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Formula 1

Ricciardo has repaired his confidence – but not yet his stock

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
9 min read

Daniel Ricciardo’s declaration that “I never left, I just moved aside” while celebrating his shock Italian Grand Prix win for McLaren in 2021 was a release of emotion that had built up during an unexpected and prolonged slump for one of Formula 1’s most highly-rated drivers.

By now you will be familiar with Ricciardo’s 2021 woe. His McLaren move started in high spirits but quickly took a downturn as Lando Norris established himself as the team’s undisputed number one driver on-track and Ricciardo struggled to adjust to the peculiar requirements of the MCL35M.

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Even that sensational win at Monza, where Ricciardo looked his old self, doesn’t detract from the difficulty of 2021.

But it went an awfully long way towards Ricciardo proving – to the outside world, and to himself – the calibre of driver he still is when he brings everything together.

Daniel Ricciardo McLaren wins Italian Grand Prix 2021

“After the race I said, ‘I never left’ and for sure that was a message to not only myself, but I appreciate that message was going to be directed at people who did maybe think that I’d checked out, and that I was on my way out or a little bit washed up or whatever,” Ricciardo says.

“But still, first and foremost, that message was for me. Because for sure there were times where I did lose a little bit of faith and I did second-guess myself, like, ‘Why am I struggling so much? Do I have now a little bit of fear that I’m not pushing the car as much?’.

“And I knew I didn’t, but still when things aren’t going well, some of these questions pop up.

“The ‘I never left’ was also for me to know I can still do it, I still belong here. And anyone that forgot then, forget no more.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

That message was the crowning moment of a weekend Ricciardo looked at his most comfortable as a McLaren driver, even though he was fractionally slower than Norris throughout.

He used the sprint race to his advantage and finished third, which became a front-row start for Sunday’s grand prix after poleman Valtteri Bottas’s penalty.

Then a great launch and combative first corner gave Ricciardo the lead – one he never looked like relinquishing under pressure from Red Bull driver Max Verstappen and may have held onto even if Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had never collided.

As a race, this performance typified the Ricciardo we’re all much more familiar with. He’s a driver for whom the sniff of an opportunity to do something special helps him tap into the best of his abilities. Having spent his entire F1 career in an underdog role of some description, it’s not a surprise that the majority of Ricciardo’s Red Bull wins came from latching onto a sudden opportunity and nailing it.

Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull F1 Canadian GP 2014

“I definitely felt like there was a lot of people who had written me off and also that [Monza] weekend, something was over me and I did feel… I don’t know, I wasn’t surprised with how the result turned out.

“And all of it – even the fastest lap on the last lap. There was just a lot of stuff that I wanted to just put out there and I just wanted to make a statement.

“It was ‘I never left’ but the whole weekend, I felt like every day I was making some form of statement – to myself at least.”

This was not a permanent transformation in Ricciardo’s fortunes as he still spent the remainder of 2021 mostly in Norris’s shadow. But it marked a stunning turnaround for a driver who just a few weeks prior to Monza had gone into the summer break looking to banish F1 from his thoughts.

Ricciardo had a particularly galling end to the first half of his season. He wasn’t part of the Bottas-triggered pile-up at the first corner in Hungary but did get caught up in the second phase of the carnage caused by a Lance Stroll error – “the measly second one, thanks, Lance!”.

Hungarian GP F1 start crash

Ricciardo continued with a badly damaged car and finished a chaotic race that featured big results for several midfield runners in a muted, frustrated 11th.

You may remember the images that emerged from parc ferme afterwards, where Ricciardo’s roll hoop camera captured him slumped in his car – images that Ricciardo say summed up exactly where he was at.

“Quite dejected,” he says. “I don’t want to say ‘the beauty’ of that clip, but the reality of that clip is I had no idea obviously the roll hoop cam is still recording. There’s no other cameras, I think it was all just from the roll hoop cam.

“So that was real. It’s not like we’re out in the paddock and we make a scene and we know all these cameras are going to be on us – I did feel dejected. Because it was kind of a reflection of the first half of the year where it just wasn’t happening.

“I wasn’t the only one that got taken out but I felt like I’d done enough to stay out of trouble, and this was probably the race I needed just to give me a little bit of something. And it didn’t.

“Then I was just sat there, I guess ‘dejected’, and it was really then where I was like, ‘I can’t wait to just get on a plane and get out of Europe’.

“In a way, that moment explained everything about why I needed the summer break.”

