In another exclusive interview in October, Scott Mitchell-Malm spoke to Daniel Ricciardo as his early exit from a three-year McLaren Formula 1 deal edged ever nearer.
The eight-time grand prix winner talked candidly about the shortcomings of his two-season stint at the team – notwithstanding his 2021 Monza victory – the underlying confidence he retained in spite of those challenges, and his desire to maximise his options in what are likely to be his final years in F1.
Daniel Ricciardo’s perma-grin has been tested more in the last 18 months than his entire Formula 1 career before that.
But he’s smiling, cheery and typically candid as he sits down with The Race for a forthright reflection on his failed McLaren move and the questions it has raised about him – within the paddock, and from Ricciardo himself.
Facing a premature exit from the team one year before the end of his contract, Ricciardo recognises the significance of a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Lando Norris, the high-profile incompatibility with not one but two McLarens, and a pattern of underachievement. Still, an underlying confidence remains.
“I’m certainly aware that I’m not perfect,” Ricciardo tells The Race. “I have weaknesses. And unfortunately, this car’s exposed that ultimately.
“So, there is that where it’s humbling. I can still work on things and better myself.
“But then the confident part of me is like… but you give me a car to win and I’ll f***ing win!”
Adding to his tally of victories with a famous 2021 Italian Grand Prix triumph will stand as the ultimate testament to that. While it was no longer enough to save Ricciardo’s McLaren career it’s still a totem of what he believes he is capable of.
“That’s where I still draw a lot of confidence from,” he says. “When I get that in a car, I’ll find a way to win.”
Ricciardo’s attitude reflects the fact that whether you call it confidence, ego, or whatever, every top driver reckons ‘I’m the best here’ – even the ones who are struggling.
Self-assuredness has been part of his make-up since he properly announced himself in F1 with that stunning first season at Red Bull in 2014. Ricciardo’s confidence has taken a few hits at times at McLaren but more fool anyone who thinks he’s suffered a fatal blow just because he can accept the reality of the last year-and-a-half.
“Don’t get me wrong, you still need that, or at least a big element of that,” Ricciardo says.
“Because otherwise, you don’t belong here, simply.
“But for sure, with age and maturity you start to just be more honest with yourself.
“If I was perfect, then I would have found a way to deal with this.”
His humility cuts through any awkwardness about discussing his situation. The fact is a year on the sidelines is inevitable and something he has admitted publicly since we chat. This may even turn out to be the beginning of a full goodbye.
One of the reasons Ricciardo seems willing to take that risk is that if he continues in F1, he wants the opportunity to match his specific requirements. Ricciardo’s not naïve enough to think that a Red Bull-esque car will fall into his lap in 2024. But even something like he had at Renault, where he excelled once the team developed a stronger rear end, would work.
What’s not an option is to find another situation like McLaren and be confronted by the same limitations. At 33, Ricciardo just wants to maximise his final seasons in F1.
“It’s not that I don’t want to obviously work on my weaknesses! But I can’t be messing around with that too much,” he says.
“It’s ‘find a car that I can exploit my talent with, and I’ll find a way’.”
Why that wasn’t possible with McLaren is still difficult to understand – for the team, for Ricciardo, for almost everybody watching. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
Ricciardo’s not got all the answers he’d like. He admits there are “still unknowns in terms of why it hasn’t worked”. The exhausting, confusing truth is that sometimes he and McLaren thought there were clear signs of progress, then the process would just restart.
“Never-ending steps”, he calls them, for no real reward.
“We would learn something on a weekend and we’ll take a step forward,” he says.
“But then there was another step that we had to make, or there was a new discovery. So it’s like we would progress from the previous weekend, but ‘oh, now there’s another hurdle’. So next weekend, we’ll get over that hurdle. And pretty much every weekend, it was like an unforeseen hurdle.
“I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got the car set up well, this driving style is starting to suit this car’. But then, again, it just felt like we were on the old hamster wheel.”
Last year, Ricciardo’s main issue with the McLaren seemed to be confined to braking technique and the way the 2021 car needed to be manipulated on the brakes to get the rear rotated properly.
Norris could do it, Ricciardo really struggled. It clashed with his natural approach, and he had to strip his driving style right down to the basics, for the first time in his career, to try to get on top of that.
There was progress, even though it was never perfect. But if the 2021 car was fiddly to figure out then the 2022 car has been a far more perplexing puzzle. It behaves strangely under braking to the apex and is quite unpredictable. Norris has talked about this as well. The difference is he has adjusted enough to deal with it. Ricciardo hasn’t had the same joy.
Across two McLarens built to very different regulations, Ricciardo’s been left “driving in a reactive state”. His description of what that feels like in the car is an illuminating insight into how frustrating and confusing it has been for him.
“You’re approaching a corner, and in a way, [normally] your mind is already on the exit of the corner,” he says.
“But a lot of the time, it’s like ‘OK, I’m driving in the braking zone’, ‘now I’m driving in the turn-in area’, ‘now I’m driving in the throttle phase’.
“It’s like I’m taking the corner in five steps, when in a way you should approach it like one. But I’m waiting, reacting, and it’s been hard for me to know what I’m going to get by the time I get to the apex.
“And the times where I do try to put the trust in it and not overcomplicate it, I’ll get to the apex, and be like, how the f**k’s that happened? Why am I here? Why is my trajectory that?
“Obviously, we have so much data, and I’ll watch Lando’s onboards as well. And I’ll see sometimes what he’s able to do, and I’m just like, ‘OK, I can see it, but I can’t do it’. And I’m like, why won’t it just rotate, or do that?
