Defining what a driver is worth to a team is a challenge, doubly so when it’s Daniel Ricciardo at Renault. If you’re talking about a driver like Lewis Hamilton who wins the majority of the races and the title, then by definition they are worth every penny, but with Renault known to be paying Ricciardo $25million per year for his two seasons how does that stack up?
Absolute results are of limited value as a measure and only really count when you are in a frontrunning team. Ricciardo isn’t and was never expected to be winning races within the scope of his two-year deal with Renault. What he was sold was a team with the potential to get to the front, with hoped-for progress in 2019-2020 leading to the promised land of the new rules in ’21.
Now, the new rules have been put back, Ricciardo is on his way to McLaren and Renault spent the first half of his time there getting nowhere – hence the desire to leave. But Renault is making progress, has beaten McLaren, which uses the same engine, in four of the last five races and now has a realistic chance of challenging for third in the constructors’ championship. This was the upward trajectory Ricciardo was supposed to be part of.
Ricciardo was recruited as a big-name star driver to help take Renault to the promised land not of a single third place, but something more than that. So has this spend been justified for the team or could it have been better used elsewhere?
Team principal Cyril Abiteboul, whose response to Ricciardo’s decision to leave lacked grace and showed how hard hit the team was by it, has talked up the value the Australian has brought.
“It’s equally important to the team, to Daniel, to myself also,” said Abieboul. “We’ve been questioned about this decision of him joining us and also his decision of joining the team – in both directions really.
“It was very important for everyone to put the commentators at bay and show why it made sense at the time. Yes, it was disappointing last year, you could argue that it was one year too early. But there’s not that many opportunities to have a driver like Daniel, who was available on the market.
“So I still believe that it was the right thing to do at the time. The team wouldn’t be what it is today without Daniel – and maybe thanks also to the year that we had together last year, which was indeed a very painful year, which has pushed all of us to take the measures that that we’ve taken, and also with the team in Enstone with Marcin Budkowski and so on and so forth.
“So now we are finding ourselves in a much better position for this year and for next year and Daniel is capable of doing this type of thing. So yes, it’s a statement.
“I know that our communication was a bit negative when we found out that he would not stay with the team at the time, but I think that it’s precisely because it was an honest, emotional, unfiltered communication at the time. Daniel is also being unfiltered and genuine in what he’s doing today for the team.”
It’s standard practice for a team boss to be positive about a driver after a result, particularly one who was at the forefront of the decision to spend such an enormous sum of money on that driver. But after the initial negative reaction, the fact the relationship between team and driver remains strong speaks volumes.
While at Ferrari, the team’s decision to drop Sebastian Vettel has caused endless friction, what happened at Renault has not had the same effect. Partly that reflects the nature of the characters involved, but crucially Ferrari has its spearhead in Charles Leclerc.
Ricciardo remains Renault’s spearhead and it’s logical for team and driver to want to get the best out of each other as the season runs down. As Ricciardo has stressed, every race counts in F1 and it serves him well to had to McLaren following a strong run of results.
So where would Renault have been without Ricciardo? Chances are, it would have continued to run Nico Hulkenberg and perhaps kept Carlos Sainz alongside him. If not, perhaps Esteban Ocon would have come in a year earlier.
The impact Sainz would have had is difficult to judge as he reached a higher level when he moved to McLaren – by his own admission the step he made from 2018 to 2019 after leaving Renault was the biggest he’d made in his career – but in his final Renault season Hulkenberg was the stronger driver. Maybe that would have continued to be the case in ’19 without the change of scenery.
As Hulkenberg and Ocon have both definitively performed at a lower level than Ricciardo in 2019 and 2020, it’s fair to conclude that the car is being driven a little faster thanks to its driver choice. Ricciardo is a seriously quick driver and given he’s competing in a part of the field where a tenth or two can make a big difference, that is having an impact.
Last year, he outscored Hulkenberg 54-37 after a shaky start and this year he’s 78-36 up on Ocon. He’s also forcing Ocon to work hard to improve himself. Ricciardo has outqualified his team-mate in all nine dry qualifying sessions but Ocon did get closer than ever in the recent race at the Nurburgring. A Hulkenberg/Ocon combination might never have pushed itself on in quite the same way.
Then there’s the effect on Renault. Having a proven race-winner is a boost for any team but the day-to-day realities of racing in F1 can soon replace that feeling. But Ricciardo is an energetic and inspiring character and during the early races when he was struggling to adapt to a car that was very limited on corner entry and not compatible with his style, his attitude ensured the team wanted him to do well. This might sound obvious, but many an experience and proven driver has had the opposite effect when they’ve joined an underachieving team.
This helped to create a constructive environment where Ricciardo was able to benchmark the performance of the Renault against his experience of the Red Bull. That kind of knowledge is valuable and can help to ensure the right characteristics are pursued and the correct changes are made.
That Renault has made a good step from 2019 to 2020 proves this. The car was immediately better in terms of getting the power down at corner exit, but subsequent improvements in terms of rear downforce, upgrade packages further forward on the car that have worked far better than last year’s attempts have made Renault into a genuine all-rounder.
The driver does not design or engineer the car, so the responsibility for these improvements lies within the walls of Enstone and Viry, but Ricciardo has had a key part to play in terms of input into this process. Not only does everyone know that he’s a winning driver, which gives his opinions great strength, but he appears to have remained constructive with his contributions even when frustrated.
What’s more, he’s also not been afraid to admit when he has underperformed, admitting early last year that he had been a little shocked by the challenge of stepping from a frontrunning car into a midfield one and that his job was to adapt rather than endlessly blame the machinery.
Ricciardo’s contribution has likely played a part in ensuring the team could sign Fernando Alonso for 2021. While Renault was the only realistic choice for his F1 comeback, it’s unlikely he would have seen the value in joining the team were it still performing as it did in 2019 – inconsistent and only really strong on low downforce tracks. Ricciardo has, in effect, helped to prepare the team to be able to recruit his illustrious replacement.
Is this all worth $50million? Only Abiteboul can really answer that but given Ricciardo has played a central role in the team eliminating the fundamental weaknesses it had – and as Abiteboul suggests, this also had a role in the technical personnel changes that have had some positive effect with far more to come – he’s certainly been worth something.
If that $50m has given Renault nowhere to hide, no easy get-out by blaming drivers and no excuse to disregard the start comparisons in terms of characteristics between its products and those winning races, then it has been money well spent.
After all, what price is $50m over two years for an F1 team if it ensures that it can now justifiably aspire to challenge for wins if it aces the 2022 regulations when it might otherwise have carried on going around in the same circles?
Ricciardo has not and could not have transformed the team and perhaps it would have got to this point itself regardless of his presence. But his superb performances behind the wheel, which have been consistently good from the middle of last season onwards, his effervescent attitude and vast experience from Red Bull have allowed him to make an important contribution.
The team will have plenty of personnel who would argue their department could have done more with that amount of money spent on more facilities or more people – but that’s always the case regardless of how much you are spending on drivers.
And despite the age-old complaints of it all being about the car, the driver is the biological heart of the machine who must bring it all together and extract the potential. For its money Renault got exactly what it paid for – one of F1’s best drivers who has got the best out of it race after race this season. That’s all you can really ask for from a driver – and Ricciardo has delivered that and more.