You couldn’t find a more contrasting set of circumstances than Daniel Ricciardo’s entry into and exit from McLaren.
Announced with much fanfare as the coup signing of 2020, Ricciardo’s irresistible trajectory was to be the binding that returned Woking to championship glory.
But barely 18 months into his blockbuster deal and the relationship is being dissolved via a short press release, with neither party satisfied with what the union achieved.
It started with a bang but ended with a whimper.
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It hasn’t been without its highlights, the most obvious of which was last year’s drought-breaking Italian Grand Prix victory, but the baseline for the balance of the partnership has been surprisingly underwhelming for a driver of Ricciardo’s pedigree and a team of McLaren’s prestige.
And so despite a year still to run on their contract — and despite his clear replacement, Oscar Piastri, yet to drive a modern F1 car — the experiment is being written off as an error.
How did it go so badly wrong?
A SURPRISING CAR-DRIVER MISMATCH
It’s been talking about so much in the last 18 months that it barely warrants another mention, but underpinning Ricciardo’s dismal McLaren tenure has been a fundamental mismatch between his driving style and the car’s performance envelope.
You might think of Ricciardo’s driving style being defined by his iconic late lunges, but in reality it’s much smoother, more classical. He prefers to brake early, widen the apex and carry maximum speed through the corner, a style that’s also contributed to his strong tyre usage in years past.
But the McLaren lineage that led to the 2021 car was afflicted by an inconsistent front end that refused to grip up with such smooth inputs, sapping Ricciardo of the confidence he needed to achieve such high apex speeds. Instead the front end of the car wanted to be bullied more and loaded up antithetically to the Australian’s technique.
It took time — a lot of time — but in the second half of last season there were clear signs Ricciardo was getting more out of the car, and after the mid-season break he outscored teammate Lando Norris 65-47.
And so with the cars reset under new regulations and with McLaren having the opportunity to eliminate what the team admitted were some peculiar handling characteristics baked into its philosophy, hopes were high that 2022 would be a return to normal programming, with the Ricciardo of old making his return.
We know now that was never going to happen.
“I think there’s certainly still some of the DNA in the car which has kind of carried over from last year,” Ricciardo told Fox Sports last month. “Some of the things that I struggled with or couldn’t always adapt well to, I think some of that is still in the car.”
Though the slate started clean, it’s not all that surprising that two cars built by the same technical team would behave in similar ways, particularly given last year’s car was a race winner and multiple podium getter.
But there’s a further potential complicating factor, and that’s that this generation of car may simply not suit Ricciardo’s style at all.
Ground effect aerodynamics have led to cars with a general tendency to understeer, particularly through slow-speed corners, when the floor is least energised. Combined with the fact the McLaren car generally lacks front grip, it’s little wonder Ricciardo returned particularly poor results from the races he struggled in.
It’s hard to know just how bad news that might be for a possible resurgence next year. Pirelli has already signalled that it intends to bring stronger front tyres next season to combat the understeer, and the development curve for these cars is steep so early in the regulations. We’ll only know for certain if we get a control sample in alternative machinery.
NORRIS ISN’T TO BE UNDERESTIMATED
It’s easy to say Ricciardo has underperformed, but that shouldn’t take credit from Lando Norris and his arrival as a Formula 1 force in the last two years.
In fact it just might be Ricciardo who partly forged him.
Norris’s demeanour has undoubtedly changed since Daniel joined the team. He knew, as we all thought we did, that he was being signed as the team leader around which McLaren would form its championship efforts. Lando was by no means meant to be the number two driver, but there was a general expectation that he would be dancing to Ricciardo’s beat.
It forced upon him a rapid maturation. Sublimated was the jokey young driver we thought we knew; to the surface rose a hard-nosed racer who from day one was out to defend his turf.
It’s fair to say Norris’s greater familiarity with the McLaren’s particular characteristics played a role in how solid a handle he had over Ricciardo — indeed he’s only ever driven McLaren cars in Formula 1 — but it’s not all of the reason.
It understates the work he’s had to do to evolve his driving style to suit the car in recent years and again this season — after all, it’s not as though he was racing McLarens during his impressive junior career.
“I don’t think you can probably in any way say the car is made around me,” Norris told Autosport. “From what I want from the car, it‘s like the opposite of what it’s giving me at the minute.
“I would say the car I have now is completely not what I want for my driving style and very unsuited for me.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that’s what it is, and you have to adapt to it. That’s why I feel like I’ve done a reasonable job this year, adapting to something that is not quite what I want or like.
“That‘s one of the improvements I’ve made over the last few years.”
And his results speak for themselves. He’s collected six unlikely podiums in machinery that’s very rarely been the best of the midfield and almost never in the frontrunning mix. Five of those came during his partnership with Ricciardo, whose only McLaren podium remains his Monza victory.
In the last two years he’s finished just two races outside the points — last year’s non-event in Belgium excluded — and both of those were more to do with the car rather than the driver.
In sum, the last 18 months have turned McLaren into Lando Norris’s team.
McLAREN’S UNFULFILLED PROMISES
Lastly, McLaren must acknowledge it wears some blame for the failure of its relationship with Ricciardo, and that’s before we even begin to consider its public insistence that it was fully behind the Australian while doing a deal to induct Oscar Piastri.
Ricciardo was signed to spearhead McLaren’s foray into the frontrunning pack, but the team has stagnated since 2019, with its third-place finish in 2020 now looking more like a blip than a sign of progress.
Indeed this season McLaren has slipped notably backwards when the hope was that the new rules would springboard the team forwards.
After 13 races it’s scored just 95 points, around 56 per cent of the 170 points it had this time last year. And it’s currently fifth in the standings, down one place from 2021.
But the real tell is the performance gap between McLaren and Ferrari.
The two historic rivals were locked in a duel for third last season, Ferrari having bounced back from a decades-low result in 2020. This year the Scuderia is a championship contender.
McLaren, on the other hand, has stayed pretty much where it was.
While the Italian team has more modern facilities and had a marginally larger development allowance in the second half of last year, it’s not enough to explain what’s now a yawning chasm between them.
How could we possibly expect to see the best of Ricciardo when the team couldn’t extract the best from itself?
“I think one thing I’ve always shown is: give me a winning car and I’ll cross the line first,” Ricciardo told Fox Sports in July. “I feel like I’ve never left a win on the table.
“Everyone knows my history in the sport,” Ricciardo told Fox Sports in July. “I haven’t won a hundred races but I’ve won enough to kind of let people know that I can do this.”
McLaren and Ricciardo part ways with almost every aspect of their relationship having failed — an unimaginable outcome 18 months ago but clear reality today.
And while mutual termination might be a short-term relief, both team and driver walk away with much to prove in 2023.