Daniel Ricciardo’s ongoing struggle in coming to terms with the unusual traits of the McLaren Formula 1 car has been the saddest thing to witness in this half-season.
He seems no further forward after 11 races than at the start of the year.
His bewilderment is painful to watch as this deeply competitive soul, who has delivered some of F1’s starring performances of the last seven seasons, tries to pull himself out of this nightmare trough, and all the while the reputational currency built upon those great performances steadily dwindles.
It’s not that he can catch a break at the moment, either. The first corner destruction in Hungary potentially put him in the position Esteban Ocon eventually took, as the next car behind Lewis Hamilton’s about-to-be delayed Mercedes and therefore perfectly placed for a shock victory – until the secondary Lance Stroll/Charles Leclerc accident expanded into the side of Ricciardo’s car, knocking him down the order as well as taking big chunks out of the McLaren, ensuring it would be slow for the rest of the day.
Had he, rather than Ocon, been able to pull off that shock victory it would have owed a lot to fortune and been against a run of play where team-mate Lando Norris invariably outperforms him by a considerable margin.
But it would have been a great psychological confidence boost and perhaps a foundation from which to move forward. Because he clearly is suffering something of a crisis: in the Hungaroring collecting area the roll hoop camera captured his desolation at the end of a terrible day at the office, after he’d been bundled out of the top 10 near the end by Max Verstappen’s also-damaged Red Bull.
For almost a minute Ricciardo sat forlornly alone, helmeted head resting on the halo as he gathered his thoughts. It wasn’t the body language of someone who felt he had the answers.
His muscle memory is proving stubbornly resistant to taking on the rubbing head/patting tummy detailed technique required to maximise the McLaren into slow corners, a technique which is second-nature to Norris.
It’s no coincidence that Ricciardo’s biggest qualifying deficits to Norris have been at Monaco and the Red Bull Ring (at 0.8% off), circuits dominated by slow turns requiring lots of rotation (how quickly the car transitions from straight-ahead to a state of yaw which allows the steering lock to be taken off) early in the corner and where there are things to hit if you get it wrong.
Imola and Baku are the next worst (at 0.5% off), also tracks placing importance on rotation and with very solid punishments lying in wait. Get the rotation wrong and you are steering the car for too long through the corner, bleeding lap time as you do so. You are making the corner go on for too long.
There is no progression in his performances through the year, no pattern of improvement. What have sometimes appeared to be the green shoots of recovery turn out just to be just more flowing tracks not requiring as much rotation into the turn, tracks like Barcelona (where he was a few hundredths quicker than Norris) or Silverstone.
As soon as the calendar returns to tighter tracks – where his steering and weight transfer feel do not match up to the aerodynamic requirements of a McLaren with a weak front end which therefore needs the nose to be kept down as long as possible, keeping the centre of aero pressure forwards – he’s back at sea again.
He’s an insanely-driven competitor, even by the standards of an F1 driver and this will be causing him so much pain. The car is just not allowing him access to his natural driving style, which is almost the opposite of what is required for this particular car – and that’s defining a hard brick wall of deficit.
He’s signed to a long term McLaren contract and it’s almost inconceivable he will not continue into next year.
Both sides desperately want this to work and their working relationship is terrific, the team full of admiration for how his demeanour with his crew never wavers in its positivity despite his difficulties.
But if there is still no progress in the remainder of this year, he has to be looking at the radical regulation reset of next year as his salvation.
With everyone’s car by definition unrelated to those of the previous seasons, will the ’22 McLaren prove less unusual in its traits and allow him to express himself in the cockpit more naturally?
Because if not, and the hangover of this car remains, it’s difficult to conceive someone of Ricciardo’s competitive intensity tolerating sub-standard performance from himself.
In such a situation McLaren probably wouldn’t even need to have the awkward conversation. He might well relieve them of it.
For the sake of Ricciardo, McLaren and F1 let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Everyone wants to see the real Ricciardo back.