As McLaren commits to rising star Norris, his team mate needs to bounce back in 2022

2022 F1 season

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In his ten-and-a-half seasons as a fully-fledged Formula 1 driver, Daniel Ricciardo has racked up eight grand prix victories – despite never once having a championship-winning car at his disposal.

It’s an impressive tally that leaves him behind only Valtteri Bottas as the most successful driver on the grid never to have claimed the ultimate prize of the drivers’ world championship.

So when Ricciardo announced he was leaving Renault at the end of the 2020 season to fill the Carlos Sainz Jnr-shaped gap at Woking, the legion of McLaren fans had every reason to think their beloved team had maintained the previous level of driving talent in the team – and likely upgraded it.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, 2021
It took two tries for McLaren to coax Ricciardo to the team
With Sainz and young team mate Lando Norris having delivered McLaren’s highest championship position in eight seasons, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown knew that their F1 programme had built up serious momentum heading towards the biggest rules shake-up since the V6 turbo formula began – and that Ricciardo would only bolster it further.

“Signing Daniel is another step forward in our long-term plan and will bring an exciting new dimension to the team, alongside Lando,” Brown said at the time. “This is good news for our team, partners and, of course, our fans.”

It was good news for Ricciardo too. After spending the vast bulk of his career in the Red Bull ecosystem, there was once a time when Ricciardo was the most promising prospect to become Red Bull’s second home-grown champion. That was, until Max Verstappen appeared on the scene.

Ricciardo’s decision to depart Milton Keynes and head an hour up the M40 to Enstone was motivated by many factors, but pursuing a world championship title was always at the core. As much self-belief that Ricciardo may have had that he possessed enough raw driving talent to go toe-to-toe with his sensational young team mate for a title, it became clear to him that Red Bull was not the right environment for him to realise his dreams.

But after just one year in the team, Ricciardo chose not to commit long-term to the Renault project (later renamed Alpine). Instead, McLaren’s resurgence after a major restructuring following the termination of their partnership with Honda meant the Woking team had made them a vastly more attractive prospect in 2020 than when he had first held talks with them in 2018.

With Brown breathing fresh life and energy into the McLaren brand, attracting new commercial interest and opening up more to the team’s passionate fanbase, he had also secured two major hires that would have an almost immediate impact on the team’s trajectory. First, James Key was brought in as technical director with a strong reputation for helping smaller teams overdeliver results. Second, Andreas Seidl was appointed as team principal. With his calm demeanour, laser focus on performance and wealth of championship-winning experience from his time at Porsche’s highly successful LMP1 programme, Seidl slotted perfectly into Brown’s vision to return McLaren back to their past prominence.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Imola, 2021
Ricciardo struggled to adapt to his new team
These key recruitments made Brown’s second pitch to Ricciardo all the more appealing than the first time around. “At that time I was able to make statements that I had yet to deliver on,” Brown later recalled. “I think 18 months on I was able to demonstrate to him after he met Andreas and was obviously well aware of James and the whole team, I think that went from some statements to factual elements that we could show.”

It was enough for Ricciardo to commit to the McLaren renaissance project for the next three seasons. Now aged 31, Ricciardo knew that he still had time to help build up a team into a title contender before age started to become a concern. But there was also one crucial factor to consider – the opportunity offered by the revolutionary rules changes set to arrive in 2022.

“I certainly feel like McLaren has done the right things, particularly in the last few years to set themselves up, in particular, for these rule changes coming in 2022,” Ricciardo said soon after joining the team. “I think that the next era of F1 has the ability to certainly turn the field around a little bit. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve known up until now really excites me about where McLaren is heading.”

Having such a focus on 2022 may have helped to make Ricciardo’s first year with his new team easier to reconcile with, because few could have imagined just how much the Australian would struggle in 2021.

With the impact of the pandemic meaning 2021’s cars were largely carried over from their predecessors, it was not an easy year for Formula 1 drivers to move teams. But while Ricciardo wasn’t the only driver in new surroundings to have his difficulties adapting to new machinery, he was perhaps the most outstanding example of it. With the team’s MCL35M, it was the nuances needed in the braking phase that created the biggest challenge.

