Making sense of the Ricciardo-McLaren situation

Will McLaren get off Daniel Ricciardo? Does he retire at the end of the year?

Those are the two questions that don’t seem to be going away at the moment. Ricciardo’s form since joining McLaren has been disappointing and has so far fallen short of the expectations set when he joined the team last season.

This week, Ricciardo took to Instagram to clarify his current situation.

The Australian wrote on Wednesday: “There have been many rumors about my future in Formula 1 but I want you to hear it from me. I am committed to McLaren until the end of next year and will not leave the sport.”

“Guess it wasn’t always easy but who wants easy! I’m working on my A-off with the team to make improvements and get the car back to the top where it belongs. I still want that more than ever.” .”

While Ricciardo has played a huge role in Formula 1’s recent boom, most new fans have probably struggled to understand why the seven-time race winner is being dubbed one of the sport’s finest drivers. Aside from his notable surprise win at last year’s Italian Grand Prix, his performances for McLaren have not been as successful as the name he had earned during his stints with Red Bull and Renault. Reputation in Formula 1 is hard earned and easily lost.

But the reality of the situation is much simpler than many of the rumors suggest.

Can McLaren get off Ricciardo?

Unless McLaren is willing to pay big bucks to rip up its deal, the simple answer seems to be – no.

The fact that Ricciardo felt that his statement “man on contract says he’ll stay on team he’s signed to” has to be said speaks volumes about how loud some of the noise surrounding his future is in the last few weeks have been. This noise was almost exclusively made by McLaren.

When company boss Zak Brown was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, he dropped a bombastic quote when he said the team had “mechanisms” in Ricciardo’s contract that could see them withdraw from the Australian this year. It is perhaps no coincidence that a few days later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ricciardo hit perhaps his lowest point of the season by qualifying 14th and then in a perfectly ordinary performance at the Monaco Grand Prix, an event which he won, placed 13th in 2018. So soon after Brown’s comments, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire when it came to speculation about his future.

That Brown quote was weird. ESPN understand Ricciardo’s deal will not include release clauses for McLaren, something team boss Andreas Seidl even hinted at when the team unveiled the Australian driver in 2021.

But the rumor mill has been on steam lately. This week, American driver Colton Herta tested the team’s 2021 F1 car, something new McLaren IndyCar signing Alex Palou will also do later this year. There have been various reports linking McLaren to Pierre Gasly or reigning Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri (Alpine’s next big F1 prospect, who looks more likely to be with Williams next season).

After Ricciardo has made it clear he has no intention of walking away from his deal, the implication appears to be that if McLaren wants him out, they can tear up his contract. That would of course come at a huge financial cost to the team, but Brown is clearly feeling the pressure from McLaren’s shareholders and partners – the team is also a long way from delivering the title-battling car that it had hoped would be an easy fix for 2021 away McLaren’s current dilemma, but it’s clear Ricciardo isn’t ready for it.

The two available F1-capable options don’t seem to justify the nuclear option, even if Brown wanted to do that. Gasly is a race winner but struggled under pressure from Red Bull in 2018 – fair questions remain as to how he might fare outside of AlphaTauri’s familiar surroundings. Piastri is clearly worthy of an F1 spot, but a deal would need to be struck with Alpine to get him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll live up to the hype surrounding him either.

On the US side, Herta and Palou are both talented drivers, but the move from American open-wheel racing to F1 isn’t easy and McLaren would likely have to face a slow adjustment period for both if they ever raced in F1 .

Is Ricciardo retiring?

Ricciardo has given no indication that his motivation is waning and those close to the Australian have told ESPN he genuinely wishes to continue until at least late 2023. Ricciardo’s defiant statement – “I still want this more than ever” – is reflected in what he has told the media.

Teammate Lando Norris’ form hasn’t done Ricciardo any favours. While Norris has finished in the points in eight of the 11 races this year, including a podium at Imola, Ricciardo has only finished 6th, 8th and 9th on the three occasions he has scored points.

Compared to Norris, it’s easy to speculate that Ricciardo simply stopped caring, or that he’s just happy to take the money McLaren is paying him and quietly bid farewell to Formula One when the time comes is ripe. In a paddock as tight as Formula 1’s, it’s very obvious when someone’s behavior has changed, but there was no indication that Ricciardo’s love for the sport has waned.

As last season of Netflix’ Drive to Survive showed, Ricciardo is his harshest critic, and ESPN understands he recently extended his simulator time to get a handle on the car. Sources present told ESPN that Ricciardo was choked up while speaking to staff at the McLaren Technology Center this week to reaffirm his commitment to them and Formula 1.

Some have pointed to Ricciardo’s increasing fame away from F1, having appeared on the cover of GQ or being on American talk shows as an indication that his mind is elsewhere, but those things never seemed too distracting. Ever since Ricciardo was inundated and worn down by media inquiries and sponsorship events in the run-up to an Australian Grand Prix with Red Bull, he and his team have been diligent to ensure off-track activities do not interfere with his on-track performances.

The only thing fans of the Aussie can hope for is that history repeats itself. Ricciardo was keen on a watertight three-year deal, knowing it would come with a major rule change, with this year’s new generation of cars arriving midway through this contract year. When he arrived he knew he would have a year to learn the team’s 2021 car before a new regulation change and brand new car this year. As in 2021, he has been slow to adapt but unlike last year he has a second season with this car.

Ricciardo also made a slow start at Renault in 2019 after joining from Red Bull, but by 2020 had found his feet and had two podiums, the first of which memorably earned old Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul a tattoo. Ricciardo was one of the standout performers of 2020 and that form earned him the McLaren move. If he can repeat that resurgence in the remaining months of this year and into next season, those questions will go away, but Ricciardo still looks a long way from finding that sweet spot with the car.

Ricciardo is running out of time to convince McLaren that he’s worthy of a second deal beyond this one, even if he sees it in its entirety. But as things stand it looks very much like he will at least have a chance to regain the form that has made him one of Formula 1’s most respected drivers. It’s up to him to get there – this nuclear option is becoming increasingly attractive to McLaren the longer it takes Ricciardo to get back to his old self. Making sense of the Ricciardo-McLaren situation

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