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Things aren’t going to plan for Daniel Ricciardo.
A little more than a year has passed since the Australian made the shock decision to leave frontrunner Red Bull Racing for midfielder Renault, but the picture around a quarter of his two-year deal suggests the grass is a long way from the lush green thought to be on offer.
Of course Renault wasn’t expected to be a race-winner or even regular podium-getter this season. Ricciardo was tempted not by immediate success but by the promise of long-term gain along the French team’s strong trajectory from backmarker in 2016 to midfield leader last year.
But the 2019 season was supposed to be one of consolidation at the head of F1’s seven-team midfield, with closing the gap to the frontrunners the goal for 2020 and aspirations for title contention in 2021.
Those long-term dreams may still burn, but the reality of 2019 and impending changes to the sport’s structure makes them appear more like pipedreams than achievable aspirations.
Not only has Renault failed to shrink the gap to the leading three teams, but it’s staggered backwards into the midfield. This time last season it had amassed 82 points and sat fourth in the standings; currently it has only 39 points and wallows in sixth.
Most demonstrative of its fall from grace is that McLaren — effectively seventh at the end of 2018 more than 60 points behind Renault — now comfortably leads the midfield, ironically also with 82 points. More embarrassing still is that McLaren is powered by Renault engines.
From the outside it seemed as though the reality of the situation finally hit Ricciardo after qualifying 18th for the Hungarian Grand Prix immediately before the midseason adjournment when in a press conference tinged with uncharacteristic frustration he admitted he needed a break.
“Sometimes you need to step away for a bit to actually review things,” he said. “The summer break will be good, also for me personally to assess the first six months with the new team.
“I had … scenarios in my head at the start of the year how things I would go. and now I can assess where it is and try to understand also what I can do better within myself and within the team to keep everything going and not let days like this emotionally make me kind of do things that are not positive.”
His Hungarian Grand Prix weekend was coloured by questions about his decision to move to Renault, and even on Friday, before the disappointment of qualifying, the Australian was clear expectations weren’t being met.
“I had hoped for more, but I knew it was not going to happen like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But at this halfway point we could say, we need to do better. if we want to be on target for podiums in 2020, we need to start making bigger steps for the second half of the year.
“So up until now I am somewhere in the middle with expectations, but I’d now expect the second half of the season to have some more regular top-six finishes.
“If we stay where we are now to the end of the season, then that’s lower than what we expected.”
Developments are due after the back-to-back Belgian and Italian grands prix this and next weekend, and there’s a lot riding on them as signs of life in the Renault machine. It’s not simply a matter of closing the gap to McLaren — never mind the leaders — to build some recover momentum for 2020; it’s about the medium-term viability of the team.
Formula One is primed for substantial change in 2021, but the groundwork for the competitive picture past that threshold is being laid now. Changes to the technical regulations, designed to improve racing, are due to be finalised in October, but more substantial still are the budget controls scheduled to come into effect at the end of 2020.
In theory the combination of technical and financial regulation will close the field, but there’s growing concern that the biggest teams, with ready access to substantial capital, are ramping up spending to effectively lock in their current advantage once spending is throttled in 2021.
For example, Mercedes and Ferrari had budgets estimated in excess of US$400 million (A$595 million) in 2018, with Red Bull Racing’s spend around US$310 million. Ferrari has already admitted it will tactically increase spending this year ahead of 2021, after which a US$175 million cap will be enforced — a strategy out of reach of lesser-funded teams.
Even Racing Point, newly acquired by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, is planning substantial infrastructure spending before 2021.
It contrasts starkly with Renault’s strategy to regain competitiveness with restrained spending in anticipation of the cost cap — indeed team boss Cyril Abiteboul went so far as to tell Motorsport.com he may have to increase spending just to reach the cost cap given it’s likely to be set higher than he’d expected.
This isn’t to say the capability doesn’t exist at Renault to achieve its goals with a frugal budget — money buys potential, not performance — but it’s a certainly a gamble that everything can come together exactly as planned in preparation for 2021.
And so there’s a great deal riding on the next 12 to 18 months at Renault. If this season can be turned around and the 2020 car is a marked improvement on this year’s efforts, then there’s reason to keep the faith in the Renault project.
But if the French team continues to falter through 2019 and allows McLaren — and the top three — to escape further up the road next year, then there’ll be some serious questions asked of Renault’s championship plan and, in turn, Daniel Ricciardo part in it.
These final nine races of the season will be crucial.