Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris, McLaren, Singapore, 2019

Having escaped Red Bull, Ricciardo must now escape the midfield

2021 F1 season

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It’s official: Daniel Ricciardo will be a McLaren driver in 2021.

Had he played his cards differently, this would have happened two years earlier. Ricciardo had an offer from McLaren on the table in 2018.

He was weighing whether to split from Red Bull at the time. The team had brought him into Formula 1, but was increasingly feeling the pressure from the white-hot talent of Max Verstappen. The team’s handling of a collision between the pair of them at Baku that year left him nurturing suspicions about where their sympathies lay.

By mid-season Ricciardo had resolved to leave Red Bull. But, as RaceFans revealed as the summer break began, he threw his lot in not with McLaren, but Renault.

There were obvious compelling reasons to pick the manufacturer team over their engine customer. Renault were shaping up for the coming overhaul of the technical regulations, which were then slated for 2021 but are now postponed to 2022. The team had splashed cash on upgraded facilities, and the coming budget cap would clip the wings of their richer rivals.

Daniel Ricciardo, Renault, Circuit of the Americas, 2019
Ricciardo expected podiums at Renault
There was also the not-insignificant matter of the significant payday it brought Ricciardo, estimated at north of $20 million.

Renault had finished 2018 ‘best of the rest’ behind the big three teams. But to Ricciardo’s dismay, the hope they would narrow the gap further in 2019 were dashed. The team failed to break clear of the midfield, instead, they sank back into it.

The lack of progress made with the car was bad enough, but Ricciardo was disqualified on two occasions for technical infringements over the course of the year, in Singapore and Japan. His characteristic perma-grin was tested to its limit, his trademark shoey never seen as he failed to grab any of the three podium chances which fell the way of midfield teams last year.

Come the end of the season, Renault had slipped to fifth in the constructors’ championship, soundly beaten by McLaren, while Sainz ended the year first among the midfield runners.

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Ricciardo’s faith in the Renault project had taken a serious hit. In February this year Ricciardo said he expected to at least have a chance of finishing in the top three. “When I signed this initial two-year contract, I saw a podium in that signing,” he said.

“When I got to Renault I looked at the facilities and the facilities are great,” Ricciardo added. “It’s not like we’re lacking much at all in terms of that compared to the big teams.”

Cyril Abiteboul, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Signing Ricciardo in 2018 was a coup for Abiteboul
That being so, his decision to move to McLaren has to be read as a loss of faith in Renault. Whether he has lost confidence in their ability to win races and championships again, or merely resist the temptation to leave F1 at a time of immense financial pressure, remains to be seen.

His decision clearly stung Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul, who acknowledged Ricciardo’s departure without referring to him by name in a terse statement. “In our sport, and particularly within the current extraordinary situation, reciprocated confidence, unity and commitment are, more than ever, critical values for a works team,” said Abiteboul.

Ricciardo’s latest move speaks volumes about Renault precisely he had stayed loyal to them for so long: throughout the entire V6 hybrid turbo era to date, scoring seven wins but also suffering numerous failures.

He sustained that loyalty by joining their works operation when Red Bull switched to Honda power. But moving to McLaren will put Mercedes power under his right foot in 2021.

This is a critical time in Ricciardo’s career. He turned 30 last year, has proven he can win races, but needs to find his way into a team which can challenge for the world championship. Last year McLaren began to reap the reward of the upheaval they endured in previous seasons. Will they now prove the ticket out of the midfield he is looking for?

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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58 comments on “Having escaped Red Bull, Ricciardo must now escape the midfield”

  1. Gavin Campbell
    14th May 2020, 11:53

    I feel like McLaren are operating under a slightly different set of expectations than Renault. When they do well its amazing but they have the “independant team” banner to fall back on when they dont.

    They also are the team that managed to get the budget cap reduced further (they suggested $100m but I think that was always a bargaining chip rather than their actual wish). With a good technical team structure in place, 2021 to get to grips with the Mercedes engine alongside an operation that probably won’t need to change much for the budget caps they could be very well placed for 2022.

    I feel like 2021 could be a tough year though as that car will have to have some compromises made for the new engine and they are limited by the tech freeze.