Daniel Ricciardo McLaren F1

We explored this in more detail in another piece on Ricciardo’s feeling of homesickness during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ricciardo’s a very emotional person and sometimes there’s only one way to deal with the frustration.

“As dejected as I was at the time, part of me was also happy,” he reckons. “Because I was like, alright, the first half has been what it was. It’s nearly laughable in some ways.

“So let’s just f**k it off, jump on a plane and just not care about F1 for two weeks.

“Everyone operates differently, but I need that escape sometimes. I’m not a driver that goes to bed every night thinking of F1. I knew it was going to be healthy for me.”

For the same reason, Ricciardo didn’t feel he needed to end 2021 completely on top of the McLaren and the nuances of making the MCL35M work. With an all-new car coming in for 2022, there’s a decent chance the characteristics that clashed with Ricciardo’s driving style will be gone. It’s a fresh start.

McLaren 2022 F1 car mock-up

So Ricciardo wasn’t placing too much emphasis on a stunning end to the 2021 season as he felt even an enduring struggle would be offset by another winter escape – this time finally returning home to Australia – and then a clean slate in pre-season testing.

However… Ricciardo is fiercely competitive. He didn’t want his slump to be a permanent one. And he also knows his stock changed considerably between his most recent grand prix victories.

When he scored his final Red Bull win in Monaco in 2018, Ricciardo was in the form of his life. He was yet to put pen to paper on a new Red Bull contract and a potential vacancy at Ferrari suggested his value was higher than ever.

Of course, Ricciardo wouldn’t re-sign with Red Bull or get a Ferrari move. And by the time he won again, some 28 months later, he was in his second ‘post-Red Bull team’ and emerging from the worst few months of his F1 career.

Ricciardo doesn’t feel like he’s been in the wilderness since leaving Red Bull but he knows the 2021 season damaged his reputation, and effectively undid the good that had come from two seasons at Renault starring in the midfield.

“The first year at Renault, I got into that team and I’d always respected Nico [Hulkenberg] very highly,” he says.

Daniel Ricciardo Nico Hulkenberg Renault F1

“I remember he was always a couple years ahead, but as a junior driver, I think I was Formula Renault and he was Formula 3, and he was the guy to beat in F3, then he went and won GP2.

“He was always a top driver who just never really had that chance for the top team. I got into Renault with quite a point for myself, to be like ‘if I can come into the team and beat him, then I think that’s a really good thing for me’.

“The first few races weren’t that good. And by the end of the season, I think I kind of clearly outperformed [him] from a whole.

“I was really happy with that first season, even if the team wasn’t quite there.

“Then the second season, [Esteban] Ocon, I did well against him. But also I think my driving was really good. I got the podiums, and this and that.

Daniel Ricciardo Esteban Ocon Renault F1

“It was weird, because then a lot of people were saying I’ve had one of my best seasons in Formula 1 – I was at least hearing some of these comments, particularly at the tail end of the year.

“And then get into 2021 and all of a sudden I’m struggling, I’m not there anymore, Lando is the new Max and all this!

“The Renault chapter, I look at as quite a successful chapter – at least internally for what I’d set out for from a performance point of view.”

Much like his happy reflection on a two-year stint at Renault that ultimately didn’t go the way he or the team wanted, Ricciardo still sees the glass half-full at McLaren.

Before the summer break he said he felt everything was perfect at McLaren except the performance.

In the second half of the year, he started to rectify that missing ingredient. But he is the first to admit it still didn’t get where it needed to be by the end of 2021.

Daniel Ricciardo McLaren F1 2021

“A lot of people forget but I actually outqualified Lando the first race of the season,” Ricciardo says. “So for me, I was like, well, it’s only going to get better!

“So maybe that was bad, because then it was probably even more head-scratching that I was in a way going backwards over the next course of races.

“But the second half of the season, it went better. I got the win and confirmed a lot of stuff to myself.

“I’m happy. I’m happy where things are. It’s not perfect. But I’m happy.”

That’s not quite how Ricciardo envisaged summarising his first year at McLaren. A little less than a year ago, Ricciardo was billing McLaren as his best chance to win an F1 title in the future.

While McLaren’s upwards trajectory remains clear to see, the intervening months have likely hurt the faith others have in Ricciardo himself.

Proving his doubters wrong will be a fresh source of motivation for Ricciardo. Doing so will take more than just a one-off statement, even one as emphatic as Monza was in 2021.

For a driver who experienced such a low ebb last year, though, eliminating any lingering self-doubt is a vital first step.

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