Victory in Monza proved he hadn’t lost his touch
“Going from Red Bull to Renault and Renault to McLaren, probably the braking is the biggest thing which it seems like you need to adapt,” Ricciardo explained. “With the braking it’s more probably just a mechanical feeling. I think even things like new cars, new pedals and positioning, it’s probably more just a feel on that physically than anything else for now.”

Ricciardo’s struggles stood in sharp contrast to the successes enjoyed by his team mate Norris. While Ricciardo could only manage a best finish of sixth in the first phase of the season, Norris reached the podium in Imola, Monaco and Austria. Surely not what was expected by the 85% of RaceFans readers who predicted Ricciardo would out-score Norris.

Gradually, Ricciardo became more comfortable with the car. He extracted the maximum from the McLaren at Monza, where he controlled the race from the start to claim an unexpected race victory, his first in a car other than a Red Bull. It demonstrated Ricciardo had lost none of his resilience under pressure nor his ability to capitalise on the hint of an opportunity to win. But it did not hail a dramatic turnaround in performance for the remainder of the season.

Norris has a new McLaren deal
While Norris reached the points in all eight rounds after Monza, Ricciardo only managed three more top-10 finishes. McLaren faded to fourth in the championship, increasingly unable to offer a challenge to Ferrari’s improved performance after their rivals introduced a power unit upgrade.

Thus, with McLaren’s MCL36 due to be unveiled to the world this evening, the year ahead may be the most critical yet for Ricciardo and his hopes of one day claiming a world championship title. While the team themselves have played down their chances of becoming a major threat at the very front of the field once again this year, anything other than taking a step closer to the ultimate pace once again this year will likely be a disappointment.

But beyond McLaren’s rivals, the most pressing issue for Ricciardo to face in 2022 is one he is all too familiar with – an impressively quick younger team mate.

Norris had the measure of Ricciardo throughout 2021. With McLaren securing the British driver’s services on the longest contract held by any driver on the grid, Ricciardo knows Norris is the benchmark he will continue to be measured against. Whether or not he left Red Bull to avoid that scenario with Verstappen – as his former team principal Christian Horner suggested – he now has the same situation with Norris.

The good news for Ricciardo is that the all-new cars for 2022 mean he and the other 19 drivers on the grid will start from the same base level of experience this year. But that levelling of the playing field also removes any excuses for those who are regularly shown up by their team mates. Especially for those as experienced, and with such formidable racing resumes, as Ricciardo.

Depending on how the team’s season unfolds and what it could lead to over the years ahead, 2022 could become the pivotal year for McLaren and for Ricciardo as a driver. With Brown firm in his belief that his team possesses the “best driver line-up in the paddock”, he and McLaren’s many fans across the globe will be expecting that talk to be backed up on the track this season.

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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23 comments on “As McLaren commits to rising star Norris, his team mate needs to bounce back in 2022”

  1. Up until now I have genuinely felt Dan was a very gifted driver. I was honestly surprised how he floundered last year (his win notwithstanding).

    Whilst I have no doubt that a car can suit one driver more than another, it was still a very unexpected season. To be frank I saw him outperforming Lando, despite believing Lando to be a good driver too. Any disadvantage that he may have had would – in my hypothesis – have seen him merely performing at Lando’s level rather than ahead of him.

    The coming season will be interesting to watch i.e. will he bounce back, or will he cement his position as a sub Lando performer. Despite my bias for British drivers, I still find myself hoping for the former.

    With my bias applied it would obviously be great if Dan proved to be very good, and Lando proved to be exceptional, but as is generally the case with these intra team comparisons, I doubt it would ever be viewed that way.

    1. Mmm, I never felt ricciardo was a potential hamilton-beater, even when you go back to the 2017-2018 years; verstappen after getting some experience was only slightly more crash prone and significantly faster and with a similar car it was barely enough (although with bad luck ofc), don’t really think ricciardo had what it takes to be in the first tier of current drivers, 2nd at best.

      1. I never really saw the disparity (in Max’s favour) between the two drivers that nowadays seems to be conventional wisdom.

        I have to assume I was viewing through a rose tinted plasma.

  2. Ricciardo is one in a long list of drivers that made some -in hindsight- very poor career moves. When he decided to go to Renault, I could sort of understand on a personal emotional level, but not really in the sense of a “this is gonna be great for your career” choice. He went from being a race winner (regardless on whether or not he could’ve beaten Max in 2018 as his form and experience level was ever increasing) to a midfield runner in 2019, and had a poor first year there at that. His second year was better, but he was still nowhere near close enough to be considered the absolute top of the midfield Ultimately that is what cost him the Ferrari seat that went to Sainz instead. The perception around Ricky changed. Had he stayed at Red Bull and continued to get some race wins and a pole here and there, he would’ve had that seat.

