The Daniel Ricciardo who discusses his current situation in Formula 1 with a permanent smile looks very different from the one who lives in that situation with totally contrasting body language.
One reflects an image of hope and persistent enthusiasm, the version of Ricciardo that routinely faces the outside world.
The other we only see glimpses of when he’s in his McLaren or immediately finished driving it. This is a more raw version, more emotionally exposed.
Ricciardo’s reality is a mix of the two described above. Adapting to McLaren isn’t all smiles (how could it be?) but it also isn’t yet the completely demoralising experience it looks at its absolute worst.
Moving between those extremes is an exhausting process and the 32-year-old is leaning on all his experience to manage his equilibrium as best he can.
“When I was younger, expecting the world from everything and it wasn’t happening, then I probably would have thrown a few tantrums by now and lost it mentally so to speak,” Ricciardo says in limited company, including The Race.
“That’s where being here for a while now kind of helps to take a breath, step back, go through it and understand that there’s a reason why things aren’t great right now.
“I need to find some answers as opposed to just throwing my hands up and walking away from it all.”
Ricciardo’s in-car demeanour reached an all-time low after the Hungarian Grand Prix when he remained slumped in his McLaren in parc ferme at the end of a race that was both physically draining and, not for the first time this season, emotionally taxing.
Outside of the car though, barely an hour later, Ricciardo was his more familiar self – trying to process his situation rationally and see the glass as half full.
There was, though, a weary air about him.
“There’s definitely moments, like approaching the triple-header when we had France and Austria, I was very much excited to have a few races on the bounce and use that momentum,” he said after the race in Hungary.
“Now it’s the right time to step away. Sometimes you need to step away, and I’m glad we get a break.
“I’ll switch off completely. I also want to encourage the team to. We’ve still got work to do, but I think everyone needs to just detox and decompress for those couple of weeks.”
Earlier in the Hungarian GP weekend – which is when we joined him for our small group chat – Ricciardo didn’t seem at all perturbed. In fact, he was quite literally laughing in the face of adversity.
Ricciardo’s tricky season hasn’t been without its good moments but, The Race suggests to him, they tend to prompt comments like ‘the old Daniel’s back!’ as if he’s been missing for ages.
What does he think of that? He laughs.
“Yeah, it’s like that! That’s how it is. I don’t take it to heart. If anything, I kind of take it as a compliment. It’s like they want to see me back on the podium.
“But you’re right, like was Imola November last year? So you’re only talking six months ago people were saying ‘Daniel’s the driver of the year’ and I was getting the Renault on the podium and doing all this.
“It’s only six months later and they’re like, ‘oh, he’s been missing’. It’s like that, it’s how it is. As I say I probably take it more as a compliment.
“I know a lot of people want me to do well, want to see me up there.”
That is probably more true of Ricciardo than most drivers. His infectious enthusiasm and spirited personality have always attracted a little more goodwill.
Unfortunately, his final race before the summer break was much like the others. He went on holiday looking for an escape from the cycle that has been an all too familiar theme of his season: hope for better, plan for better, hit a wall, regroup, hope for better…
That will be hurting Ricciardo in some way and gnawing at him mentally. How much is impossible to judge from the outside. It would be disrespectful to simply assume he’s hiding an increasing unhappiness. But it would be insensitive to think Ricciardo should be handling this without any kind of mental kickback.
Moments like the post-race Hungary parc ferme do seem to bring anguish to the surface. Yet the team and driver paint a picture of an unwavering optimism, focus and professionalism behind the scenes.
”The attitude is very positive,” says McLaren’s Andrea Stella. ”It is exactly what we see and what you know about Daniel, which means even when we are not achieving the speed that we would like, his spirit is strong.
”The motivation is very high and somehow we keep enjoying the journey. Not necessarily, in my experience, the driver who cannot find the final one tenth of a second keeps being an enjoyable driver to work with for their own team.
”But this is the case with Daniel. So I am very optimistic for the future.”
A lot of people want Ricciardo’s McLaren move to work out. The on-track trajectory at the moment is concerning. It’s going worse than it did at Renault – or, in Ricciardo’s words, “it’s definitely been more challenging than previous experiences because it has taken more time”.
But the twisted part is that Ricciardo at McLaren seems to be proving a fantastic fit in every other important area. That seems particularly cruel in the sense that there could be this amazing partnership – it’s just missing the key ingredient.
At least that’s the answer when we put Stella’s sentiment to Ricciardo, that McLaren is standing by him, but he’s also behaving in exactly the way everybody needs him to as well.
”Yeah, that’s all stuff that goes through your mind and you have to read the situation and the environment around you,” Ricciardo says.
