What’s happened to Daniel Ricciardo? The compelling theories to explain his sharp F1 decline

Oliver Harden
Daniel Ricciardo shuts his eyes during the national anthem at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix

Daniel Ricciardo has yet to score a point in 2024

What ever happened to Daniel Ricciardo? Why does one of the most celebrated drivers of the last decade once again find himself fighting for his F1 future? 

The decline of Ricciardo since his Red Bull peak, via spells at Renault and McLaren, is one of the most curious stories of this decade so far. Let’s examine some of the theories to get to the bottom of where it all went wrong…

Examined: The possible reasons behind Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 decline

He cashed out after leaving Red Bull

Back in the middle of 2018, Ricciardo was the Jenson to Max’s Lewis.

Verstappen was fast emerging as the more naturally gifted of the two, sure, and Red Bull was in the process of becoming Team Verstappen, but there was still very much a place for Daniel – all charm and a winning smile – to thrive.

Then, on the first Friday of the summer break, came an act of career suicide as Ricciardo announced he was walking away from the team who adored him, and one of the few cars capable of winning races, for a lucrative contract to drive a Renault he regularly lapped.

It was a decision that wrecked in an instant the perception of Ricciardo as an ambitious, career-driven character – one who had often spoke of his race against time to become World Champion – and confirmed that his priorities had changed.

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And so having made his bed – almost certainly regretting his decision by the moment he left Red Bull’s factory for the last time, even if he never admitted it – he decided to lie in it.

Not long after his departure from Red Bull came a change of management as building the brand took precedence over his career prospects.

And sure enough, along came the clothing and alcohol ranges, the video game cameos and a social media presence more Instagram influenza than racing driver.

He got away with it for a couple of years at Renault, but alongside another prodigious, Max-like talent in Lando Norris came a rude awakening at McLaren, where all his post-Red Bull excesses brutally caught up with him over two miserable years.

Has he ever recovered from that decision, famously made on a flight to Los Angeles, in August 2018?

A move like that, motivated by money, can corrupt a competitor’s psyche irreversibly. And once that hunger – that all-encompassing focus – is gone, it ain’t ever coming back.

And so while leaving Red Bull may have made him rich beyond his wildest dreams, Ricciardo has been paying the price ever since.

He just can’t drive mediocre/bad F1 cars

Ricciardo’s most impressive performance since he started getting serious about an F1 comeback last year?

It didn’t come on a qualifying lap or across a race stint for AlphaTauri/RB, but in the Pirelli tyre test in which he participated behind the wheel of Red Bull’s dominant RB19 car at Silverstone.

Rumours on the day, since confirmed by Christian Horner in the latest series of Drive to Survive, revealed Ricciardo’s quickest lap would have put him on the front row of the British Grand Prix (so within 0.241 seconds of Verstappen’s time for pole position) two days earlier.

It is dangerous to look too deeply into the headline times when such crucial details as fuel loads – plus the fact that Verstappen’s pole was set on a drying/green track in a rain-affected session – are unknown.

That he was capable of such a competitive lap at all, however, would suggest that the problem may not be totally with Ricciardo.

Could the Daniel of old – of his 2014-18 Red Bull peak – still be in there somewhere, just without the machinery to fully express himself?

Is he simply someone who regresses to the mean with a difficult or recalcitrant car, but would still fly if presented with a really competitive one with lots of downforce?

Take a look at his earliest days and that trend, of his own performance level shooting through the roof in a quick car, has always been there.

Despite some eye-catching performances (sixth on the grid at Bahrain 2012 sticks in the memory), Ricciardo did not assert himself over Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso sufficiently enough to make himself the outstanding option when Mark Webber retired in 2013 – hence Red Bull’s public courting of Kimi Raikkonen throughout that summer.

Yet when he was promoted to the senior team and finally given a compliant, front-running car in 2014, Ricciardo almost overnight grew to a level most (including Red Bull, possibly even Daniel himself) had not seen coming – so much so that he ended up running Sebastian Vettel, the reigning four-time World Champion, out of town.