    Then, as he was coming into his own at Renault and became the clear team leader there, he moved to McLaren. McLaren is a lateral move from Renault, but out of those two, I can’t say it wasn’t the more appealing option at the time. But it was clear Renault was investing in the team and that the new Alpine team as a works outfit has some perks over McLaren with a customer engine. What’s more is, that it was clear that at McLaren, Norris was considered the future and Ricciardo would not be the team leader there unless he solidly started beating Norris.

    Ultimately, Ricciardo finds himself now in the exact situation he left Red Bull over, except he’s now 32 and it’s unlikely any of the top teams are going to come knocking at his door for his services any more. So he has to hope now that McLaren really come into their own over the next few years and Norris doesn’t improve the same way Max has over the same period of time in their careers. I find that unlikely, and expect Norris (provided McLaren build him a consistent race winning car some time over the next few years) to be the contender out of the two at this point.

    1. Yes, I also thought it was a bad move, but to me it just didn’t make sense even at the time, it’s not like all moves work out like hamilton’s mercedes one, red bull was and is still significantly stronger and color me surprised if renault, now alpine, ends up being a front running team even in 2022.

      Agree with the perception change you mentioned, there’s some people especially on italian forums who make the argument ricciardo was paid more, but I can’t believe it since red bull tried everything to keep him since they were happy with him, now his team principal can’t be too happy, despite what he says to the media and in a weaker car at that.

      1. @esploratore1 Figures range from around $64 million to $98 million for his two-year tenure at Renault. I would think the $38 is closer to the mark. Which was around twice what he was offered by Redbull. Verstappen was reportedly paid $26 million in 2020, so yeah there you go.
        Riccardo was also being put into the position of forced subservience on track to Verstappen, which was simply untenable.

        1. #$38 million per annum.

    2. He went from being a race winner (regardless on whether or not he could’ve beaten Max in 2018 as his form and experience level was ever increasing) to a midfield runner in 2019, and had a poor first year there at that. His second year was better, but he was still nowhere near close enough to be considered the absolute top of the midfield Ultimately that is what cost him the Ferrari seat that went to Sainz instead. The perception around Ricky changed. Had he stayed at Red Bull and continued to get some race wins and a pole here and there, he would’ve had that seat

      Interesting analysis. I thought he did very well beating both his teammates in 2019 and 2020, quite convincingly too.

      I feel that he lost the Ferrari seat because he priced himself too high / maybe he wanted #1 status which Ferrari didn’t want to give. Also, Sainz and his management team I think moved very quickly and priced himself well.

      Honestly, I don’t understand Sainz. After Nico showed him up in 2018, he still somehow impressed Zak Brown and landed the Mclaren seat. I didn’t expect him to do that well but he did. By the end of 2019, Lando Norris was showing him up but he still somehow impressed Ferrari. Again, I didn’t expect him to do that well but he did!!

      For Ricciardo, this is his last chance. He is already 32. Ferrari / Red Bull / Mercedes all have their #1s sorted for the next 3-4 years. His best hope for a title is 1) the 2022 regs close up the field between the haves and have-nots AND 2) he does to Norris what Norris did to him in 2021. Both seem like a long shot.

      More likely, we will classify him like we do Kubica, Montoya, Frentzen – great driver on their day, had some great seasons, had potential to be WDC but somehow missed it.

      1. More likely, we will classify him like we do Kubica, Montoya, Frentzen – great driver on their day, had some great seasons, had potential to be WDC but somehow missed it.

        This is exactly where I place Ricciardo. I have never seen him as a top driver, but in that section of drivers who were ‘almost there’ but for one reason or another could never quite compete with the top echelon.

  3. As McLaren commits to rising star Norris, his team mate needs to bounce back in 2022

    Yes he does and I’m confident he will.

