Daniel Ricciardo was left frustrated and puzzled by his early Monaco Grand Prix struggle, which seems to be the most confusing of his fickle first McLaren Formula 1 season so far.
Though McLaren had braced itself for a potentially difficult weekend in Monte Carlo given slow-speed corners do not bring out the best of the MCL35M, Lando Norris ended Thursday practice sixth-fastest and in a buoyant mood.
But team-mate Ricciardo, fresh from matching his best result of the season in Spain, cut a less content figure after ending the opening day of practice 15th, 1.573s off the pace and almost a second slower than Norris.
While there is plenty of time for Ricciardo to turn his weekend around – he’s earmarked Friday as a chance to do a “bit of homework and punch a few bags” – the lack of performance is bizarre for several reasons.
Monaco is one of Ricciardo’s strongest circuits, a venue he loves and won at in 2018. He’s scored four podiums in the principality, with Singapore the only other grand prix where he’s stood on the podium as many times.
Yet in the context of his first few races with McLaren, he’s facing a much bigger deficit to Norris than he’s experienced so far.
“I’d cross the line, I’d be like ‘eh, it’s probably a decent lap’, and it was like, ‘Yeah, you’re P12, P15’ – even at one stage P17” :: Daniel Ricciardo
“The second sector was my weakest one and that’s that kind of all the low-speed really,” Ricciardo said.
“It’s a bit surprising, why I’m kind of losing so much there. But I’ll get into the data, have a look. It’s a good thing [Friday’s] a day off.”
Slipping to such a big deficit is odd in itself given Ricciardo seemed to make a good step at Barcelona two weeks ago.
He’s been one of the strongest performers of those who have switched teams for 2021, but on day one in Monaco he was one of the weakest as the likes of Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari), Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) all looked competitive relative to their respective team-mates.
The slow-speed stuff is where Ricciardo has been losing out most to Norris so far, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Monaco has ruthlessly exposed that struggle, at least on the opening day.
But unlike in previous races where Ricciardo has felt limited by the car, this time he said he did feel “like I had confidence, it was just not translating to laptime” – which he seemed baffled by.
“Honestly, from behind the wheel, quite frustrating – because I’d cross the line, I’d be like ‘eh, it’s probably a decent lap’, and it was like, ‘Yeah, you’re P12, P15’ – even at one stage P17.
“Frustrating. Because it’s a long way off actually, there’s a lot of time to find. Right now I’m trying to figure out where all the time is.”
Were Norris struggling as well, Ricciardo could point to McLaren’s car characteristics as the reason for his off day.
But his slump did not coincide with any apparent issue for Norris, who felt “comfortable with the car” even though he described it as “not super easy to drive”.
“It’s there, and I think if we can put it all together we can do a good job,” said Norris.
“A bit of confidence on entries, to be able to really push on them. Which isn’t super-super important, but in qualifying, when you want to push that little bit more, it’s easy to just do it over the limit and lose everything.
“That confidence to push that extra bit more, and then just tidying up little bits and bobs here, with the toys and things I can do on the steering wheel, changing them throughout the lap.
“It’s just as simple as that. Nothing huge, we don’t need to transform the car, just tidying up on the job we’ve done.”
That feels a long way from where Ricciardo is at the moment, but the silver lining for the Australian is he came from behind in Friday practice in Spain to piece together his most complete weekend for McLaren so far.
He’s worked so diligently in his early weekends with McLaren that there’s no reason to think a similar turnaround isn’t possible in Monaco.
But that depends on Ricciardo getting some important answers after a day that left him vexed, even by the tricky standards of his 2021 so far.