
However, the job’s not finished yet. If Ricciardo and Renault maintain their professionalism and performance for just a little while longer, best-of-the-rest status is in their grasp. That would be a fitting send-off, one final gift to the other to cap an unexpectedly amicable break-up.