A year is a long time in Formula 1, as Daniel Ricciardo’s situation heading into the 2022 season proves. Twelve months ago, the big question hanging over the McLaren driver line-up was whether Lando Norris could hold his own against Ricciardo, who joined the team as an established star with a proven track record running at the front and winning races. Today, after Norris produced a superb campaign while Ricciardo struggled to adapt to the esoteric demands of a car he described as “peculiar”, the question is whether the Australian can live with Norris.
If Ricciardo can’t, what are the implications for his McLaren future? The team announced he had joined on a “multi-year” deal when he moved from Renault (now Alpine) for 2021, one that was lucrative even though it fell short of the $25 million per year he was paid in 2019-20. Ricciardo, on the basis that “I’ve got nothing to hide”, confirmed he had three-year McLaren deal, although whether this means it’s a straight three-year deal or the more common ‘2+1’ deal (two years locked in and a third as an option contingent on various factors stipulated in the contract) is unclear. But regardless of details, another season like 2021 in terms of performance relative to Norris would surely leave him with doubts over his McLaren future.
But the implication of this whole question extend beyond the simple one of intra-team supremacy and McLaren’s future line-up. It’s about is whether Ricciardo – one of the pre-eminent drivers of the past decade in F1, and who has earned a place among the ranks of the best not to win a title – is a busted flush. Or perhaps even more than that, was he never as good as his reputation suggested?
There are those who contend Ricciardo was overrated, but the evidence doesn’t support this view. After his initial toe-in-the-water in F1 with a half-season at back-of-the-grid HRT in 2011, he made significant progress with Toro Rosso over the next two years. When Mark Webber’s Red Bull seat became available for 2014, Ricciardo and teammate Jean-Eric Vergne were at the front of the queue, but it was the Australian who made sure he bagged it.
Ricciardo then outperformed reigning quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel in 2014, winning the three races Mercedes didn’t, and the rest is history. Even when Verstappen established himself as Red Bull’s leader, Ricciardo wasn’t far behind. What’s happened since at Red Bull – which had worked hard to convince Ricciardo to stay on before his surprise decision to sign for Renault – proves that being as close to Verstappen as he was represents a formidable level of performance.
But while his Renault stint also enhanced Ricciardo’s reputation, it did also raise a red flag that has since become more significant in reflecting a potential weakness in Ricciardo’s skillset over the past year. Initially, he struggled to adapt to the limitations of the car – primarily in the entry phase of corners, where he couldn’t attack in the way he wanted to. He got over this and soon asserted himself as team leader ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, before being comfortably stronger than Esteban Ocon a year after. When he moved to McLaren, expectations were high given his previous nine-and-a-half F1 seasons had shown him to be a driver of considerable class.
The McLaren move changed all of that. Although he earned himself a place in McLaren legend by ending the longest win drought in its history at Monza last year, he was comprehensively outperformed by Norris. If anything, the 160-115 points comparison flattered Ricciardo a little given Norris lost plenty of points in the second half of the season to ill-fortune. While Ricciardo was still capable of producing decent race drives, and did on occasion produce reasonable qualifying pace, he never completely got on top of the car and the true breakthrough never came.
It wasn’t for want of trying. Ricciardo and McLaren took a rigorous approach to preparing him for the move, with team principal Andreas Seidl stating that “the objective is to be like Daniel has driven a McLaren and has worked with his engineers a long time, but it’s actually the first race” in terms of how ready he would be for the start of the season. Ricciardo did outqualify teammate Norris on his debut in Bahrain, but Norris left time on the table and was disappointed to be behind. Ricciardo knew it was going to take time to crack it but he never really did, not entirely.
You could argue that Ricciardo simply didn’t have the pace. After all, by most estimates Norris took a big step forward last year and was arguably the most impressive performer over the whole season outside of title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Could it be simply that Norris is an outstanding driver and Ricciardo can’t live with him?
It’s possible. Even if all the characteristics of the McLaren that held Ricciardo back are eliminated in 2022, he might still be slower than Norris, who is one of the stars of the next generation. Plenty of drivers have found themselves eclipsed by the new wave coming through and as Ricciardo turns 33 this year, he’s clearly closer to the end than the beginning of his grand prix career. But equally, he’s got a good few years left in him.
McLaren technical director James Key is well-placed to understand Ricciardo’s problems. He held the same position with Toro Rosso during Ricciardo’s formative F1 years and explains how the car’s weak spots coincide precisely with the very qualities that make the Australian so fast.
“With Daniel, one of his great strengths has always been really strong braking and turning in and carrying speed through a corner,” said Key. “I remember seeing him develop this in the Toro Rosso days where he was picking all this up and you could see he was getting quicker and quicker, and a great qualifier as well.
“Unfortunately, it’s one of the tricky things that our car hits and that knocks out those strengths. It really hurts those strengths because the weaknesses of our car in the worst-case conditions are not allowing him to do that. So that’s where the conflict came in a bit for him early on. He has adapted well since then.
“But clearly the fresh sheet of paper for ’22, we don’t have any legacy philosophy in there which is difficult to budge. The hope is that we can move on a bit and make the car a little easier to drive.”
The point Key makes about the car change is pertinent. The radically different technical regulations fundamentally transforms the way the cars generate their downforce with even greater reliance on the underfloor thanks to the return of ground effect venturis. While it’s still the same team creating the car using the same processes, tools and knowledge base that produced such a tricky car for Ricciardo, this is being applied to a very different set of challenges. What’s more, the team also believes that the upside of the struggles it had with Ricciardo was understanding in detail shortcomings that were not obvious to Norris given he’s only ever known this last generation of McLaren F1 cars.
Ricciardo’s struggle to adapt does suggest he’s been tripped up by his own tendency not to spend too much time focused on the technical side of the driver’s art. That’s not necessarily a big weakness as teams usually prefer a driver who gives accurate and, when required, detailed feedback, but without going a step beyond that and trying to engineer the car themselves. But when confronted with an extreme car, the driver must take a deeper dive. The benefit of this is being forced to endure a season of enormous introspection and analysis, which will have sharpened his skills.
His performances this year will provide the key context for understanding what 2021 really was for Ricciardo. Was it a temporary stumble, one that had the benefit both of broadening his skillset and allowing him to help McLaren better understand his weaknesses? Or was it the start of an alliance with McLaren that seemed set to achieve great things but ultimately disappoints?
The key will be how he performs compared to Norris. Last year doesn’t appear to be an outlier for the 22-year-old British driver who has impressed everyone with his form. He’s taken clear steps in each of his three seasons in F1 and, crucially, also appears to have convinced himself that he belongs at the front in F1. Barring late-race rain at Sochi, he would have won his first grand prix and heads into 2022 as McLaren’s de facto lead driver.
So the question really is the reverse of last year. Instead of can Norris live with Ricciardo, it’s about whether Ricciardo can live with Norris. The circumstances have changed, as have the stakes for Ricciardo, but his formidable CV means that he cannot be underestimated. You don’t win eight grands prix – only one of those, Monaco 2018, achieved in a car that was the fastest on the weekend in question, and even then only until his MGU-K let him down in the race – without being a high-quality performer.
But history only counts for so much in F1, where you are only as good as your next race. The Ricciardo versus Norris battle isn’t necessarily over yet, making the battle for supremacy within McLaren a key subplot of 2022. And while last year Ricciardo would have been disappointed ‘only’ to match Norris, achieving that this year would constitute a fine season for him – or any other driver.