I really don’t want to write this column, but it’s become unavoidable. We need to talk about Daniel.
As we head into the Monaco weekend, the Daniel Ricciardo who so brilliantly pulled off a victory here four years ago – with no ERS after a quarter-distance – is just a foggy memory. He used to be scintillating around here. On current form, if he’s anything more than average this weekend it will be a surprise.
He has not looked anything like the ace of a driver he was since his move to McLaren last year. He made some progress in the latter part of the season, enough that he was able to grind out that impressive victory in Monza, heading a McLaren 1-2. But he’s not back to being the Daniel Ricciardo who could conjure miraculous combinations of tyre life and speed, who could manipulate the car in the fast corners in a way that allowed the tyre to live, who could make those amazing out-braking moves without even locking up, who could pounce on the slimmest of opportunities and convert them to gold, that combination of velvet and steel. In 2014 and ’16, in particular, a very strong case could be made for him as the season’s number 1 performer. That guy hasn’t been seen since the tail end of 2019 with Renault.
It just hasn’t happened. He’s so far averaged a quarter-of-a-second off Lando Norris in qualifying, is harder on the tyres and slower. In Barcelona last weekend, he was ahead of Norris on the grid for once, but only because the latter’s Q2 lap was deleted for breaching track limits. Norris was also struggling with a nasty bout of tonsillitis. But in the early laps of the race he was running hard in Ricciardo’s wake and being held up by him. Daniel was instructed to let his team-mate through. That was on lap nine. Thirty-eight laps later, Ricciardo had fallen half-a-minute behind the sister car, an average of almost 1sec per lap. He finished four places down on Norris, out of the points. That would not be an adequate performance for a pay driver, let alone a megastar on a very big salary. Asked if there had been any particular problems with the car, his only response was to say he hoped they would find something. So far, they haven’t.
The fact that team boss Zak Brown addressed the Ricciardo question unsolicited suggests very serious questions are being asked within the team. “Lando definitely has an edge,” he said. “Obviously we would like to see Daniel much closer to Lando and have a good intra-team battle, Daniel’s just not comfortable yet with the car. We are trying everything we can – again it was a disappointing weekend. Short of Monza [last year] and a few races, it’s generally not met his or our expectations.”
Ricciardo brings so much to F1. His open, smiling personality makes him quite unique and it’s great having him around. But whether the problem is one of adaptation, focus or desire, this level of performance is not something the hyper-competitive Daniel will even tolerate of himself and unless he can quickly understand and correct it, it’s difficult to envision him still being in the seat next year. We may be seeing the closing stages of a great career, albeit one which could have been yet-greater with just slightly different circumstances.