Daniel Ricciardo’s two years at McLaren will go down as one modern Formula 1’s great anomalies.
Ricciardo arrived at the storied Woking team as one of the sport’s most highly rated competitors. His reputation as a formidable racer was established with some cracking victory drives for Red Bull Racing, and though his move to Renault had its critics, his 2020 season for the French team was arguably the best of his career.
Moving to grandee McLaren seemed like a dream match. The team expected to rejoin the frontrunners under the new regulations, and Ricciardo was the obvious candidate to spearhead the push.
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But instead of Ricciardo and McLaren reaching new heights together, the partnership proved a colossal and mystifying misjudgment that may well have killed the popular Australian’s career.
The fall from grace was so fast that neither team nor driver was able to arrest it.
There were plenty of false dawns. His victory in Monza was the biggest of them, and it even launched him to a commendable second half of 2021 in which he outscored teammate Lando Norris, albeit with a bit of good fortune on his side.
But his improvements never proved sustainable, and to this day he remains confounded by his struggles.
“It’s something that I’ve certainly thought about,” Ricciardo told the In the Fast Lane podcast.
“I don’t want to say [it’s] a mystery, but certainly the kind of the continuous struggles I had were, at least for me, very foreign.
“We all have our bad races, but to have the amount that I did and the level that it was at times — like a second a lap off the pace or whatever — I scratch my head.”
An open and reflective Ricciardo, at last with the opportunity to put his struggles behind him, identified two races that summed up his struggles.
The 2021 Bahrain and 2022 Mexico City grands prix almost perfectly bookended his McLaren tenure, and though neither produced a headline result, his performances at both rounds were rare and almost inexplicable glimpses of the old-school Ricciardo that could previously set the sport alight at will.
But, as was so often the case, he has no concrete reason for why either were so good.
“One thing I keep thinking back on is [in] my very first qualifying with McLaren I outqualified Lando,” he said.
“We’d only had I think a day and a half of testing because it was three days across two drivers, I’m pretty sure, at the beginning of 2021.
“I still didn’t really know the car, and I don’t know how many times I outqualified him over the two years, but it wasn’t much.
“To have done it when I was probably just driving more off feel and instinct and a lack of knowledge about the car, that was actually probably when I was better off.”
It was a similar experience as Ricciardo’s outstanding drive in Mexico, where a late change to soft tyres on low fuel unexpectedly and seemingly randomly restored a feeling for the car he rarely enjoyed during his two years with the team.
“I look back at Mexico, and it’s funny — I enjoyed having pace and feeling like normal again, but part of me was also frustrated because I was like, ‘Where’s this been?’,” he said.
“The car’s got grip. I’m able to just effortlessly point it where I want to — I mean, maybe not in the side of Yuki (Tsunoda), but for the most part I could point it where I wanted — and it was back to that place of me just feeling light and it was kind of effortless.
“As much as I loved it, I was also a bit frustrated, because I was like, ‘What’s changed? Why now?’ It’s just that the car decided to come alive.”
That he had two similar experiences at the opposite ends of his two years in papaya sums up neatly his struggle for progress, which is at the core of the reason he’s found himself outside the sport after more than 11 years in Formula 1.
Over the last two seasons his difficulties to cure his lack of pace became difficulties in their own right. The energy required for constant problem-solving was energy he couldn’t use to simply drive the car, which forced him into a damaging spiral from which he could very rarely escape.
More than the kinetic problem of having to mesh his driving style with the car’s peculiar requirements, Ricciardo was dealing with the problem of mental paralysis from excess analysis.
“I think already last year during the summer break it occurred to me that I was driving very consciously, and it just wasn’t natural anymore and I was just one step behind,” he admitted. “That was where I was like, okay, I think we’re just trying to do too much.
“You only have a certain amount of energy as well — mental energy, physical, whatever. So if you’re using up a bit more mental energy maybe and trying to analyse too much, by the time you’re actually getting into the car you’re already probably a little bit fried. It kind of has a double effect, in a way.
“Did we just overanalyse our bad weekends and then just get caught up in a way where it was like, ‘Okay, we need to start driving like this or setting the car up like that’? For sure at some point we would have got a little too deep and little to lost.
“If we didn’t dive that deep, would I have killed it? I still don’t believe I would’ve killed it in this car. It certainly exposed some of my weaknesses for sure, I have to accept that. But I feel like we probably underperformed just through burying ourselves too deep in it all at times.”
Frustration led to helplessness, and helplessness led to exhaustion.
“The inconsistencies and the lack of a sense that it would sometimes make is naturally frustrating, because it’s not like a natural progression,” he said. “It’s not, okay, you go one step forward and the next week you go another step forward. That’s where you just at times felt a bit helpless.
“And of course when you’re struggling it weighs on you more for sure. It’s heavier, it drains your energy a little more because you’re obviously then trying to put more effort into how I can get better, how we can fix this.
“But then there’s also the surrounding energy, if you will, of a bit of negativity and a bit of lack of hope or faith or any of that stuff, whether that’s the team or whoever else.
“Winning’s easy from that point of view. Winning’s great. You say, ‘The car was awesome, we’re going to drink beers tonight’ and that’s that. Winning definitely takes a lot less energy out of you. It actually spikes you with energy.
“The struggles certainly test you more, and that’s just a natural thing. It’s because we care and it’s because we pour our hearts into it, so naturally a struggle’s going to hurt and have that effect.”
Ricciardo never stopped being tested, and his biggest emotional examination came in the last week of August, when he and McLaren confirmed his contract would be terminated a year early.
A gruelling triple-header in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy followed immediately after the news broke, and the Australian was visibly shattered by the end of it. His best finish for the run was 15th, and his early retirement from Monza befit his off-track predicament.
But despite the trails, it wasn’t in the West Aussie’s nature to phone it in, and he invented ways to motivate himself to persevere to the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi.
“I just tried to find all these little things that would give me a little bit of fuel or hunger.” he said.
“It’s kind of the thing like your back’s up against the wall and you can just kind of lean up against it or push back off it, and that was at least the approach and what I wanted to try and obviously show — to find that character in myself to really kind of dig deep.
“I was also under no illusions. I was like, ‘Okay, this has obviously happened for a reason — it’s because the last 18 months have been a struggle. The likelihood of the last six months being a walk in the park is unrealistic, so there will be more struggles’.
“I think I was kind of realistic with what lay ahead, but I was doing my best to kind of just embrace it and also know that it’s like, ‘Okay, if this is the last six months for me in the sport, make the most of it’.
“So I think that kind of mindset as well kept me with a little bit of fighting spirit.”
Originally published as ‘What’s changed? Why now?’: The McLaren mysteries that still baffle Ricciardo