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Formula 1

Why Ricciardo’s miracle McLaren outlier was even possible

by Edd Straw
6 min read

At the time, Daniel Ricciardo’s 2021 Italian Grand Prix victory seemed like a turning point. A year on, it stands as an extreme outlier completely out of kilter with the rest of his McLaren career. So how did the miracle at Monza happen?

A multitude of factors created the circumstances for both McLaren’s 1-2 finish, which ended an eight-and-a-half year win drought for the team, and Ricciardo’s surprise position at the head of it.

First of these was the fact the McLaren was so quick at Monza. The MCL36 was aero-efficient and quick on the straights, and also performed well in fast corners. Where it generally struggled was with aero load in slower corners at more downforce-sensitive tracks. In that regard, Monza worked well for it.

Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Italian GP Monza F1

It worked well for Ricciardo too. He had spent the season struggling to adapt to what was to him a counter-intuitive driving style and prior to Monza had finished ahead of team-mate Lando Norris in only two races where both were classified – and one of those had been the Belgian GP non-event where Norris had crashed in qualifying.

But a combination of the relative simplicity of Monza in terms of there being fewer of the long-duration corners where his problems were at their worst and the McLaren’s more curious aero traits being eased slightly by the lowest-downforce trim meant he felt a little more at home.

Norris was still marginally quicker in terms of underlying pace but not by much – and this was in a season where the gap between them was a little smaller than it has been in 2022.

That allowed Norris and Ricciardo to qualify fourth and fifth respectively, behind pacesetting Mercedes duo Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The gap between the two McLarens was just 0.006s, with Ricciardo producing a superb final sector to cut a tenth out of Norris – albeit with the caveat that Norris had the speed potential to have jumped Verstappen.

Really, Monza 2021 was Bottas’s weekend. But he carried a back-of-the-grid power unit penalty into the grand prix that ensured he wasn’t going to be a victory contender in conventional circumstances.

This was F1’s second sprint weekend and he led the Saturday race from start to finish in the knowledge that he would start on the back row anyway. Bottas’s superb recovery from there to third in the Italian Grand Prix itself showed he would have dominated easily from pole position.

But behind Bottas, who was chased home by Verstappen on Saturday, came the decisive moment. They say you can’t win a grand prix at the first corner, but at Monza Ricciardo proved you could go a long way towards it in the early seconds of a race even before the main event.

A good launch – and starts were generally a strength for Ricciardo in an otherwise difficult season up to that point – allowed him to jump Norris and Hamilton (who was 2mm deep on the clutch paddle) by the first chicane.

Italian GP sprint Monza

“It was a good start,” said Ricciardo. “I knew I had a good launch. As soon as you drop the clutch you just know, it just bites and grips and tells us ‘we’re on here’.

“Then I had a good tow and I had also a clear line braking for Turn 1. So I was able to go quite deep and thought maybe I could get Max for a second, but then he had the inside for Turn 1 and if I stayed there, and tried to keep the inside for Turn 2, I don’t think there was enough room for two cars.”

Ricciardo had a straightforward run to third place from there on, which he knew was worth a place on the front row thanks to Bottas’s penalty. It was then all about jumping Verstappen at the start of the main event.

While Ricciardo didn’t get a perfect launch on Sunday, the second phase of the start was strong and he edged ahead, taking the lead for the first stint of the race.

Though the McLaren was not the fastest car, he was able to keep Verstappen covered and it was always likely the team would be proactive with strategy. Ricciardo was the first driver to make a scheduled pitstop, coming in at the end of lap 22 to ensure he held track position.

Daniel Ricciardo McLaren F1 Monza pitstop

Verstappen came in a lap later and it appeared the stage was set for a second half of the race with Ricciardo trying to keep Verstappen covered for the last 29 laps. It was certainly doable and Ricciardo looked assured, but then something happened that transformed the complexion of the race.

A change to the rules governing pitstops around the button on the wheelgun pressed by the mechanic to signal the change of a given tyre was complete led to an eight-second delay for Verstappen. With the rules preventing the pre-emptive pressing of the button, it was only possible to send the signal once the change was complete, but the right-front gunner pressed it too early. As a result, Verstappen was held.

Thanks to the delay, Mercedes was able to bring in Hamilton, who should’ve then been sent out still ahead of Verstappen. Well, that was the plan anyway, but a one-second delay on the left-rear meant that he rejoining with Verstappen bearing down on him.

The whys and wherefores of what happened next have been debated endlessly, but the upshot was that Verstappen attempted to pass Hamilton, they made contact and both were out on the spot. Hamilton and Verstappen joined Bottas in being ticked off the list of potential Ricciardo-beaters.

Max Verstappen Lewis Hamilton Red Bull Mercedes F1

That left Ricciardo with the challenge of a restart, one that wasn’t perfect but that was good enough. A little wheelspin when he gunned it meant he was a little vulnerable to the chasing Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, but a good run off Parabolica ensured he was clear – with Norris behind occupying Leclerc by attacking him. Norris made the move stick later in the lap to put McLaren first and second.

From there, it was simple. The McLaren pitwall made it clear that the pair were to hold station but Ricciardo was given the hurry-up to consolidate the lead in case Bottas, who soon found his way past Sergio Perez for third, could pose a threat. Ricciardo acquiesced, and McLaren closed out its sensational 1-2.

There was an element of fortune to McLaren’s win but that was only related to three clearly quicker cars. What’s more, had Verstappen and Hamilton continued there’s every chance Ricciardo would have still won. Even if Verstappen’s pitstop had gone as intended, he might well still have done so. This was a superbly-executed win from a driver who was enduring a difficult season.

“For anyone who thought I left, I never left,” said Ricciardo over the radio.

Daniel Ricciardo F1 Italian GP Monza

Unfortunately, it turned out that the 2021 Italian Grand Prix wasn’t proof of a revival or a return to form, but one glorious high point.

Ricciardo is being paid off by McLaren at the end of the season, ending a spell that promised so much prematurely. But for all of the struggles and disappointments, McLaren and Ricciardo will always have Monza.

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