”Obviously, I get out of the car and if it’s a bad race or something I’m angry and I’m whatever, cursing to myself, but then I do consciously think of ‘OK, what’s the most productive way to keep the team up right now?’.
”You have to be efficient with your learnings, criticism. So I do think about it and I am not the guy to walk into the engineering room and throw a chair around. I don’t think that’s going to do well. I don’t think it will help me get a message across.
”For the team to continue to support me, I need to show faith in them and I need to support them through that as well. If I start just swearing, cursing and throwing my hands up then in my head I’m like ‘OK, are they going to start questioning me?’ Like ‘have I lost it? Am I just not paying attention anymore and just blaming everything?’
”I’m definitely not one to point a lot of fingers but I try to do it productively and maybe just use my experience as well. Like, ’this is where I think we could do better or change because of what I’ve experienced in the past’.
“Maybe it’s just the way you kind of word it and put your message across.
”Everything within the team at the moment is I want to say near-perfect. The only thing that’s really not there is the on track results yet, or at least consistently.
”But environment, morale, everything they’re trying to do to help me give me as much as I can, the debriefs, kind of all the homework we’re doing away from the track… I honestly can’t ask for more from what they’re trying to do to help me.”
That’s a glowing appraisal in the circumstances. The question is how long all that other stuff remains valid currency.
Patience is Ricciardo’s keyword at the moment. He’s counting on every bit of “experience, maturity and a bit of wisdom” he can muster to get him through this perplexing prolonged period of adaptation.
And as if to foreshadow the post-race scenes that will come a couple of days after we talk, Ricciardo touches on how his grasp of the bigger picture is key to handling the peaks of frustration.
“It’s just a bit of perspective,” he says. “There’s 20 of us doing it in the world and this is a very high level that we’re trying to perform at.
“Obviously I’m just trying to get used to it, and just not let frustration carry on into anything negative. Frustration can be there like an hour or two after a race, or a qualifying.
“But I’m just moving on from that, trying to be efficient and productive, and keep morale and everything pushing in the right way with the team.”
Whether that pays off or not will likely determine the final chapters of Ricciardo’s F1 career.
He felt at the start of the year McLaren represented his best-ever chance of becoming world champion. That was a longer-term belief that a difficult 2021 season shouldn’t sway unless his current struggles are permanent.
He has learned since leaving Red Bull to adjust his goals in the short-term but the main prize is still winning races and hopefully getting that elusive title fight.
Ricciardo’s problem is that the reason he picked McLaren is the same reason he’s in trouble if he can’t get on top of his difficulties: it’s a team with serious momentum.
Ricciardo jokes that if he’s not around beyond 2023, the final year of his original contract, then he will be “letting someone in for ’24 and they can take it all!” – but, awkwardly, that’s exactly what could happen. In his own words things with McLaren are near-perfect. But they are missing the only element that actually matters long-term in F1: performance.
Alternatively, we could view the situation more positively. And this is Ricciardo we’re talking about. When in Rome…
Ricciardo knows that he’s not screwing up a title bid in 2021 with his adaptation and if it does carry over to next year he will almost certainly not be screwing up a title bid then either. McLaren is still getting its own house in order and accepts it has its own weaknesses until probably the 2024 season.
Taking a more optimistic view, Ricciardo’s goal of playing the long game at McLaren and returning to his former glories eventually could coincide very neatly with McLaren emerging as a real force again.
“I understand that the team is on a great trajectory, but now there are still a few hurdles in place that are probably going to stop us fighting for a championship for the next year or two,” he says.
“It is a bit of a reality now that the windtunnel is a pretty big piece of the puzzle. It might be the last piece of the puzzle for the team.
“I need to just try and keep building on where I am now over the next couple of years with McLaren, and then hopefully pull myself in a prime spot for that ’24 season.
“It sounds crazy to talk that far ahead. But sometimes you’ve got to think like that.”
The irony is that Ricciardo always knew he was joining McLaren for the long haul. It’s just now that applies to his own process as well as the team’s. It complicates matters but not to the degree that cracks are emerging where it counts.
It might be said that with such pressing short-term concerns, Ricciardo would do well not to have any grand designs on his longer-term McLaren future. But what’s the alternative?
There’s something about this driver and this car that meshes awkwardly. And it’s all changing next year anyway. So making this work for the long-term is what matters.
Ricciardo’s McLaren relationship comes to a crossroads with every difficult moment this season throws up. He can ‘lose it’, as he puts it, and throw a few tantrums. Or he can cling to the fact that everything within the team is “near-perfect” and that makes it worth persevering with.
Brighter McLaren prospects are the cornerstone of Ricciardo’s latest career move. If he had lost faith in that, he would not be going to such lengths to prevent any kind of collapse behind the scenes.