There are some pieces that you look forward to writing. This isn’t one of them. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Daniel Ricciardo we knew and loved is gone, seemingly forever.
The whispers are growing louder that the 32-year-old won’t be at McLaren in 2023, despite the fact he has 18 months remaining on his contract.
McLaren boss Zac Brown conceded as much last week, when he said Ricciardo hadn’t met the team’s expectations, and admitted there are “mechanisms” in the contract which could see the Australian leave at the end of 2022.
As many an NRL or AFL coach can attest, once the speculation reaches the point where management are being questioned over your future, the situation is almost always terminal.
We all know that having the “full support of the board” really means “he’ll be sacked next week” but perhaps the only thing worse is when management offers something less than full support, as Brown has done here.
Instead of simply pointing out that Ricciardo is contracted until the end of 2023 and putting the matter to rest, the comments from the McLaren boss place Ricciardo’s future very much front and centre.
And lets be frank about this, on current form the Australian simply doesn’t deserve a spot at a top team. In the 29 races they’ve been teammates, Lando Norris has scored 208 points to Ricciardo’s 126.
The sport’s bible, Autocourse, publishes a list each year of the top-10 drivers, ranked by the editor. In 2014, his first season with Red Bull, Ricciardo was rated the second best driver in the sport, with Tony Dodgins writing, “You couldn’t argue if Ricciardo had been given the No.1 slot. Without doubt a potential world champion.”
He was third in 2015, second in 2016, third in 2017, fifth in 2018, seventh in 2019, and fourth in 2020.
In 2021? Dodgins omitted Ricciardo from the top-10 altogether, and on the evidence so far in 2022 you’d be hard pressed to make a case for his return.
Sure, the McLaren was a dog of a car at the start of the season, but Norris has managed five points finishes from the last six races. Ricciardo, meanwhile, has finished in the top-10 once, often the victim of a poor qualifying session that leaves him on the back foot come race day.
Through the first half of 2021 the story revolved around how Ricciardo was struggling to adapt to the McLaren, which required a driving style that suited Norris much more than Ricciardo. The Australian led home a 1-2 finish in Italy, but Norris was undoubtedly the team leader across the course of the season.
Those struggles with the car were supposed to disappear in 2022, with a complete overhaul of the sport’s rules meaning the speed is generated in a much different fashion.
Instead, McLaren finds itself paying Ricciardo’s (not insignificant) salary and getting little return for their outlay.
Monaco was the scene of two of Ricciardo’s most famous drives. His 2016 effort for Red Bull, when only a botched pitstop cost him victory, was followed by his 2018 win when he held off Sebastian Vettel, despite nursing an ailing car for much of the race.
But it’s also the venue for two nightmare outings for McLaren. In 2021, he endured the indignity of being lapped by Norris, while this year he crashed during practice, a rare error from which he never recovered.
Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion who drove for McLaren for seven seasons, believes Brown’s comments have placed Ricciardo in a difficult position.
“I was surprised that he came out and said that,” Button told Sky Sports.
“Formula 1 is a real mental game. They all have immense skill but you don’t perform if your head is not in the right place.
“When your team principal comes out and says that, it definitely hurts. From Daniel’s response, it hurt.
“It just spirals out of control.”
Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion, was even more direct in his column for Formule1.nl.
“Daniel Ricciardo’s time at McLaren is over,” he wrote.
“CEO Zak Brown is now saying that there are clauses in his contract, and that means that a decision has almost been made. It’s a way to put the pressure on the driver and prepare the media.”
If Ricciardo does split with McLaren, there’s every chance his sixth place at Melbourne last month was the last time Australian fans will see him in an F1 car.
Ferrari and Mercedes don’t have a spare seat for next year, and Red Bull is likely to keep Sergio Perez alongside Max Verstappen. And even if there was a spot available at one of the top three teams, it’s hard to see a situation where any of those teams would be interested in Ricciardo.
Alpine has Esteban Ocon under contract for next year, and a choice of either Fernando Alonso or Oscar Piastri to partner him, so there’s no chance Ricciardo could return to his former team.
AlphaTauri has any number of Red Bull juniors to call upon, and if Alfa Romeo makes a change the highly-rated Théo Pourchaire would appear to be first in line.
That leaves the backmarkers – Haas, Williams and Aston Martin, as the only realistic options for 2023. Hardly a palatable choice for someone who has won eight races, although battling at the rear of the field is something he’s sadly become accustomed to in recent times.