Unhappy marriage: Ricciardo struggled to adapt to McLaren, which did not suit his driving style.
Nowhere to go: Having finished as high as third in the drivers’ standings during his time at Red Bull, Ricciardo currently sits in a lowly 12th.
The final race of a Formula One season is inevitably an emotional moment for drivers. There are always a few who leave one team to join another and some contemplate an uncertain future. There may be one or two who call time on their careers. This year will be no different.
When the curtain comes down on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it signals a sudden stop or perhaps the end for one of the sport’s most exciting drivers of the past decade.
He is a man who outplayed four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in his first year at Red Bull, gave reigning two-time champion Max Verstappen a run for his money during their time together and then made some fantastic results with not very competitive Renault machinery.
His infectious smile and comic antics have made Daniel Ricciardo a fan favorite. But the goofy exterior didn’t reach the track. The Australian is an eight-time Grand Prix winner and widely regarded as an elite driver – even a potential world champion in the right car.
However, since his fateful move to McLaren in 2021, the ‘Honey Badger’, as he is known, has had a torrid run, outpaced and overshadowed by team-mate Lando Norris.
He joined McLaren on a three-year deal with a salary estimated to be north of $20 million. But despite scoring the team’s only win since 2012 at Monza last year, Ricciardo was unable to survive. That win didn’t change him, as his team and fans hoped.
An alignment problem
But it did show that when he has a car that suits his driving style, he can squeeze a result out of it. Unfortunately for Ricciardo, Monza was a one-off. For most of the race weekend, he struggled to adapt to the McLaren, which proved to be a poor drive.
While his lackluster performance last year was somewhat overshadowed by the win — Norris outscored him 160 to 115 over the course of the season — hopes of a turnaround this year quickly faded. The new regulations only exacerbated this deficit and exposed his vulnerability. He scored just a third of Norris’ points (35 vs. 113), with one career to go.
Ricciardo’s performance cost the team dearly as it trails Alpine by 19 points. While the Alpine drivers are closely matched on points, boosting the team’s tally, the gap between Norris and Ricciardo is set to cost McLaren millions of dollars, which will likely lose the battle for fourth. place in the battle of the constructors.
It was clear at the start of the season that Ricciardo’s struggles would continue. After the race in Monaco, where he finished 13th and Norris sixth, McLaren boss Zak Brown indicated that Ricciardo’s place in the team next year was far from certain.
McLaren’s patience finally ran out. So the team paid Ricciardo to sit out the 2023 season and replaced him with a rookie in fellow Australian Oscar Piastri.
Piastri, who is part of Alpine’s young driver academy, is managed by another Australian, Mark Webber, and the latter saw an opening to get his driver’s seat after Alpine went mad.
Ricciardo’s fall from grace has been violent and shows how sometimes the wrong machinery can bring down even the best of drivers.
Narain Karthikeyan, the first Indian driver in F1, knows Ricciardo well, having been part of the same team, HRT, during the latter’s first season in 2011.
Speaking to The Hindu, Narain said, “F1 is a tough place and sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time can really affect you. There was something strange about McLaren that Ricciardo couldn’t handle.
“You don’t go from being a really good driver to average just like that. It shows how unpredictable the sport is and it didn’t help that he had such a strong teammate in Lando Norris.
Offering more insight into Ricciardo the driver, Narain said, “He’s a great character. Outside the car, he likes to have fun and be a happy-go-lucky kid but when he’s in the car he’s very fast and has great work ethic. He worked hard.”
When you are driven by a car
Determining what could be the problem, Narain said, “There’s a basic driving style that you develop over your career as muscle memory. Then there are things you can do to adapt like springs, dampers and front -wing angle. But here it seems that the car and the platform do not suit him at all.
“When that happens, you don’t trust the car. So instead of you driving the car, the car is driving you.”
Noting that Ricciardo had previously been good against his teammates, Narain said, “The fact that Norris blew him away doesn’t help his confidence either.”
Ricciardo recently said in an interview that, unlike him, Norris has driven only McLarens in all his career and sometimes that helps; for Ricciardo, the knowledge of what race-winning cars can do is probably not in his favor.
When asked about this, Narain said, “It is true that Norris has known the team and the car for a while but, at the same time, this is where experience matters and you would expect someone like Ricciardo, who will be around for a decade, to find a way to adapt.”
With all doors closed for next year, the Australian said he is looking for a reserve role. There are rumors that he could return to Red Bull or even Mercedes. Such a move could help him stay in touch with the world of F1 and allow him to see possible openings for 2024. But will simulation work satisfy a pure racer? Additionally, there is no guarantee that either team, with its superstar drivers, will want to upset the applecart.
Another option is to sit out a year and come back fresh. It worked for Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who were out for two years but returned to decent teams. Unfortunately for Ricciardo, he was forced to walk away with his reputation at an all-time low. A year’s absence could put an end to his F1 career.
Regardless of his decision, he knows there is no guarantee in his future. Ricciardo made his name in 2014 with his stunning late-braking overtake, which served to drub Vettel. But now the 33-year-old can drive his last Grand Prix just like his old team-mate.