After Scott McLaughlin’s maiden title triumph in a final showdown in Newcastle the year before, Supercars in 2019 was poised to deliver another battle of the heavyweights. However, controversy has left a bitter aftertaste.
One year on from his lights-to-flag domination of the Monaco Grand Prix and Daniel Ricciardo has no hope of even a podium on the hallowed Monte Carlo streets.
This will of course come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the Australian and his new Renault team this season, his first post-Red Bull Racing campaign. The year is only five rounds old but already it’s clear the French marque’s lofty target to snipe for poles was embarrassingly misguided.
The points table tells part of the story: two points finishes — a single seventh place for each of Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg — for a paltry total of 12 points and eighth in the constructors standings and a whopping five failures to see the chequered flag, the latter statistic easily the worst in the sport.
But whereas the story for most of the rest of the midfielders is that the table belies greater potential or simply illustrates the extreme closeness of the middle of the grid, Renault’s position is in some respects flattering.
Consider, for example, that at no race this season has either car finished on the lead lap bar at the Spanish Grand Prix, where a late-race safety car allowed both Hulkenberg and Ricciardo to un-lap themselves — and even then they finished more than half a minute down on the leaders after just 14 racing laps.
It would be unfair to say there isn’t potential in the RS19 — Nico competed for sixth with Kevin Magnussen in Australia and Daniel seventh and best of the rest in China — but it’s also true to say the team hasn’t stepped away from the midfield as per its preseason goals. In fact the midfield has moved forward to swallow up the yellow and black cars, representing a net step backwards.
Consider also that Hulkenberg has already begun taking penalties for exceeding his maximum allocation of power units less than a quarter of the way through the season. Ricciardo is not far behind, with another example of control electronics or Renault’s notoriously unreliable MGU-K enough to tip him into the red.
|Component||Internal combustion unit||Turbocharger||Motor generator unit (heat)||Motor generator unit (kinetic)||Energy store||Control electronics|
That reliability has been such a significant weakness for the French constructor in the sixth season of the current engine formula is shameful.
It’s painfully ironic for Daniel Ricciardo that his team switch was in part motivated by frustrations borne of unreliability last season. In 2018 he recorded eight retirements, the most of any driver; he’s already just one short of half that total if you include his classified non-finish in Bahrain.
Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, with Honda as its new engine supplier, is at least on par with expectations, if not exceeding them. True, new engine parts were brought to Azerbaijan ahead of schedule, but that only puts the Japanese marque in the ballpark with Ferrari in terms of unscheduled updates.
Further, the Red Bull Racing-Honda package is clearly effective, so much so it appeared to surpass the wallowing Ferrari in Spain, a comprehensive test of chassis competence, to become the nominal Mercedes challenger.
The RB15 is expected to be strong again this weekend in Monaco given Monte Carlo traditionally rewards Adrian Newey’s high-downforce designs — even if the team is talking down its prospects given Mercedes’s powerful form in the indicative final sector in Barcelona. A Max Verstappen victory would be a stinging reminder of the state of Ricciardo’s gamble on apparently greener pastures.
So to the heart of the question on Australia’s lips: has Daniel Ricciardo made a monumental mistake?
The answer is, perhaps unsatisfyingly: no. Or at least not yet.
There are two aspects from which the move should be considered. The first is that Red Bull Racing is not discernibly closer to winning a championship than it was in 2018. Its transition to Honda power may have lost it nothing, but it remains a way off series leader Mercedes. Without seeing the rest of this campaign unfold, it’s likely the team will be similarly adrift next season as well.
The second is that Renault isn’t targeting a credible title campaign until 2021. The gap to Red Bull Racing may be glaring considering Ricciardo’s level of competitiveness last season, but it doesn’t itself figure in the equation, which is about short-term pain for long-term gain.
“Straight away they said, ‘We’re not going to be quicker than Red Bull next year’,” Ricciardo told The Age of his decision to move to Enstone. “But what they told me about their plans for 2020 and for when the next rule changes come in for ’21 … they had some good structure in place, they’re recruiting a lot of good key people and they’re preparing to win.”
Asked about the team’s current dire situation in Monaco, the Australian doubled down.
“I still see what I saw when I signed as far as the input everyone’s having, the infrastructure still going up,” he said. “I am enjoying it, I really am.”
That said, it remains that Renault is performing well below expectations this year. Only fourth in the constructors standings will be acceptable, but assuming the team can mount a strong recovery to finish there come Abu Dhabi, Ricciardo can say his gamble is on track to pay off.
So the risk of an enormous backfire is real, but it isn’t time to man the panic stations just yet. The season is long, and it’s only with more time that we’ll be able to accurately judge the efficacy of Ricciardo’s Renault switch.
Watch this space. With fingers crossed.