    1. Last year, and to some agree 2018 already, McLaren felt like a team that was rediscovering it’s strengths and looking forward again – much like Ferrari, they have stumbled for the last decade, though with lower depth, due to making bigger changes (and maybe bigger failures that are risked by that?) and probably having less of the momentum of Ferrari, but they look more focussed, clearer in what they need to do than Ferrari as well. Of course, they are farther from the top too. But, as Red Bull is finding too, being near the top is not good enough to actually fight consistently at the top either. I would not be surprised to see McLaren join that group before (if ever) Ferrari become top dog – and if Mercedes at one times stumbles, they might be back to a 2012 level (which they might have won, with less errors).

      1. not sure where the comparison with Ferrari suddenly came from in that statement @bosyber, but it kind of fits what you are saying.

        I would add that the same lack of changing their ways, also in the management of the team and their lack of clear purpose can also be seen and are probably holding the team back. They need someone to pull the team up to push everyone to get to the top. And i really don’t see Cyril being that person, he’s been there long enough, but never really showed any signs of inspiring the team or at least bringing together a team to do the job, like Zak Brown has been able to do in recent years at McLaren.

  2. within the current extraordinary situation, reciprocated confidence, unity and commitment are, more than ever, critical values for a works team

    Ouch!

    1. Renault will never be champion with Cyril Abiteboul at the helm.

    2. @coldfly I thought the same with Vettel’s, but Cyril upped it. What happened to the benign ‘thank for your service’ press releases? I imagine there has been a few terse telephone calls in the last few weeks.

    3. After what Renault paid him, clearly anticipating long-term commitment, I can understand why they are not thanking Ricciardo for his service, as you put it @bernasaurus. But I also agree with @paeschli that Abiteboul is definitely not the right man to lead a team.

    4. Unclassy statement from Abiteboul. He’s understandably disappointed, but he should have the magnanimity to acknowledge that Ricciardo is out of contract at the end of this year, and has to make the right decision for his career. If they wanted to tie Ricciardo down for longer, they should have negotiated a longer contract – or ideally, given him a better car…

    5. Renault stepped wrong when they chose Cyril over Frédéric Vasseur, he just doesn’t fill you with a sense of hope for the team. Coupled with changes at the very top of the Renault Corporate structure, it isn’t an environment that any project that must be based on long term strategy will thrive. Hindsight is beautiful, but in the heat of it, I can understand the decisions Ric has made over the last 2 years.

      I was initially disappointed that he wasn’t offered the seat at Ferrari, but I’m starting to see the opportunity for him at McLaren, they’ve been making great progress in the technical department, I don’t think the Mercedes engine will be a huge performance benefit given the convergence we have seen of the PU’s in the last year, but it does take any of the ‘what if’ scenarios away from their engineering side. Plus the marketing background of Mr Brown will surely take huge advantage of Ric’s popularity and coupled with Norris they make a very marketable duo. The McLaren team might not be at the level of the top three but give us a budget cap and they are one of the teams that will have to rearrange the least to run at their current levels, which makes me quite excited for 2022.

      On an outside note, now the Aston Martin tie up with RedBull has been clawed off Adrian Newey, and he’s lost his passion project ‘Valkyrie’ could we see him tempted back to the MTC… Wishful thinking on my part given I am entirely biased towards anything that would improve the chances for RIC to stand atop the podium. McLaren could definitely help fill the void that the loss of the Valkyrie project has caused.

  3. Time will tell if he’s made the right decision.

    1. @jerejj I think he’s made a better decision, Renault are showing commitment but in their own time Ocon can wait a little.

  4. Mclaren Mercedes should able to secure best of the rest after the big 3, so I think it’s a wise move from Ricciardo. While I’m a fan of the Enstone squad, I just don’t think Cyril and the current management are good enough to make any progress in this sport.

    1. I have a feeling that Renault’s future in F1 is not secure at all. Isn’t that strange they don’t have any PU customers?

      1. I don’t know why people say that. They’re not spending much for the publicity they get.

        I gave a strong suspicion DR is leaving because Renault (or significant proportions of the team) have no ambition to improve significantly, and are perfectly happy with where they are now.

        1. Renault is getting a lot of bad publicity for their money. Not sure if that is what you meant to say but its a fact.

          1. ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’, as the saying has it.

            But TBH I don’t see any bad publicity. Maybe among a few F1 fans, but even they probably note that Renault make different kinds of cars to Ferrari and Mclaren.

            Mostly, simply being in F1 in the middle of the pack is great publicity for a mass market car manufacturer which wants to pretend to sporting credentials.

