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Formula 1

Option for Ricciardo to leave McLaren is his, not the team’s

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

At the height of speculation around Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren Formula 1 contract in the last week or so came the revelation of “mechanisms” that could possibly end it before 2023.

That was something McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown let slip while at Indianapolis, where his IndyCar team was preparing for the Indy 500, and followed comments he made a few days before in which he said Ricciardo’s high-profile move had not met expectations.

It added up to an admission it is not guaranteed Ricciardo will race for the team in 2023 because there is a break clause that can be deployed, and implied McLaren may even be exploring that very possibility.

But the final part of Brown’s answer was slightly odd: “We’ll just see how things develop, what he wants to do.” Implying Ricciardo has to decide.

Performance clauses are commonplace in F1 contracts and can exist on both sides. If the driver’s not doing a good enough job, the team can cut ties. And vice versa.

Presently, Ricciardo is the underperforming party in this arrangement. He is the first to admit that he is, like last year, struggling to get the most out of the McLaren.

While Lando Norris has scored a podium at Imola and racked up 48 points across the first seven races to lead McLaren back to fourth in the constructors’ championship, Ricciardo has just 11 points and a best finish of sixth.

But The Race understands it is not McLaren that can choose to end the deal early. It’s Ricciardo with the option of triggering a break clause. So whether Ricciardo’s 2023 contract is upheld seems to be down to him.

It therefore becomes pertinent to ask whether Ricciardo wants to keep going like this. He is a deeply competitive character, whose struggles at McLaren have been a huge surprise to himself as much as anybody else.

And there were obvious signs of just how much of a toll this experience is taking in Monaco last weekend, when he admitted to having similar feelings as the same race last year, when he was at his most dispirited.

“I do have a contract in place,” Ricciardo said on Saturday evening, in a post-qualifying media session removed enough for the raw emotion of a disappointing result to have faded slightly.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Spanish Grand Prix Practice Day Barcelona, Spain

“But personally, I don’t want to be 14th. It’s not why I race. Let’s put it like that.

“Even after a day like today I still have 100% belief in myself and ability so it probably makes a result like this hurt more.

“So that’s kind of how I feel. It’s just one of those things you’ve just got to keep going.

“I’d love to be in a different position, but I kind of refuse to let it beat me down.”

In this post-qualifying media briefing in Monaco, Ricciardo was impressive and vulnerable at the same time.

You should know that he didn’t shirk the questions about his form, his contract, and the urgency to turn it around. He didn’t react badly to being asked, either. Uncomfortable as such questions are to answer, it felt like Ricciardo also knew they were difficult to ask as well – he knows that most people, especially those who make an effort to sit in front of him and say these things to his face, aren’t just out to get him.

That was the impressive side. The vulnerable side was how lost he looked at times – this isn’t a driver who has many answers at the moment and that was clear with the difficulty he found in articulating his situation.

“I don’t want to be qualifying 14th,” he reiterated in another answer. “Especially on a circuit which I still have a big admiration for and a love affair with.

“But equally it’s not just me it’s the team, the team want to see me get better results. It’s not just me that’s not wanting to be 14th, the team don’t want to see me there as well.

“I don’t think it necessarily changes the course moving forward. But for sure there’s an emphasis on us improving together.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Saturday Monte Carlo, Monaco

There’s an obvious desire for Ricciardo to remain resilient in this situation and it would be unfair to suggest he’s on the verge of giving up.

But when his best efforts, and the team’s, are yielding no real results, it’s clearly becoming harder. He keeps digging deep with no real reward.

“For me at the moment to get up to that, to push my car on the limit and to get it out of myself, it’s still a little bit of a difficulty or a battle,” he said.

“I say a little bit – it is, obviously. So it’s now really just trying to keep picking it apart. And I’ll also try and learn from last year.

“This is unfortunately known territory from 12 months ago. I think there’s things we did well in these situations and things that we probably look back on and say we could have probably done it differently.

“That’s where I’ll try and attack it in a more productive way.”

Ricciardo doesn’t look or sound like a driver being nudged towards the exit door – which is how some might have interpreted Brown’s comments – but he also doesn’t look or sound like a driver who knows exactly what’s going to happen for next year.

It seems to be his choice to make, at least. And it’s worth noting he has so far had nothing bad to say about how McLaren has treated him, or the effort it is putting in to help him turn things around.

That’s important because how Ricciardo feels within McLaren will inform his decision. Either McLaren will decide to persevere to the very end or it will conclude this just isn’t working out and that it’s in its best interest if Ricciardo leaves. It could then try to encourage Ricciardo to do that.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Saturday Monte Carlo, Monaco

That’s not to be taken as a suggestion McLaren is plotting a soft exit for Ricciardo – paying him off, for example, or guiding him towards a drive elsewhere. There’s no indication of that.

Both Ricciardo and McLaren have stated several times all their energy is in making this work. If they can, there is no reason to question whether Ricciardo stays. If they can’t, the less likely it is he’ll continue.

Ricciardo’s choice will not be easy but the situation seems to be as simple as that.

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