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Formula 1

Ricciardo despair has first worrying echo of McLaren nightmare

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Daniel Ricciardo cut a baffled figure after qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix - and not simply because of the disappointment of a track limits violation eliminating him in Q1.

Instead because of the worrying echoes of his difficult years at McLaren after a lap he felt “was all I had” was over a tenth slower than what RB team-mate Yuki Tsunoda managed.

That was far more painful to Ricciardo than the fact that lap was deleted for running wide at the Turn 4 left-hander after he took a little more inside kerb. And while the pace deficit to Tsunoda before the deletion was only 0.110s – much of that down to being unable to carry as much speed through the high-speed Turn 9/10 left/right sweep – he admitted that even with the track improving he would have been unable to match the big step his team-mate took in Q2 on the way to qualifying eighth.

The usually ebullient Ricciardo appeared genuinely concerned by this.

With pressure building after Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko’s recent comments about the need for Ricciardo to raise his game, and the looming threat of last year’s stand-in success Liam Lawson, Ricciardo has not had the start to the season he needs.

“[At] Turn 4, I was fighting it and I remember taking more kerb, so I was wider than usual,” said Ricciardo. “But after Turn 5 I’d forgotten about it. So I did the lap and then eventually, when Pierre [Hamelin, race engineer] told me [the lap was deleted], it took a while for it to sink in.

“The lap itself, I was happy with from my side. I felt like I got everything out of it and then when I saw it still wasn’t good enough compared to Yuki, that for me is… yeah, I’m still a bit puzzled, because I know what those laps normally mean. And I crossed the line being like ‘yeah, that was a good one’. But those ones are normally enough, more than enough, and it’s still not.

“Then looking at the time he’s doing in Q2, I could tell you now I can’t get seven more tenths out of it than what I got in Q1. I’m sure there’s a bit of track evolution, but honestly there’s still some things we’ve got to look at because it’s been definitely a struggle so far.”

Ricciardo’s reference to things needing to be looked at is in the search for some car problem that might explain the deficit. This echoes his sentiments after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix weekend, which triggered checks that led to the team finding some small issues with the car that potentially inhibited its performance but not by enough to explain his single-lap pace deficit to Tsunoda.

Given he felt at the limit of the car, Ricciardo wants more checks to be conducted because he’s “not fully convinced” the car is working as it should be.

However, his comments have worrying echoes of those at Monaco in 2021 when he hit the first nadir of his McLaren stint and felt that car problems must be to blame for his lack of pace. Subsequent checks by the team revealed that wasn’t the case and that it was instead all about the way he was driving an admittedly tricky car.

There’s no way to be sure this is the case again, but what Ricciardo says feels eerily familiar. And that is concerning given the hopes he could set himself on a trajectory that will allow him to get back to his best in F1, an outcome that feels more distant now than it has at any point since he returned to F1 with what was then called AlphaTauri last year.

However, Ricciardo is adamant that he’s not in the same situation as McLaren because he feels confident in the car.

“OK, the time got deleted, but the lap itself was definitely the best quali lap that I’ve done this year, and those ones are normally quite good,” said Ricciardo. “Going into Q2, I don’t know where there was much more time.

“You obviously take a couple of tenths from track evo[lution], but six, seven-tenths, that’s not in it. I feel confident in terms of braking and balance and all that. It’s not like McLaren where I was a bit unsure and I can’t push the car here. But yeah, just some corner speeds, simply not able to gain enough speed.”

Ricciardo made some progress during his interrupted part-season last year with improving the characteristics to better suit his style, including improving the mid-corner rotation characteristics.

But offered the chance to address the question of whether the car characteristics are not as he wants them, he pointed to his doubts about the car itself.

“I feel like I’m at the edge with the car in terms of like four wheel sliding,” said Ricciardo when asked by The Race whether the car is giving him what it needs. “So it’s balanced and I feel now I’m at the limit of where its potential is. After Saudi, we saw some things, the team changed quite a lot and gave me quite a few new parts for this weekend to address some of those issues and concerns. It looked like it was better, but I still not fully convinced.

“We still feel like we’re struggling more than we normally are in a car that again I’m pretty happy with. It’s not like I’m really struggling here or here, it’s actually been a pretty nice car to drive. Just the laptime is proving otherwise.”

Ricciardo doesn’t believe there are any known differences between his and Tsunoda’s car, for example, any kind of weight disparity as can sometimes arise. But he intends to “keep asking questions and make sure that I’ve got something I think is capable”.

The RB team will take a close look at the car and it might be there’s something still not right that’s holding Ricciardo back. Certainly, the Australian hopes that's the case. But given his struggles in recent years, there’s still a big question mark about whether the limitation might be a driver who is still struggling to get the most out of the car and recapture the sky-high level of his F1 pomp.

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