    1. @johnrkh I am too. I envisioned a DR last year who not only had to adapt to cars with the floor change like all the drivers, but the car and the team was new to him too. Yes of course others were in the same boat but that does not mean they all were having identical experiences. Different cars, different feel etc etc. Obviously Sainz seemed to be able to get on quite quickly in the Ferrari but that was an exception. So I envisioned a DR having to change his driving style, get used to his new team and they to them…and how do you get the ridiculous tires to work to their optimum when all that is going on? Same with SP at RBR. But again, different teams and cars and feel.

      Yeah I don’t see any reason to think Norris is better than DR, so I think things are going to be much better for DR this year on a more apples to apples comparison. The only caveat for me is the unknown of how the drivers in general will like these cars…like the feel of them. Will some struggle due to having to change their driving style in a significant way? We’ll only know when we know, but I do think there are several reasons to not drag last year’s experience for DR into this year’s. He has obviously shown, like countless other drivers have before him, what a difference it makes and what they can do when they are confident in the car and can get it hooked up. He’s a proven race winner.

  4. The problem for Daniel is he was mistakenly given a ‘world champ heater’s reputation when he outperformed Vettel, but we now know Vettel takes a year off when he’s moving teams, so anyone could beat him if they are motivated.

    Daniel also clearly doesn’t have that killer instinct that is needed to perform beyond your comfort level. His likeability far outstrips his talent. Although he is a race winner with genuine racecraft, his future career is likely to be filled with 4ths and 5ths and the odd win, until some new fast kids come through the ranks and knock him down to 10ths.

    1. Right the same killer instinct that he doesn’t have that made him win in multiple victories not in the best car nor the best grid position. If anything, if Ricciardo has a whiff of a possible win, he takes his chance if you’ve watched any of his race wins. If that is not a killer instinct I don’t know what you consider it to be. Joke.

  5. When Daniel moved to Renault I hoped for great things and was sadly disappointed.
    When he moved to McLaren I thought well maybe this time.

    I always enjoyed his driving but for some reason he seems to have gone from top class talent to mediocre midfielder.

    Perhaps the new cars will suit him better and give him a chance to shine again?

    1. You do realise he single handily got Renault where they were by coming 5th in the championship in not the best midfield car? One bad season in 10 years and everyone is jumping on him like he has lost it completely but winning in Monza on merit obviously shows how mediocre he is. If he has another bad year, it’s time to move to a team where the car will be more than norm but it is James Key’s first proper car so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

      1. Very fair points but I was genuinely expecting great things.
        I considered him to be at least the equal of, if not better than Max, and was one of those who thought that RB were favouring Max over Danny.
        I was probably expecting too much I suppose and it will indeed be interesting to see how much the new cars change things.
        Fingers crossed for yet more shoey’s ;)

  6. I’m thinking the honey badger is just not good enough. He’ll need to pull a Jenson Button to get his championship some day.

  7. If McLaren will provide a good car this year, I predict Daniel will win 2 races.
    Mark my words.

  8. Norris may have just pulled a very clever move by committing to McLaren like he has. This loyalty has been a feature of his career style in F1 to date (sponsors take notice!), and he has basically doubled down on a good bet. He currently seems to be more interested in excelling in his sport than earning the bigger Big Bucks. By locking down a long term contract he doesn’t have to face the very real anxiety about job security that most drivers on the grid deal with every season (including much more experienced hands). All of these drivers are now physically peak athletes, so it is the mental game which will decide future contests. He has taken control of his immediate future, and even if McLaren don’t immediately build a winning car, he is assured a certain stability. Norris’s well timed move (going with the formula change) will probably be mirrored too late by his peers in the coming years, including Danny Ric. Of course, it is still too soon to tell how this will ultimately pan out, but still: interesting times!

    1. @ferrox-glideh I agree fully and to me you are echoing what Max did in 2017 or 2018 at RBR also coincidentally when DR was there.

      1. It’s certainly pretty to think so :)

    2. I always appreciated Mark Webber’s approach to contract negotiations, he only ever made them 1 year so he always had that pressure to deliver, or lose his drive.

      I’ve never believed teams favoured drivers. When testing, if the car gets faster times with one driver and the adjustments that driver makes, then it makes sense for a team to go in that direction. I hope Dan has brought some new thinking to McLaren that will push them closer to the front. Given they have had Lando for so long it is understandable that they have been developing the car in the direction that takes them closer to the front based on Lando’s feedback. They brought Dan on because he had won races and driven in race winning cars, so hopefully they can use his feedback to bring them closer to the front.

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