Daniel Ricciardo laments that he might bow out of Formula 1 defined by his two difficult seasons at McLaren rather than the almost decade of prior racing that made him one of the sport’s hottest properties.
Ricciardo has admitted he won’t be on the grid next year after competitive options stay in F1 dried up. Only seats at Haas and Williams remain unaccounted for in 2023, but those teams are eighth and 10th respectively in the constructors standings.
It’s a harsh and sudden stop for the eight-time race winner who was billed as a future world champion when he sensationally dispatched reigning titleholder Sebastian Vettel in their first season as teammates in 2014.
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As recently as two years ago he finished a superb fifth courtesy of two podiums in a Renault car that had no business troubling such lofty positions.
But that all counts for little in the ruthless cut and thrust of Formula 1, something Ricciardo regrets after having in put in the hard yards earlier in his career without access to a title-winning car.
“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,” he told The Race in a candid and wide-ranging interview. “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 per cent 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.”
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That’s not to say that Ricciardo is in denial about his two challenging seasons with McLaren, where he’s struggled to come to terms with the way Woking builds its cars across two different regulation sets.
But there’s clearly had to be a reckoning with the fact that for the first time in his career, he hasn’t had a near free pick of seats on the grid.
For both 2019 and 2021 Ricciardo’s stocks were so high that he had free rein in the driver market. That power led him to manufacturer- back Renault on a big-bucks deal and then to historic marque McLaren, both sought-after destinations given their potential to move forward under the new rules.
But the phone has been largely silent after being sacked by McLaren, at least from the front half of the grid. Brief talks with Alpine went nowhere, with the team eventually choosing Pierre Gasly despite the risk of a blow-up with incumbent Esteban Ocon, and the top three teams are locked in with their driver choices.
Only teams nearer the back of the grid have made approaches, with Haas boss Guenther Steiner the highest profile among them, though clearly none has appealed to the F1 veteran.
Ricciardo said these bruising years hadn’t been a knock to his confidence, but it had required him to acknowledge his flaws at the same time.
“Don’t get me wrong, you still need [self-confidence], or at least a big element of that,” he said. “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.”
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But that maturity has brought clarity to the 33-year-old Aussie when it comes to deciding on his ultimate future in Formula 1.
Having now endured great success and unexpected failure in the sport, he knows what he needs for a potential 2024 comeback to work.
“I’m certainly aware that I’m not perfect. I have weaknesses. And unfortunately this car’s exposed that ultimately,” he said.
“So, there is that where it’s humbling. I can still work on things and better myself.
“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.
“It’s ‘find a car that I can exploit my talent with, and I’ll find a way’.”
And he drew parallels with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, the man he deposed at Red Bull Racing, to describe a crucial aspect to his performance that he’d come to understood in recent years.
“I’m not comparing myself to Vettel, but in a separate sentence, when he had that confidence with the car, he was winning,” he said.
“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.”
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If he is to find himself back on the grid in 2024, his criteria for potential suitors must therefore be strict to ensure he gets the best from himself.
He needs a car with an established level of performance and he needs a team that fully embraces him rather than one that offers him a seat purely for his brand value or for a dearth of other options.
It might be easier to find the former with the benefit of a year watching on from the sidelines, but the latter might be that much harder to find for having been out of the bubble for 12 months — and they were already difficult to come by this season.
Such is the grind of Formula 1. But it’s the game he signed up for and the game he’s benefited from immensely. Unfortunately it might also be the game about to deal him out.