“The race pace as well, that’s been one where normally things balance out, if you can’t maybe get the peak in the car in one lap in quali, by the race, it should kind of settle and yet sometimes the race pace I’m like eight tenths a lap slower. And I’m just like, how?
“When you’re not on the limit of the car as well, that’s a bigger concern for me. And even in debriefs, you’ll hear from Lando ‘oh this stint of the race, I could really feel the car was working there, it kind of came alive’ where I’m just like… I never had that feeling.
“At times, I’m just like, something’s up. This isn’t normal. But obviously, we haven’t really got on top of that.”
His efforts to direct McLaren towards solving the problem, by giving him the car he needs, have come to nothing. He doesn’t seem to hold that against the team: “I think they understood where I was coming undone. But it wasn’t easy to then develop the car around that.”
Ricciardo hints that McLaren’s old windtunnel was a factor here. Perhaps with the new technology that is being built at Woking, McLaren would have viewed the problem differently. But that’s irrelevant now because the damage is done.
“You just get into this cycle of: actually, we’re not really moving forward,” he says.
“And I’m definitely an optimist. And certainly glass half full. And I’d kind of just keep picking myself up and be like, ‘No, we’ll figure it out, we’ll get it, it’s a race car, I’ll figure it out’ – but then the longer it drags on the more… I don’t want to be naive, you know? It takes something out of me.
“And then the more you scratch your head, I guess everyone’s confidence drops and you start running out of options.
“We’ve definitely tried to keep the morale up. But you can’t deny that I’m sure it’s taken a hit on people.”
The elephant in the room, of course, is Norris. He’s cropped up a few times already in conversation. The ‘I can see what he’s doing, I just can’t do it myself’ is a painfully honest admission on Ricciardo’s part that illustrates his discomfort with the car better than anything else.
Especially as Ricciardo says there is no real deviation in set-ups. Norris has tended to offer the same feedback as Ricciardo too. He’s hardly delighted with the MCL36, for example, but he has handled it better.
Without concrete answers, then, does Ricciardo have any theories for why this is the case?
“If I’m going to give you a short answer, I’ll put it down to two things,” he says.
“One, I’ll never take credit away from him – the kid’s good. There’s no denying that. And if I say he’s not, then I’m just being a bitter, sore loser.
“The kid’s good. That’s obviously one element, he can steer.
“The second is, ignorance is bliss. And I’m not saying he’s got no knowledge of racecars, not at all. I think he’s quite actually in tune with what he does, from a technical point of view.
“But it’s the only F1 car he’s driven. Obviously, there’s been variations of the McLaren. But he hasn’t driven for another team. So in a way he has got, I’m sure, used to some of the elements of this car.
“There’s probably a bit of that, where I’ve obviously got some – I hate this word, but I’ve just got to use it for a lack of better words right now – expectation of maybe what a Formula 1 car can do or should do or where some potential lies.
“He does now, because he watches onboards, and he sees what other drivers can do – ‘Yeah, I wish we could do that, the rear doesn’t do what I want’.
“But ultimately, he hasn’t been behind the wheel of another car. So obviously, he’s good. And there’s an element of ‘ignorance is bliss’.”
There’s a perfect storm of factors that have conspired against the Ricciardo-McLaren dream.
Clearly, Ricciardo didn’t get the car he expected, perhaps not the team he expected either if there is any link between the limitations of the MCL35M and the MCL36 and the quality of McLaren’s infrastructure. At the same time, McLaren didn’t get the bulletproof, top-line driver it expected.
And there are some other variables in the mix, like Norris’s performances, a change in regulations for 2022, and McLaren waiting for a new windtunnel.
If Ricciardo’s been ‘exposed’ in any way it’s that he may be a driver who needs everything to gel, with his confidence ticking over, and then he can thrive. And there’s a high-profile example to relate it to – the man he nudged towards the exit door at Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel.
“I’m not comparing myself to Vettel but in a separate sentence, when he had that confidence with the car, he was winning,” says Ricciardo.
“He is a driver that when he feels at home with it, he is going to f***ing dominate the world.
“There’s certain drivers that I think certainly excel when they have everything kind of gelling, clicking, and they run on that confidence.
“I guess that’s something which I’ve proven. I’m not saying it’s the only way I can win, but it certainly helps.”
Whether Ricciardo will find that again is likely out of his control as he heads for the sidelines.
But if a team looks to the market for an option in 2024 and beyond, Ricciardo is still a fascinating, high-upside choice.
The knowledge of the last 18 months makes him a bigger gamble that he’d previously have been viewed as, but to write him off entirely based on this McLaren stint would be to completely disregard an incredibly consistent body of work before it.
When he moved, he’d just finished fifth in the championship driving a Renault. That same driver didn’t just turn to rubble overnight.
“There’s a little bit of frustration in the sport in terms of, in one year, you’re forgotten, but then the next year, you’ve got a car that can do it and everyone says you’re the best thing since sliced bread,” Ricciardo says. “I don’t know how that sits with me.
“It’s probably the ultimate… hate is not the right word. But it’s like the love-hate I’ve had with the sport.
“When everything clicks it’s the best sport in the world, and the high is so high. But obviously things happen out of your control, and you can put that 100% in, but you don’t always get that reward.
“That’s where it’s a grind. And as glamorous and awesome as the sport is, and as privileged as I am to be doing it as my job and my dream, it is a grind.
“No one wants to be scrutinised. It’s not fun. But I appreciate that comes with trying to be the best in the world at something and putting yourself out there.
“I appreciate that’s part of the game. It’s what I signed up for. It’s just something extra you have to deal with.”
More so in the last 18 months than any period Ricciardo has known previously.