Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren debut wasn’t perfect, but after finishing seventh in the Bahrain Grand Prix he was encouraged by being “a step ahead of the game” when it came to adapting to his new team compared to how it started with Renault in 2019.
The 31-year-old was disappointed following Sunday’s race, which he had anticipated would be the most straightforward part of his first McLaren weekend. The team’s subsequent discovery of floor damage caused by Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri early in the race explained his puzzlement at struggling with tyre management over a stint, but even so Ricciardo has promised there is more to come.
The weekend certainly went far better than his Renault debut in the 2019 Australian Grand Prix. There, he was beaten by team-mate Nico Hulkenberg by 0.008s in qualifying then ruined his race by taking to the grass at the start and damaging his front wing.
But what Ricciardo is really getting at is how he has adapted to McLaren “quite a lot” more quickly.
“I say that with a smile because I’m not saying ‘urgh, we didn’t come here prepared and I made life difficult for myself’,” said Ricciardo.
“It’s one of the few, maybe the only, elite sport where you don’t get that much time to actually test. You have to wait for the season to go until you actually get better.
“It doesn’t come on overnight because we can’t really practice that much. Simulators, they’re OK, but it isn’t the real thing at the end of the day. I’ll obviously keep doing simulator and keep trying to learn as much as I can there, but the race is where I’m going to take most of my gains and my knowledge, so it will take time.
“But I do feel better here than two years ago as far as where I was after the first few races with Renault. I feel like I’m certainly a step ahead of the game now, but still not where I want to be.”
Ricciardo had just a day-and-a-half of testing to prepare for life at McLaren. By comparison, he tested across seven days with Renault, notching up 1307 miles compared to 582 miles this year.
But the experience of his difficult times when he initially moved to Renault from Red Bull has contributed to an improved approach this time. On top of that, the McLaren team’s determination to prepare in a way that made Ricciardo seem like a team veteran ensured no stone was left unturned over the winter despite the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Ricciardo put it after qualifying: “The team has worked me pretty hard, probably harder than I’ve worked before”.
He also has the advantage of making a sideways – or perhaps gently upwards – move rather than the rude awakening he experienced when he stepped from race-winning machinery into the midfield Renault.
In 2019, the Bahrain Grand Prix was the second race of the season and it was there that Ricciardo started to reveal how difficult he had found it to adjust.
“I knew it would take time, but in my heart I guess I just expected to jump in the car and it would all be sweet,” he said after qualifying 11th back then.
“It’s no secret that we’re not on the same pace as the car I had last year, and that’s something I need to figure out a bit.
“I guess in Charles [Leclerc]’s situation, coming up to the seat he has this year [from Sauber to Ferrari in 2019], it’s a bit like me when I came from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, you just have more grip and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ So I’m trying to come back and figure out the best way.
“At least yesterday [Friday] and for a bit of Melbourne, I was overdriving, so it needs a bit of patience and discipline from me and it’s challenging for me to figure it out.”
Ricciardo is known for his prowess on the brakes and, just as in 2019, this is an area where he is still trying to maximise the potential of the McLaren. That’s not down to a specific problem as the corner-entry phase is the most demanding of a car and pushes its limitations hardest.
This is also an area where the various tools available to the driver are essential in the finetuning. The cars have a baffling array of settings available and Ricciardo is still on a steep learning curve in getting on top of this because the differential maps, brake shapes and other settings can vary from team to team.
“I’m still getting there,” said Ricciardo when asked about this by The Race. “I feel I definitely made a step in quali, even just as far as committing on the brakes and throwing the car in. Let’s say, driving with a bit more confidence, I had that.
“Probably still knowing exactly what I want in this car, I can’t say I’m really set on that yet. So I’m somewhere in the middle – I think maybe a little above the middle but I probably don’t know what I like in this car as of yet.”
What 2019 also tells us is that Ricciardo is very effective in mastering these details. While his first Renault season started patchily, with a hard-fought point in the Bahrain Grand Prix lost to a late MGU-K failure, before breaking his points duck with seventh place in the third race in China, he became progressively stronger.
This followed the opportunity to run in the post-race test in Bahrain, during which Ricciardo was able to concentrate on fettling the set-up and chase both car balance and an improved mechanical behaviour over the bumps and kerbs.
Initially, the qualifying battle with Hulkenberg was close but gradually Ricciardo asserted himself. He turned in his first truly special Renault qualifying performance in the sixth race of the season in Monaco and ended the year with a slender Saturday advantage of round half-a-tenth over Hulkenberg.
But it was on race day where the gap was most obvious, particularly during the second half of the season.
When the Renault was working well, he generally extracted a little more from it than Hulkenberg, with a best result of fourth at low-downforce Monza. That laid the foundations for an even stronger 2020 season, taking two podium finishes and fourth place in The Race’s top-10 driver rankings.
His Renault start was probably the most difficult of Ricciardo’s career, and things have gone well so far at McLaren.
But he has always shown a capacity to make sustained progress with teams, stretching all the way back to his unexpected F1 debut with HRT at the 2011 British Grand Prix.
There, after replacing Narain Karthikeyan, he finished 19th in what was the weakest car in the field. After that race, he spoke of struggles minimising time loss to blue flags and the challenge of managing the Pirelli rubber, which cost him a huge amount of time and meant he lost contact with team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi.
His Toro Rosso debut a year later in the Australian Grand Prix yielded his first points finish in ninth place. He started the final lap 12th, but Pastor Maldonado’s shunt combined with Nico Rosberg picking up steering damage and a pass on Jean-Eric Vergne added up to a three-place gain for Ricciardo.
At the same venue in 2014, on his first outing for Red Bull having taken the seat vacated by Mark Webber, Ricciardo took a stunning second place from the front row of the grid against all expectations given the team’s troubled pre-season. He was subsequently disqualified for a fuel-flow infringement.
One thing is always true with Ricciardo. He’s a driver who will keep working hard to find improvements and his McLaren debut will likely only hint at what is to follow in what he says is a three-year deal with the team.
As Ricciardo himself said in Bahrain, “it’s only a sign of things to come”.