On Friday August 3, Daniel Ricciardo surprised pretty much everyone associated with Formula 1 by announcing his decision to move to Renault in 2019.
The idea that Ricciardo could leave Red Bull had been a very real possibility for a while, but it was one that appeared to be shrinking after confirmation Mercedes would stick with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. And yet, just a few days before dropping the bombshell, Ricciardo did not know what he was going to decide.
Reflecting on the biggest decision of his F1 career to date, Ricciardo admits there were a number of options on the table that were appealing, two of which he hadn’t been expecting.
“I knew obviously the options had been squeezed down,” he tells RACER, recalling the last time he got in a Red Bull car at the Hungaroring before settling on the move “At that stage I knew Mercedes wasn’t happening and Ferrari as well, I knew that wasn’t happening. So I knew it was really between Red Bull, McLaren and Renault. I just wasn’t sure, really.”
When the decision was made, it caught many people out – none more so than Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who had been expecting Ricciardo to sign a new deal that week. Inevitably, questions were asked and reasons were sought within the Milton Keynes factory, with the emergence of Max Verstappen and his subsequent contract extension – despite already having one that ran longer than Ricciardo’s – cited as a potential factor.
The Australian sees similarities to his arriving at Red Bull in 2014 and getting the better of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel: the more established driver was faced with a younger teammate coming to the fore as a future team leader.
“I didn’t really ever see it as I broke whatever they had [in 2014],” he says. “I think the biggest thing for me that year was I achieved what I believed I was capable of, and that was the most gratifying thing for me.
“I’d never gone head-to-head with Seb, but I’d watch onboards and things like this, and I knew he was quick and I knew he was talented, but I was like, ‘I think I can do that, I really believe I can do what he’s doing’. So I wasn’t surprised when I was able to do it, but it was cool for me to prove to myself what I believed I could do.
“But I thought Seb handled it really well that year. I’m sure maybe behind closed doors he was showing frustration, but always with me, whether I won, or in races like Bahrain where I passed him, or Monza where we had a good battle and I passed him, he always came up and showed me the respect. He was like,: ‘Good battle, you fought hard and you were clean’ and he respected that. I’m sure it’s not the way that he wanted it to go, but…
“So I don’t feel like I broke the team up, so to speak, I think he just respected that I was bringing some heat. I think that was also a bit of a sign for him that it was his time to move on, and maybe I was the next guy to run with the team.”
Just as it had hoped to keep Vettel in 2015, Red Bull wanted Ricciardo to stay beyond last year. Negotiations had dragged on, and the team felt it had made all the concessions necessary to keep the 29-year-old happy. So had Red Bull really offered him everything he asked for?
“I don’t know, I guess it got close to what I wanted,” he admits. “There were a few things. What I was going back and forth with was, originally they wanted to do a two-year deal, and because I’d already questioned if I wanted to do another year there, doing two years… I was a bit concerned with me personally; with my motivation to still be there.
“I was just thinking if Honda doesn’t work, next year’s a year of frustration, then am I really going to want to do another year on top of that, or am I just going to get a bit over it? So initially the two-year thing was something that concerned me, so then it was like, ‘OK, let’s try and push for a one year’ and if the Honda works, great, we’ll extend it and whatever. Easy.
“But then one year felt risky. It felt like I wasn’t really achieving anything by signing a one-year. I don’t know, it just didn’t really add up. So what I thought I wanted, I didn’t really want in the end. So there wasn’t really anything for me. The two-year, for me, I didn’t really feel I wanted, and a one-year was like it puts me in this position again in 12 months time, and I don’t really want to be back in this position to be honest, because it’s starting to become a bit wearing.”
Turning his attentions to the remaining options, McLaren looked like a good fit to Ricciardo. By this stage, he knew he wasn’t going to get as competitive a car as he had been in for the past few years, but even so, recent form was hard to ignore.
“McLaren, as a group – I had a couple of meetings with them – and I thought they were really cool people,” he says. “Definitely as personnel I like them a lot. Not that I don’t like Red Bull or anyone else, but I had a really positive vibe with them. But obviously, they’ll admit it, they’re just not there yet, and it just seemed probably a bit too optimistic to go there at that point. So that kind of eliminated them.
“Then Renault we were kind of talking to a bit, and eventually it just kind of clicked for me and I was like ‘Alright, so it’s a works team, progress they’ve made is good, it’s two years and a solid deal’.
“I won’t lie, having Nico [Hulkenberg] as a teammate is by no means a bad thing. I liked that idea. I’ve always rated him because I raced him as a junior and he was winning everything, basically, and I think his work with the team and experience in racing generally could help the team.
“I know he’s super-motivated because he has one statistic that not many people want, and that’s the podium-less one. Everyone knows he’s good enough for it. So he’s going to be motivated, me coming to the team is going to add motivation for him, but I think it can boost us and fast-track the progress.
“It just seemed like the right fit, and I was like ‘You know what? That’s it’. It got to that point as well where what I really felt I just need a change, and just to break the routine, really.
“It sounds weird, and people are like ‘How can F1 become boring or a routine?’, but I think it’s like everything. I’ve always been a kid who at school was jumping around and I was never really satisfied with what I was doing, I always wanted to do something else. I guess it got to a point now, being with the same team and the same people, I was like ‘Alright, I need something else now’. I get a bit antsy, I guess!”
Even now, the common view is that Ricciardo faces a major challenge to return to winning ways over the coming two seasons, based on Renault’s performance deficit to the top three teams in 2018. But drivers are human beings, and the seven-time grand prix winner admits his new workplace was chosen with 50% of his focus on performance, and 50% on a personal lifestyle decision.
“I think if it was completely personal then McLaren would have been as attractive as anyone,” Ricciardo says. “But there was still obviously a big chunk of performance there.
“The presentation and everything that Renault put forward, it seemed… We all know they’ve still got work to do with chassis and engine, but what they showed me, what they’ve done the last two years, when they put it on paper it all added up, and their trajectory seems realistic if that makes sense.
“It just seemed like it could work.”