Why Ricciardo must avoid repeat of final Red Bull days

Oliver Harden
Daniel Ricciardo prepares for the 2021 Dutch GP.

As Daniel Ricciardo reflects on where it all went wrong during the worst year of his Formula 1 career in 2021, his crash helmet would perhaps be a good place to start.

’All Good All Ways’ was the theme of his first season as a McLaren driver, with the slogan sitting atop his lid also lending itself to a range of clothing available from his official website.

But as Ricciardo struggled to adequately support team-mate Lando Norris last season – despite a well-taken win in the Italian Grand Prix – as McLaren ultimately lost P3 in the Constructors’ Championship, his helmet design almost became symbolic of how one of F1’s great characters had perhaps lost his way.

2021 came as a shock to the system, but had arguably been a long time coming and could be traced all the way back to his decision in the summer of 2018 to leave Red Bull.

Ricciardo had held the pose in the years after his breakthrough 2014 season, a dazzling and joyous mix of poise, pace and natural charm, had run four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel out of town.

But, in hindsight, a clue to what could be argued as his ceiling – that he lacked the talismanic qualities the leading teams require from a star driver – came in 2015, when Red Bull, between eras and struggling with an uncompetitive Renault powertrain, dearly missed the magic and sense of purpose of their glory days.

Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. Canada 2014.

That it all returned overnight with the signing of Max Verstappen – who won on his debut in Barcelona 2016 on a day Ricciardo, maybe feeling he was shafted by the wrong strategy – was revealing.

And if by mid-2018 Red Bull were very much in the process of becoming Verstappen’s team – Ricciardo feeling marginalised in the way his compatriot Mark Webber had once been alongside Vettel – there was still a place for Daniel to be the Jenson Button to Max’s Lewis Hamilton, to cramp the boy wonder’s style and stunt his growth.

Stepping out of one of the few cars capable of winning races for one regularly lapped by the leaders seemed to fly in the face of everything we thought we knew about Daniel Ricciardo, who had often spoken of his agitation in a perceived race against time to become World Champion.

Had days like Monaco 2016 – where he stood utterly aghast on the podium, the colour draining from his face, after losing the win to a slow tyre change – fooled us into thinking he was relentlessly ambitious and career-driven?

A cynic might suggest Ricciardo, having tossed away his best chance of winning the title with what appeared to be an emotional and – with hindsight – illogical decision, had chosen to pursue an alternative path to fame and fortune.

No matter what he has achieved in the past or will achieve in the future, perceptions of Ricciardo the competitor will always be coloured by the suspicion that, as Christian Horner accused in Drive to Survive, he simply ran away from a fight.

At the start he took the stubborn stance adopted by Fernando Alonso following his similarly ill-advised switch from Ferrari to McLaren-Honda in 2015, ignoring the evidence of his own eyes by insisting that because his former team were no closer to winning the title without him there was no reason to regret his move.

It was perversely fitting, then, that as Verstappen dived past Hamilton in Abu Dhabi to win the first World Championship for a Red Bull driver since 2013, his former team-mate – as the leading car not allowed to unlap itself by the hapless Michael Masi – had a front-row seat.

By that stage, of course, Ricciardo had long abandoned the Renault project, having realised the gravity of his mistake almost from the minute he arrived and signed for McLaren before his second season had even started.

Ricciardo had got away with it at Renault first alongside Nico Hulkenberg, a driver for whom the stars never would align, and then Esteban Ocon, in a weakened state on his return to F1 in 2020 after a year away.

But alongside a vibrant young talent like Norris – young and fast, effortless and authentic – he was beaten by the breath of fresh air he used to be as the distractions of life after Red Bull finally caught up with him.

The struggles of a driver still regarded as one of the very best – in a car he could never truly adapt to but one Norris and Carlos Sainz, at opposite ends of the driving style spectrum, had both managed to make work for them with relatively little fuss – was difficult to watch at times.

Victory in Italy, starting his second-half-of-the-season upturn in form, was a timely reminder the world feels like a better place when Ricciardo is fighting at the front.

In the immediate afterglow of Monza, his first win since Monaco 2018 and McLaren’s first in nine years, his schtick subsided momentarily as Ricciardo reflected on the troubles of 2021.

“It’s been the most challenging year I’ve had in a long time,” he told Sky Sports. “But it’s also made me understand more about myself as a person and as a competitor – and how much it still means to me [and] how much I want it.”

Was that perhaps an admission that F1, rather than being his full and all-consuming focus, had become a means to an end in recent years?

Had the humiliating experiences of being lapped in Monaco in a car Norris raced to the podium, of resting his head on his car’s halo in desolation at the end of a desperate day in Hungary, shaken him into re-evaluating what he really wanted from his career?

Had his dire season – and the difficult conversations and questions, not to mention the intense introspection, that came with it – reactivated his professional pride and fuelled a refusal to ever let it happen again?

 

There is every chance that his second season with McLaren, with a fresh start represented by a completely new car built to different regulations, will reduce the repercussions of 2021 and free Ricciardo to thrive and thrill once more as if last year never happened.

But with Norris showing his speed, a decade younger, still improving and growing in stature all the time – and having last week signed a new long-term contract, a measure of McLaren’s commitment to him – is it already too late to contain him?

In other words, does Daniel find himself in exactly the same situation he couldn’t stand in his final days at Red Bull – alongside a prodigious team-mate with more long-term potential who has won the hearts and minds of his team?

This time, with nowhere to hide and his career at the front of the grid now potentially on the line, he has no option but to stick around and fight on.

And if the only way is up after his worst season to date, the extent of his recovery will hinge on whether Ricciardo can put the harsh lessons of 2021 into practice.

It would be a fatal mistake to assume the new rules alone will take all his pain away.