No Formula 1 driver’s recent career choices have been questioned as much as those of Daniel Ricciardo, save perhaps for those of the man who takes his place at Renault in 2021 – Fernando Alonso. Having turned his back on Red Bull to join Renault last year, a decision that’s likely cost him a victory or two, he’s three races from walking away from his new team after having contributed significantly to his upward trajectory.
The Australian is swapping like for like by moving to McLaren, given both are in the gaggle of teams at the front of the midfield vying to get to the head of the queue to join the big guns in 2022. While you can argue that Renault, which will be rebranded Alpine next year, has the greater potential thanks to its works status and the question marks over McLaren’s long-term finances, the fact is that both are at a similar level currently. But bouncing around the midfield hasn’t damaged Ricciardo’s reputation. In fact, it has arguably been enhanced.
Renault’s sporting director, Alan Permane, suggested in a recent Inside F1 podcast that Ricciardo is up there with Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen as the leading group of drivers in F1. While that might seem at odds with the fact he’s frozen out of F1’s ‘big three’ teams and missed out on the Ferrari seat that went to Carlos Sainz, this is not a minority view in the F1 paddock.
And you can see why. Ricciardo’s class shines through whenever he’s had the machinery to get the results. He’s had two seasons where he could have made a convincing case for being the outstanding driver in F1 – 2014 and 2016 – and even when he was shaded by Verstappen at the end of his Red Bull stint, it was by a tiny margin. While Verstappen had gained a slender upper-hand in qualifying, Ricciardo’s all-round excellence meant he was still performing at a similar level. And few doubt Verstappen’s future-champion credentials.
While the 31-year-old is not enjoying his lack of victories, he’s certainly at home with Renault, and the progress made this year appears to have energized him despite his imminent departure. That deal, of course, was agreed during the interregnum between the aborted start of the season in Australia and the real start in Austria in July – before Renault’s improvement had become clear.
What Ricciardo has shown both this year and once settled in last year was the outstanding level of his race performances. In 2019, he had the edge over Nico Hulkenberg in qualifying, but that advantage was bigger on Sundays. This year, he was driven some wonderful grands prix, not just those two podium finishes, and has been a regular points scorer. And despite the fact he hasn’t got a chance of adding to his tally of seven wins, he describes this as his best season since 2016 despite winning races – including the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix – in the two seasons after that.
“It’s what you make it,” says Ricciardo of scrapping in the midfield. “I don’t think any year is easy, but it’s also what you make of it, how much you put on yourself. Even if you win every race, sometimes it still can be tough on you. It depends how high you set the bar.
“The last year at Red Bull  was probably emotionally the most tough, because at the start of the year it looked like I was maybe competing for a championship, and then mid-year realized that I wanted to move on, and then towards the end of the it was DNF after DNF.
“There were a lot of emotions that year, so I think that was the most tough year for me emotionally and how it played with me a little bit. Last year was still fun, even though we didn’t really get the results we were after initially. It was still fun to try and build with a new team. This year there’s definitely been more fun because that building’s delivered some really good results.”
He’s also talked about how the lockdown period has revitalized his appetite for racing. While not a young driver, he’s not exactly an old one either, and just because he’s going to be in a midfield car next year – even with McLaren’s switch to Mercedes engines promising a slight improvement – it doesn’t mean there’s not time to get to the front either with his new team or elsewhere.
Even so, it is unfortunate that he’s ended up feeding on podium scraps, something that he’s likely to have to do for at least another season. While it might seem flippant to throw him into the same category as the recognized gold-standard drivers in F1, it’s absolutely correct to do so. After all, he’s already proved it.
Remember, this is a driver who outperformed the incumbent leader at Red Bull when he lined up alongside Sebastian Vettel in 2014. You might say that campaign was Leclerc-esque. And the problems at Red Bull were a consequence of being crowded out by the team resoundingly pinning its colors to Verstappen. That wasn’t an unreasonable decision perhaps, but resulted in Ricciardo walking away. Sometimes even if you aren’t emphatically the number two driver, you can’t miss that the center of gravity in a team has moved to the other side of the garage.