Ricciardo finished fifth for McLaren while Carlos Sainz, who was stuck behind the Australian for the latter part of the race, ended up seventh.
As is often the case in Formula One, once the first domino in the driver market falls, the rest follow suit in short order.
Hot off the heels of news that Sebastian Vettel will depart Ferrari following this season, Carlos Sainz’s confirmation as the German’s replacement at Maranello and Daniel Ricciardo’s instalment in turn as the Spaniard’s at McLaren in 2021 has capped a whirlwind 48 hours.
In its official statement Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto remarked, “I’m pleased to announce that Carlos will join Scuderia Ferrari as from the 2021 championship. With five seasons already behind him, Carlos has proved to be very talented and has shown that he has the technical ability and the right attributes to make him an ideal fit with our family”.
Of his move, Sainz, who debuted with Toro Rosso in 2015, said “I am very happy that I will be driving for Scuderia Ferrari in 2021 and I’m excited about my future with the team. I still have an important year ahead with McLaren Racing and I’m really looking forward to going racing again with them this season.”
Over at McLaren, CEO Zak Brown stated, “Signing Daniel is another step forward in our long-term plan and will bring an exciting new dimension to the team, alongside Lando (Norris)”.
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl added, “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”.
Having debuted midway through 2011 at HRT, Ricciardo tweeted, “I am so grateful for my time with Renault and the way I was accepted into the team. But we aren’t done and I can’t wait to get back on the grid this year. My next chapter isn’t here yet, so let’s finish this one strong. Merci”.
I am so grateful for my time with @renaultf1team and the way I was accepted into the team. But we aren’t done and I can’t wait to get back on the grid this year. My next chapter isn’t here yet, so let’s finish this one strong. Merci pic.twitter.com/YFfzbwrgD7
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) May 14, 2020
These developments have injected life into a presently stillborn season that remains a ways off commencing if at all. Should it get underway, Formula One will find itself in a unique position, with multiple drivers knowing their alternative destinations for the following season with an entire campaign ahead of them, as both alluded to.
Sainz will arrive at Ferrari cognisant of the notion that the team has placed its title aspirations in Charles Leclerc, which ultimately contributed to Vettel’s marginalisation.
The 25-year-old lived in Max Verstappen’s shadow during their time under the Red Bull umbrella, only gaining attention when he branched out from the sanctuary to Renault before completely severing ties upon joining McLaren in 2019.
He’ll be hoping to extend his stay at Maranello beyond the initial two-year contract and enjoy some long-term stability following multiple moves throughout the grid since 2017. Whether he emerges as somebody who holds Leclerc accountable or becomes a dutiful number two will determine the length of his tenure.
Though Ricciardo would have coveted a Ferrari berth, which would have carried plenty of appeal courtesy of his Italian heritage, he realised he wouldn’t have been the team’s nucleus, and Ferrari for their part are keenly aware of his potential to rival Leclerc, which could have jeopardised their title credentials.
Having already escaped Red Bull Racing once it became clear Verstappen was their man, and with time not on his side – he turns 31 in July – he’s decided Renault doesn’t have the potential to produce a car to fight for championships.
In joining McLaren, Ricciardo is gambling that the gradual upturn the team has enjoyed since calling time on its disastrous partnership with Honda will continue. The Woking outfit will reunite with Mercedes in 2021 hoping to be in a position to capitalise on the belated introduction of the new technical regulations the following season.
The implication of McLaren’s move to cover Sainz’s departure with the Australian alongside tacit confirmation that Norris will return for a third season is that Vettel finds his options increasingly limited should he wish to remain on the grid in 2021.
Mercedes is unlikely to accommodate the four-time champion as long as Lewis Hamilton remains at Brackley, nor is a Verstappen-centric Red Bull Racing despite their past achievements. Thus filling the vacancy left by Ricciardo at Renault is his only realistic recourse.
Considering the French manufacturer’s underwhelming results since its return to the sport in 2016 and having struggled to rediscover its mojo as an engine supplier since the dawn of the hybrid era, theirs would have to be a compelling case to convince the 32-year old to extend his career. The only factor in the Enstone squad’s favour is a close working relationship from the Red Bull Racing days.
Starved of action for months, the past few days have more than compensated, and now the big hands have been played, the smaller cards will surely fall into place.
Despite all that, it’s hard not to lose sight of the fact there could be an entire season – if and whenever it proceeds – before any of these take effect.