It’s true that some drivers are just better equipped to drive fast cars.

Yet the great irony here? Ricciardo will never again be presented with a quick car unless he can prove himself fast and reliable in a slower one.

The McLaren stint messed with his mojo

There is a convincing school of thought that Ricciardo’s miserable two-year stint at McLaren was not so much about the car, but a clash of cultures.

It has long been said that McLaren work in mysterious ways, flooding their drivers’ heads full of information in a way that to a go-with-the-flow personality like Ricciardo – never the most technically minded driver – can be overwhelming.

Remember, for instance, how his race engineer would sometimes coach him around a lap over team radio? “Daniel, for info: Lando is on the brakes 10 metres later into Turn 2, etc, etc…”

That might explain why one of Ricciardo’s better performances in the McLaren came at his very first race with the team at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix – one of the rare occasions he started ahead of Norris – and why he was never the same again once the team’s tentacles began to take hold.

Far from finding solutions, the deeper they drilled into the data, the more muddled, confused, lost Ricciardo became to the point where he had been reduced to a shell of his former self in 2022, leaving McLaren with no choice but to give up on him.

Red Bull and Ricciardo have both made reference to McLaren messing with his mojo since they were reunited in 2023, Horner openly admitting the team “didn’t recognise” Daniel or his driving style when he first tried the simulator upon his return.

It was evident when he returned to racing last year that untangling those so-called “bad habits” was still very much an ongoing progress, slowed by his broken hand after just two races back.

Upon his comeback in Hungary, Ricciardo and Red Bull both demonstrated a good understanding of what went wrong at McLaren, speaking of simplifying everything, rediscovering his passion for F1 and focusing only on the act of driving the car.

It sounds so easy in principle, less so in practice.

In moments of adversity and extreme pressure, bad habits tend to rise back to the surface and can prove much harder than first thought to kick.

The Fear has gripped him

Jules Bianchi’s ultimately fatal accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix was the first glimpse of F1’s dark side for most of today’s drivers, but in terms of leaving a lasting imprint was relatively easy to rationalise.

The accident came as a shock, of course, but the circumstances were so unusual – so tragically freakish – that it could be filed away at the back of their minds.

Romain Grosjean’s fireball at Bahrain 2020? That’s the sort of incident that plays on your mind, the sport coming so close to catastrophe after such a relatively innocuous first-lap touch.

It really could have happened to any of them.

Ricciardo has always been one of the more safety-conscious drivers on the grid, stretching back to when F1 cars first started sprouting halos in pre-season testing in 2016.

As others, notably Nico Hulkenberg, wept at the sight of this piece of scaffolding around the cockpit, Ricciardo was adamant that it was the right direction to take, almost guilt tripping his rivals into adopting his outlook.

“There is no need to be a hero about the situation,” he said of Hulkenberg’s complaints that the halo looked horrible and sent the wrong message, with F1 meant to retain an element of danger to be “sexy and attractive.” 

“It does not change the sport or the speed of the cars. It is just if there are any flying objects it is a bit of extra protection for us. I don’t know why he is puffing his chest out for something like that. It doesn’t make sense.”

Of all the drivers, Ricciardo was again the one who spoke most emotively after Grosjean’s crash in Bahrain, accusing F1 of “playing with all our emotions” by playing constant replays during the red flag delay.

Is it a mere coincidence that his decline began not long after that?

If it is true that Ricciardo’s priorities had already changed by this point, the activation of his self-preservation instinct would have only slowed him down that little bit more.

In his autobiography, Ricciardo’s friend Jenson Button explained that he had never experienced The Fear behind the wheel of an F1 career until he announced his retirement in late 2016.

And once the thought entered his head that something could go wrong, he couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It is something he would never admit to now – because what would there be to gain? – but when his career is over and there really is no way back, it would be fascinating to learn if Grosjean’s crash had a bigger impact on him than anyone could have known at the time.

It would go a long way to explaining the Ricciardo we see now: someone who makes all the right noises and says all the right things in public but whose heart, deep down, is possibly no longer in it.

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