  5. In our sport, and particularly within the current extraordinary situation, reciprocated confidence, unity and commitment are, more than ever, critical values for a works team

    LOL, sounds like Vettel’s press release from yesterday! maybe it’s hinting at something

  6. I read an article by Joe Saward in which ha says ‘a customer team is never going to be challenging for the World Championship when there are factory teams competing.’
    That may be the brutal truth but it also shows the sad state of F1 if true.

    1. On that basis McLaren, RedBull would never have gained a World Championship while Ferrari were in the field, or come to that Mercedes and Renault all three of which are factory teams.

      Saward is knowledgable but a bit of a bore on ”fings ain’t wot they used to be’.

      1. McLaren were the ‘works’ Mercedes team until 2011. RB were using Renault engines after Singapore 2008 and there wasn’t a Renault works team.

        Joe Saward obviously knows a heck of a lot more than you.

      2. Witan, after Renault withdrew their works team, they officially named Red Bull as their works team in 2011. Horner also officially announced at the time that Renault had designated Red Bull as their factory team in 2011, with Renault and Red Bull also having a joint development programme to develop bespoke parts specifically for Red Bull’s use only.

        As Jon Bee notes, McLaren were also officially the Mercedes works team during that period as well – part of Ron Dennis’s justification for the Honda partnership was the fact that Mercedes would be withdrawing that status and downgrading McLaren to customer status.

        I’ll agree that Saward can be overbearing and does seem to be becoming the sort of ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’ figure that he used to criticise in the past, but he would technically be correct that both Red Bull and McLaren were officially works teams when they won their championships.

    2. @johnrkh well, that “the sad state” has been true for decades, tho. Which was the last team to win a championship without a works engine? Of the top of my mind, probably Red Bull, as Renault still had a works team back then (owned by Geeni, tho). But it was probably a “works” deal anyway…

      But besides that? Hakkinen and Hamilton enjoyed full factory support from Mercedes, Renault had close ties with Williams in the 90s, the Benetton in 1994 also had works Ford engines. You’ve got McLaren-Honda, McLaren-Porsche, Williams-Honda, Brabham-BMW…

      You’d need to go back to the Cosworth DFV era, I guess…

      1. @fer-no65 2009, as extraordinary as the circumstances were. Both championships, in fact.

        (unless 2010 counts, at the end of the day there was still a team called “Renault” that year)

    3. @johnrkh

      Are we sure there will be factory teams (besides Ferrari) in F1 in the near future?

  7. Makes me wonder, if Ricciardo stayed at Red Bull, would he have gotten the Ferrari seat?

    1. Fair point, the stock of a driver is full of ‘what ifs’ though

    2. Depends on why Ferrari got Sainz instead.
      Do they believe that he is on par with Leclerc and both of them will race freely battling for the WDC ?
      Or they just signed him to be the new (unoffical) No.2 and he agreed because.. it’s Ferrari ?

      If it’s the second scenario, they wouldn’t probably offer Ricciardo the seat even if he was still at Red Bull.

      1. I think they went for Sainz because of three factors. He is a pretty reliable driver based on evidence to date, they see him as being more willing to play second fiddle to Leclerc should the circumstances require it and thirdly they must be paying him significantly less than they would have to pay Ricciardo.

    3. Likely I would say, but again, I always, always, always criticized his decision to leave red bull, it’s been a few years there are 6 cars that can compete for wins, he was in one, probably the 2nd most promising team knowing ferrari’s endeavours and he left it, that was a huge risk and if it cost him the chance at ferrari he asked for it.

      1. Hindsihht is 20/20 as they say given the trajectory or a Renault and the fact there were a worls team and he felt he neded a chsnge then Renault was tge riggt decision for him i felt. If rhey had finished 4th or tgird in the championship we wouldnt be discussing this. I am a big ric fan and gutted he didnt get the ferrari seat but hopefully less frustration for fans and himself in a McLaren. Championship there? Nope but 2022 will undoubtedly be interesting.

        1. Apologies for the typos. I should really reread these things.

  8. Who will replace Ricciardo at Renault ?

    1. They posted a photo of the 2004 French GP podium on their Facebook page this morning (or late last night), Alonso was on it.

      Also I really think they didn’t want to lose Hulk and felt he still deserved a seat, but anybodies guess really.

      1. “AUTO BILD MOTORSPORT now learned from a reliable source: Superstar Fernando Alonso (38) is to return to Formula 1 as a Ricciardo replacement at Renault. The deal is said to be almost fixed.”
        ABM are right at least 50% of the time (on coin tosses).

    2. I guess the possible candidates are Vettel, Alonso (I rate as less likely than anyone), Hulkenberg, Gasly or someone young who most people have never heard of.

