With another race following Lewis Hamilton’s coronation as a seven-time world champion to mull over, there’s no better time to conduct a post-mortem of the 2020 Formula One world championship.
McLaren has confirmed Daniel Ricciardo will defect from Renault to McLaren for the 2021 Formula One season.
The Australian was in the frame to take Sebastian Vettel’s seat at Ferrari when the German announced his shock season-end departure from the team on Tuesday, but Carlos Sainz was Maranello’s first option, leaving the Australian to manoeuvre himself into the Spaniard’s vacated McLaren seat alongside Lando Norris.
It completes overtures made by the Woking team two years ago. McLaren threw their hat into the ring when Ricciardo was considering leaving Red Bull Racing in 2018, but their mid-table form underwhelmed compared to Renault’s strong fourth-place championship finish, and the French team’s eye-watering pay offer sealed the deal.
“Daniel is a proven race-winner and his experience, commitment and energy will be a valuable addition to McLaren and our mission to return to the front of the field. With Daniel and Lando as teammates, I believe we have two racers who will continue to excite our fans and help the team grow,” McLaren Team Principal Andreas Seidl said.
The gamble began looking shaky immediately. Not only did McLaren leap forward to snatch fourth in the standings, but Renault spluttered to 31 fewer points than they scored in 2018 to finish 54 in arrears of their chief rival.
Ricciardo scored points only eight times to end the year ninth in the drivers standings, his worst finish since 2013.
But now he gets a second roll of the dice.
It’s difficult not to view Ricciardo’s switch as a vote of no confidence in the French team’s outlook on returning to the front with the regulation changes due in 2022.
Not only did the team’s 2019 form fail to impress, but 2020 preseason testing suggested they hadn’t managed to retake the initiative from McLaren. Combined with persistent questions about the parent company’s enthusiasm for the expensive F1 project, especially in these financially straitened times of COVID-19, and the risks associated with staying put notably increase.
But Ricciardo’s second seat swap in as many years will come with risks of its own. While McLaren is a historic F1 brand of storied success, they have been notably diminished in the turbo-hybrid era and are undertaking their own rebuild. And long gone are the days of their Mercedes works deal to give it an edge – today, they works alone.
Ricciardo will also be leaving a team at which his number one status was largely assured for one in which Lando Norris has two seasons’ head start establishing himself, and while the Australian will back himself against a driver in only his third year, failure to keep the Briton contained will reflect poorly on him.
It’s hard to escape the sideways nature of the move too. Even if this phase of Ricciardo’s career, typically a racing driver’s prime, is characterised by positioning himself to capitalise on a midfield team winning big under new rules, inescapable is that he’s locked out of winning machinery, and the longer he’s off the podium, the more likely he is to fade into the background of a talented grid of drivers, most of whom are now younger than him.
But McLaren does offer some substantial upsides. Not only is Woking in a purple patch in their on-track recovery – and factory upgrades promise to enhance this upswing – but they’re due to switch to Mercedes power from next season, and the German motor is at minimum the equal best on the grid. Certainly this inspires more confidence than the Renault engine, which by most accounts is now the least powerful in Formula One.
Moreover, the opportunity to make himself the lead driver in time for 2022 remains in play, and job security is arguably better at the F1-centric business compared to Renault and the French constructor’s history of withdrawal.
In this respect, McLaren even compares favourably to what would likely have been on offer at Ferrari. While race wins would no doubt have been on the table, clear is Ferrari’s desire to back Charles Leclerc as their long-term leader, a not dissimilar situation to the one Ricciardo abandoned at Red Bull Racing. In the notoriously pressure-cooker political environs of Maranello, Daniel would be risking career destruction. Just ask four-time champion Sebastian Vettel. Or Fernando Alonso.
The bottom line is the ultimate success of Ricciardo’s career is out of his hands, and while it would be churlish and inaccurate to describe this as the move of a journeyman, he needs this latest gamble to pay off. McLaren must deliver if Australia is to get a third Formula One world champion.
With the rules changing in 2022 at the earliest, the year of Ricciardo’s 33rd birthday, the clock is ticking ever louder on his quest to take home the championship.