Why Daniel Ricciardo must retrain his brain to get the best from McLaren — MPH


Daniel Ricciardo has struggled to adapt to an idiosyncratic McLaren developed around Lando Norris – Mark Hughes analyses what the Australian has to do to get on top of it

Ricciardo McLaren Monaco

Ricciardo is having to rethink his driving style to suit a particularly idiosyncratic McLaren – can he make the mental leap?

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One of the most mystifying aspects of the season to date is just what a struggle Daniel Ricciardo is having at his new berth of McLaren. Last week in Monacowhere he went out in Q2, almost a second slower than team-mate Lando Norris, who qualified fifth and who lapped him in the race – was the furthest off he has been all year.

So what is happening? In a Sky TV interview there, he explained how he’d bumped into his McLaren predecessor, Carlos Sainz, who asked Ricciardo, ‘What do you think? Strange eh?’ talking of the car. “I said thanks for telling me!” What they were referring to was how the McLaren likes to be driven with what for a Pirelli car is a lot of overlap in the braking and cornering phases, especially into slow corners.

In classical race driving theory, as expounded in the ‘50s by Piero Taruffi and in the ‘70s by Mark Donohue, it’s the fastest way. You are accessing the tyre’s full potential for a greater period of time. Some of the greatest exponents of this particular art include Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher.

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But the Pirelli tyres generally don’t react well to the technique, don’t like being loaded up under braking and cornering simultaneously. Except if you’re Lando Norris. Ever since his F3 days he has loved a car with a lot of rotation on it, which will respond with very little steering lock, as he uses skilful and subtle manipulation of the car’s weight transfer to help it steer. During his time in F1, all of it at McLaren, he’s managed to prise open a window that allows him to do this even with the Pirellis. The McLaren has generally developed in that direction. Sainz joined the team after Norris had already been testing extensively there and was taken aback at how different the car was both to the Toro Rosso and the Renault he’d previously driven.

But Sainz is, above all, very adaptable. Possibly it’s in the genes, possibly in the improvisational skills regular driving of rally cars on gravel at home has given him (he and father Carlos Sr still play at this). “From what I’ve seen so far,” says Norris, “Daniel wants a car that really suits him, maybe a little bit more than Carlos. Carlos was good at driving a car which wasn’t always that nice to drive; he was very good at that.

“Daniel’s very, very fast when he has the car around him and when everything’s suited. But as soon as there’s a couple of problems, I think just as most drivers do, as soon as you lose that bit of confidence, then you just struggle a little bit more.

Ricciardo Barcelona 2021

The long, flowing corners of Barcelona made Ricciardo’s issues with car rotation less acute – it was a different story on the Principality streets

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“I don’t think that’s just with him, that’s just something that some drivers have more than others – it is a confidence thing.”

Ricciardo’s muscle memory is just not yet attuned to the very singular traits of the McLaren, as developed over the years around Norris. The problem’s not so bad on fast, flowing corners – at Barcelona he was generally fine – but anything involving a lot of weight transfer into slow corners and what he’s automatically attuned to doing isn’t what this car wants. “At the moment the car’s not coming to me,” he related in that Monaco interview. “There is a characteristic with this car which is a bit strange. There’s a window you can play inside and be fairly ok but at the moment it’s a very small window and very easy to make mistakes or do something that the car doesn’t respond to. It’s tricky.”

The shortfall in technique will be especially exaggerated on new tyres (so, in qualifying). If the rotation is not maximised you will not get the full benefit of the extra grip. You’ll get a big chunk of it, but not that maximum longitudinal and lateral combination – and the exit will be delayed as a result. All of it bleeding away lap time. Chunks of it at each entry phase.

It’s not just a simple matter of braking into the corner and then releasing the brakes once you’re in. It’s how much you overlap, for how long. How hard to apply them, how progressively or suddenly do you come off? Too much or too long and you will just generate understeer. Not enough and you’ll not get the rotation that way. All these things need not to be thought about, but just felt, naturally. When the messages the car is giving you go against what your sub-conscious is telling you to do, the driver has to gradually work his way into that territory, doing it what feels like the unnatural way until the sub-conscious accepts that this is the new way and can plot a new course in the neural pathways. Until it feels natural. Until he can feel that trade-off between longitudinal and lateral and anticipate what the tyre is going to need in the next milliseconds. That’s where the lap time is for this car in its current state of development.

Alternatively, the driver can set about changing the car to behave differently, to be more like how he’s currently wired up. That’s not guaranteed to be a success, in that the car’s whole aero development programme will have been driven in a direction partly from driver feedback over the years. Its aero map will be in its sweet spot based on its dynamics in that transient part of the corner. So to set it up that way, likely it will feel better to him but be slower.

So far, Ricciardo’s keeping the faith, feeling he shouldn’t be changing the car, that all he has to do is work it out. “We don’t really do a crazy different set-up,” he says. “The cars were nearly identical from a set-up point of view. I’m not trying to be too clever with that either; obviously I’ve got more to learn with this car than Lando, so I’m not trying to be different, trying to just follow suit and move forward with that.”