It is clear that Daniel Ricciardo is now experiencing a very difficult time in Formula 1. The splendor of Monza 2021 seems to be from another life. I understand why Zak Brown felt the need to put extremely public pressure on him given that his recent results have generally fallen short of his own high expectations; nonetheless, McLaren needs to proceed with caution before pursuing a scorched-earth policy in this case.
Lando Norris being committed to McLaren for at least three more seasons puts the team in a pretty solid position in the driver market, but what other truly viable choices are there except Ricciardo?
Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull all have their drivers under lock and key, preventing McLaren from stealing from a stronger animal. Among the top midfielders, Esteban Ocon, Valtteri Bottas, and Pierre Gasly are all secured (for 2023 at least).
Sebastian Vettel, who Ricciardo defeated while the two were teammates at Red Bull, is reportedly a candidate for McLaren. Is that actually an improvement? In any case, I anticipate that Vettel will either continue with Aston Martin or fully leave F1 given how much he is struggling with the moral propriety of his own stance.
If Fernando Alonso’s Alpine contract is not renewed, I also believe it is quite improbable that he would desire to return to Woking; in fact, Alpine must be agonizing over its own embarrassment of riches.
Oscar Piastri’s return to Alpine is certainly important to Alpine, but doing so without releasing Alonso raises the question of whether a team like McLaren, which is now rebuilding its F1 operations and crucial infrastructure, would really wish to take a driver on loan only to lose him later.
Seems a little naive. Piastri only makes sense if McLaren can execute a solid, long-term agreement, which is doubtful at this point given Alpine’s natural reluctance to part with what is undoubtedly the most exciting potential outside of Formula One at the moment.
The IndyCar choices (Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, and possibly now Alex Palou as well) are intriguing and obviously tap into the American market, but McLaren is not in the best of places right now, so that could end up doing more harm than good. Michael Andretti is all too aware of the potential consequences of switching at the wrong moment.
And that’s perhaps why Ricciardo deserves a break here – and why he felt the need to hit back against rumours he’s set to be ousted with a strongly-worded statement declaring his firm commitment to stay the course with McLaren until at least the end of 2023, when his contract is due to expire. It is known that Ricciardo, not the team, has the option of any early split.
Instead of just increasing pressure using F1’s hyperactive rumor mill, he is effectively challenging McLaren to find a method to fire him.
Although Ricciardo may not be at his best right now, Helmut Marko acknowledges that the driver is still there and has the potential to be just as quick as Max Verstappen (just not as consistently). When Renault eventually figured out how to give him the rear-grip-biased setup he required, the driver was amazing for the team.
After a disastrous 2019 season, I remember Haas manager Guenther Steiner refusing to fire either Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen. Steiner claimed the car was terrible and that neither driver should ultimately bear the repercussions of that.
Is it appropriate to hang Ricciardo out to dry in part because this year’s McLaren has fallen well short of everyone’s expectations?
Yes, he hasn’t been as close to Norris as he would like or what McLaren expects, but Norris has also quickly emerged as one of F1’s top drivers, and like Ricciardo, he readily acknowledges that “there’s still a lot of things he does well and that I still learn from him and use from him from my side, for my driving and set up and things like that.” Ricciardo is therefore providing McLaren with something even during this difficult time.
Clean up the vehicle, see what he can accomplish with it the following year, and take it from there.
Ricciardo clearly has the stomach for the fight, and has essentially called McLaren’s bluff by saying ‘I’m going nowhere; you’re going to have to prise this drive out of my hands by force if you really want to give it to someone else next year’.
It’s probably also preferable for McLaren to see this through to its logical conclusion. By next summer the driver market should open up a bit more – and if Ricciardo still can’t cut it then perhaps it really is time to say goodbye.