When Daniel Ricciardo shocked the Formula 1 world by turning his back on Red Bull to sign for Renault ahead of 2019, many questioned his decision. After all, rejecting a new deal with a race-winning team, one of F1’s big three, to join a midfield team, was an unusual – and risky – one.
Just over three years after making that decision, which came at the start of the August break in 2018, Ricciardo took his first victory since the ’18 Monaco Grand Prix at Monza. So does the fact he has won a race, and is driving for one of F1’s most upwardly-mobile teams, vindicate that decision?
It’s important to note that Ricciardo has consistently said he was happy with the moves. He spent two years at Renault, which he describes as a “successful chapter”, and after the initial struggles enhanced his reputation with his performances. He also pocketed $25m for each of his two seasons with the team. He’s not as well-paid at McLaren, but he’s still on a very lucrative three-year deal, so from a financial perspective Ricciardo has done well out of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
He also feels it was the right move for him personally, that he needed a move away from Red Bull. It’s understandable given the fact it was very much becoming Max Verstappen’s team, and if Ricciardo feels he’s much more content having moved on, who are we to disagree with that?
But we can separate the personal from the professional and ask whether Ricciardo really has been vindicated from that perspective. After all, since he left Red Bull has struggled to replace him, and he voluntarily turned his back on a team that has since won 16 races and a world championship. Even with a conservative estimate, you’d have to assume that had Ricciardo stayed on, he would have added multiple grand prix victories even if it was in support of Verstappen.
“I didn’t really think like that in terms of the struggles this year or over the last couple years at times,” said Ricciardo when The Race asked him last year if the Monza victory vindicated his decision to leave Red Bull.
“I never really got into the mindset of ‘was Monaco the last time I’ll get there?’ But I knew I’d probably have to work a little bit harder for it at times.
“Getting the Renault back on the podium, that was such a target.
“So by achieving that, I took a lot of fulfilment and so did the team.
“Monza, if you like, did kind of make everything worth it. It was just nice to stand back up there [on the podium].
“To do it with another team, there’s certainly a sense of pride in that – making it work and getting to that top step with another outfit and none other than McLaren.
“There’s certainly some feelgood stuff about it. But, yeah, I guess I answered your question. I don’t know. It’s just that I like winning, winning’s good! So it was good to do it again.”
Ricciardo answered that question at the Russian Grand Prix, just two weeks after the Monza win. What followed was a difficult end to the season as he continued to struggle in comparison to team-mate Lando Norris.
Now 32, it’s likely Ricciardo is closer to the end of his F1 career than the start but he still has plenty of years left in him.
McLaren believes that it won’t be until 2024 that it is able to produce a car with the full might of its improving infrastructure behind it given the new windtunnel is due to come online in ’23. It’s perfectly possible Ricciardo will still be there to benefit from a McLaren team that aspires to be right at the front by then.
But in order to do so, Ricciardo needs to ensure he earns an extended stay with McLaren. That’s not a foregone conclusion given his struggles during 2021 in adapting to the car and therefore in matching Norris.
While he did have some strong results, with that Monza win one of nine top-six finishes, he was very clearly second-best to Norris with an average deficit of 0.215s based on The Race’s analysis.
If he continues to be a step behind Norris, regardless of the quality of his race drives that tend to be well-executed even if his pace is as good as it should be, then he will again find himself cast as the support act to a rising star. While the dynamic is different, it seems that’s one of the things Ricciardo left Red Bull to avoid. So how McLaren judges his performances next year in particular will likely shape the decisions taken about his long-term future with the team.
But Ricciardo is a high-quality driver. The argument that he has been ‘found out’ by his struggles in 2021 is a reductive one. Certainly, he struggled and pound-for-pound it was his least impressive season in F1, but there were at least clearly understood reasons for it.
He remains a high-quality driver, albeit with one with question marks hanging over him when it comes to the adaptability and technical skill to dial himself into what he called a “peculiar” car. So it’s also possible that 2021 was an outlier and the all-new cars for 2022 will allow him to be back to his best.
If he is, the question then is how he stacks up against Norris, who took a big step forward in 2021 and transformed from looking like a very good F1 driver prior to that into potentially something even better than that. That’s a potentially fascinating battle and one that could have a big impact Ricciardo’s F1 future either for the better – if he thrives – or for the worse – if his best proves not to be as good as Norris’s.
What we can say with certainty is that the career path Ricciardo has chosen is not definitively a failure. He’s still plying his trade in F1, for a good team with genuine prospects of emerging as a title-challenging force within the possible timespan of his stay there. But from a career-trajectory perspective, we also cannot yet say it has been a complete success either.
And 2022 might be the year that dictates which way the pendulum swings when it comes to evaluating Ricciardo’s career choices.