Where did it all go wrong for Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren? There were times at Red Bull, teamed with and against Max Verstappen, when he proved conclusively to be a true top-liner, armed with a fantastic feel for wheel-to-wheel racing.
In the two years when he largely treaded water at underwhelming Renault, there was little to suggest his powers had diminished, and yet from the moment he arrived at McLaren last year, he was nearly always in the shadow of young Lando Norris. Why? What happened to him?
If he or McLaren had a definitive answer, it probably wouldn’t have come to this. The team had to let him go. An average qualifying deficit to Norris of more than three-tenths was one thing, but just look at the points table: Norris has scored 76 points so far this year, Ricciardo just 19. McLaren lies four points behind Alpine in their battle for fourth in the constructors’ table and the order in which they finish is worth millions of dollars.
Had Ricciardo matched or beaten Norris, that teams’ duel would already have turned in McLaren’s favour. For all the big smiles and likeable, social media and Netflix-friendly bonhomie, Ricciardo has fallen well short of delivering on expectations (his own and the team’s) – and in what remains a brutal, black-and-white competitive environment, there is nowhere to hide from the stopwatch and the results sheet.
Do we feel sorry for him? On a human level, yes – because the Aussie is one of the good guys, and more vitally we also remember what he used to be. But sympathy quickly runs dry for the eight-time grand prix winner when you consider how substantially he will be paid not to race for McLaren next year. Shades of Kimi Räikkönen when Ferrari dropped him for 2010, before the end of his contract.
It means Ricciardo should be in the strange position next year of earning two salaries as reward for having performed poorly. So where will he go? Alpine is caught in a ridiculous tug of love for the promising Oscar Piastri, its junior driver, who wants to drive for McLaren in place of Ricciardo. It’s a legal knot that will only be straightened out by Formula 1’s contracts recognition board. If Alpine wins, it keeps a driver who doesn’t want to be there. If it loses, a coveted competitive seat opens up beside Esteban Ocon.
But would Alpine even want to take Ricciardo? His departure from what was then Renault rankled the hierarchy two years ago, although a wholesale management overall means different faces front the Enstone-based team now, so that might not be such a problem. But given how low Ricciardo’s stock has fallen, CEO Laurent Rossi and team principal Otmar Szafnauer must be questioning why they’d want him, for all his vast experience.