  9. In the midst of all this, just spare a thought for Ron Dennis…

    Picture a McLaren meeting back in ~2008, where everyone wears a suit or a very very formal and professional outfit, everyone has the same 5 pre-aprroved haircuts from the company catalogue, while discussing if that shade of grey & chrome is the right one for the company brand or they they’ll have to pick a more bland one.

    And come 2021, most McLaren meeting would consist of Lando and Ricciardo giggling about their ‘facial’ hairs, video games, best shoe size to do the ultimate ‘Shoey’ and if the car is BWOKEN or need fixing.

    Please make McLaren great again :P

  10. There could be one problem, Ricciardo does need to grow up. I don’t want to see him making Lando Norris the butt of his constant ‘jokes’. After a time, people who carry on like that become bores, as the jokes turn into a kind of bullying.

    1. That’s a bizarre outlook, Mr. Bee.

      1. It’s not. Take a look around at those you know who like Ricciardo. Often they’re covering insecurities and can’t hack it when they’re on the end of a joke. Some years ago, Noel Edmunds, a TV personality made a living from practical jokes – when he was caught out, you could see him fuming, it was rather funny to watch him squirm.

        1. I’ve got an idea of who the bore is.

          1. Been looking in a mirror have we?

  11. I applauded Daniel for having the ‘chutzpah’ to leave Red Bull and it certainly showed where he was at, vis a vis his stature within the Red Bull cauldron. When his team bosses state, in public, that their goal was to make Verstappen the youngest WDC in F1 history, spare a thought for where that left Daniel!! Red Bull, Marko and Horner then showed their true colours after Baku. That was the pivotal point in Ricciardo’s decison making according to him.
    Renault was, in hindsight, not such a dud deal insofar as it helped him through a tough time but Renault were not able to do the business. Given this years testing it would seem as though he was doomed to another year or two of mediocrity. Time is not on Daniel’s side hence his move. Thinking more about it i can only see positives and if Ferrari stumble be assured that if the MacLaren is half way decent Ricciardo will pounce. Looking good.

    1. Yeah but he was still in machinery capable of winning at redbull. There was no where to hide when he was being threatened by max. Some say max was better than daniel…that’s debatable I guess but you definitely cant say daniel was much better than max.
      Daniel ran from a fight and used max’s “preferential” treatment as an excuse.
      A driver who was in the exact same circumstances was Nico. I never liked him but I respect what he did against lewis.
      Both daniel and nico were on the team before their teammate. Both accused their teammate of getting “preferential” treatment.
      However Nico put his head down and took the fight to lewis and won the championship.
      Daniel on the other hand has barely scored points…..

  12. Shame he didn’t go to Ferrari, but I guess his main goal is anyway Mercedes and with McLaren getting a Mercedes engine when he starts there it’s one step nearer. He will then get to work with the team indirectly, and no doubt they will enjoy the experience.

  13. I think 2021 is actually the perfect time for Ricciardo to be joining McLaren: the organizational changes from 2018 have finally picked up momentum, with the team now going forward. And Zak Brown looks to have fully settled in his role as head of McLaren, successfully transitioning the Woking squad past the Ron Dennis era.

    Had Ricciardo signed for McLaren in 2019, I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference from how his actual decision (to instead join Renault) turned out; he’d have probably scored some better results, but still he would not have avoided altogether the shock of moving to the mid-field (having come from the sharper end of the grid).

    As for Renault: the way I see it all this talk of either hiring Vettel or bringing back Alonso is just theatrics from Abiteboul/Prost; so that the manufacturer’s Board of Directors do not decide to wthdraw, since it will seem like team management still has a plan to return the outfit to championship glory.

    If the French manufacturer doesn’t pull out of F1, I get the impression they will either pirate another Red Bull grown driver (Albon/Kyvat/gasly) to partner Ocon; or re-sign Hulkenberg.

    1. I think 2021 is actually the perfect time for Ricciardo to be joining McLaren

      As a thought, what if the teams that have signed new drivers swapped them now? The season hasn’t started yet. Maybe it would be more harmonious to pay out Sebastian and to have Carlos and Daniel go to their new teams straight away. Okay, that leaves Renault without a driver, but they could offer it to Nico Hulkenberg … or maybe they know of an unexpected redundancy at another F1 team.

  14. Jose Lopes da Silva
    14th May 2020, 17:10

    The world spent the last two months questioning if Renault will continue in the sport amid a pandemic. What could Abiteboul possibly expect? A 30yo race winner, after an awful season given by his team, would let go the opportunity of running away?
    The most amusing thing about CEOs: they never realize that the laws of market can be used by underlings too.

  15. Jose Lopes da Silva
    14th May 2020, 17:11

    Maybe Renault sells the team to Google and they develop a awesome Brawn-type car for 2022 and Ocon becomes World Champion, with Verstappen in 2nd place and Lundgaard in 3rd place.
    Or not.

    1. Jockey Ewing
      14th May 2020, 19:10

      Ocon WDC, Grosjean in 2nd, and Verstappen in 3rd, after Kimi excluded for lapping them all the time with a Formula Junior burning a bit too much oil :P

  16. I’m no sure Dan has really ever forgiven Renault for costing him any real chance he had at a WDC 2014 thru to 2016. They simply didn’t bother to put any effort into improving their PU which relegated RBR to effectively no chance at a WDC.

    To me it seems his best chances have gone. He tested Renault’s commitment as a manufacturer and I suspect that’s been found wanting as well.

    Time to move on, but unfortunately his time as a contender has also passed.

    1. @dbradock Is it? I honestly think he’s one of the few who would be able to handle the pressure of a championship fight, and why wouldn’t Mercedes chose him to partner Russell if Verstappen is still under contract at Red Bull? The team says having a Hamilton does wonders for the Mercedes brand, and Ricciardo would IMO the best replacement image-wise.

    2. [Renault] simply didn’t bother to put any effort into improving their PU which relegated RBR to effectively no chance at a WDC.

      I don’t think this is a fair comment. In the time frame you mention (2014 – 2016) there was the Token System, which made it very difficult for a manufacturer to improve their engine. A manufacturer would have to prioritise improvements so that only the most essential improvements got done, and even then an improvement that used less Tokens could get preference compared to one that used more, and also improvements that could be bundled together would get preference compared to ones that couldn’t be combined with other improvements. So improvements couldn’t be implemented until the FIA had looked at what was going to be done and decided how many Tokens were involved. Really, the whole point of this was to waste time. I’m not sure what happened if a manufacturer decided the improvements were a waste of time and decided to roll back to the previous engine version. I suspect the Tokens used were lost.
      I suspect the reason for wanting the Token System was to try and lock in an advantage for Ferrari, but what it actually did was lock in an advantage for Mercedes, who had been second in the WCC in 2013.
      Red Bull were second in the 2014 World Constructors’ Championship (405 pts vs 701 for Mercedes and 320 for Williams).

      1. Renault used zero tokens in 2015. Ferrari used all of theirs.

        Renault spent all their time whinging about how poorly Red Bull spoke about them instead of actually doing anything. The token system has nothing to do with how badly they stuffed their engine in 2014, 2015 (because they didn’t do anything to it) or 2016.

        1. It seems so weird now to look back at the time when I used to get shouted down every time I suggested the Honda engine wasn’t as bad as the utter dog Renault had produced. It’s so obviously true now.

          It’s verging on a conspiracy theory, but I do wonder if Team Renault think the parent company will pull out if they win anything, and don’t want to lose their jobs…

  17. Bruno Verrari
    15th May 2020, 9:15

    If the Renault flies, he’ll regret it.
    Macca is no improvement – and a customer team…makes you wonder why Ferrari didn’t pick him.
    Also, the years are very quickly passing – he’ll be 33+ when this contract expires…

  18. I have to admit wondering if it is possible that Daniel might have had cause to question Renault’s reciprocal confidence, unity and commitment over the course of the last 12 months? There comes a point where sweet words and flush contracts come across as just talk.

    While I can see why Renault would be disappointed, I think its leadership may be better-advised to look in the mirror than to cast innuendoes.

    1. Every team is bullish about their future otherwise they wouldn’t be out there.

      This was always a 3-5 year project and even then it was a gamble as to whether they could eventually compete for wins.

      Ricciardo didn’t even give Renault a chance.

      If Ricciardo is looking for a car capable of race wins then why did he leave RBR?

  19. Did Ricciardo really expect to be challenging Red Bull and Ferrari each weekend last year? That’s straight up delusional.

    Surely he knew this would be a 3-5 year project.

    He’s being unreasonable. Renault are right to question his loyalty and commitment.

    I think he just took the pay day and had no intention of staying. Hoped to come out of 2020 with a Ferrari or Mercedes drive but that’s not going to happen.

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