Daniel Ricciardo had a nightmare first campaign at McLaren in 2021, with very little reason to show his beaming smile for most of the year.
Having been expected to lead McLaren forward, Ricciardo was instead completely outshone by teammate Lando Norris.
It was a shock to everyone to see Ricciardo struggling so much, and his season was only salvaged by a glorious victory at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
Ultimately, that was just one event and Ricciardo only had a handful of race weekends where he was strong, or able to match Norris. Turning that around in 2022 will be his biggest challenge in Formula 1 yet.
Where did it go wrong for Ricciardo?
Pinpointing exactly where Ricciardo was losing out to Norris is difficult, and perhaps the Australian isn’t so sure himself which is a major problem.
The excuse of needing time to adapt to a new team and car began to wear off as the season went on and it was soon clear Ricciardo was going to be in for a long year.
At the Monaco GP, Ricciardo admitted he was confused about his lack of pace on a track he adores.
“Even crossing the line, a lot of laps I felt good,” stated Ricciardo. “I was like ‘That’s a good lap’ and I think at one point I was 1.2 seconds slower than what Lando had just done, so no answers at the moment.”
Ricciardo was lapped in the race, as Norris picked up his second podium of the season, underling the difference between the McLaren pair.
There was no significant improvement at the next events, as Ricciardo‘s consistent 0.3-0.4 seconds deficit per lap to Norris continued.
The Australian’s Monza victory was expected to give Ricciardo a much-needed confidence boost, but his poor form returned for the remainder of the season, apart from strong showings at the United States and Saudi Arabian GP.
In general, Ricciardo was losing out to Norris in the medium and slow speed turns.
His minimum corner speed was slightly down on Norris and he appeared to be cautious on acceleration, subsequently costing him time down the next straight.
What else may have contributed to Ricciardo’s poor season?
Ricciardo didn’t have the a great year during his first campaign with Renault in 2019, but it was nowhere near as bad as 2021.
His new engineer at McLaren was Tom Stallard, who Ricciardo perhaps hasn’t been able to fully gel with.
The relationship between a driver and their engineer is pivotal, hence why there are few engineer changes each season.
It’s vital to have a great relationship when trying to tune the car and finding the optimal setup during practice.
At the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, Ricciardo revealed he had problems when driving on a new tyre.
“The new tyre was my biggest problem,” said Ricciardo in a McLaren press release. “I just wasn’t able to take another step with it.
“I’ve got to look into whether there’s something I can do differently to get the tyre in the right window. It’s on me to try to figure that out.”
This may explain why Ricciardo particularly struggled in qualifying, often being eliminated in Q2 whilst Norris was on the tails of the Mercedes and Red Bulls.
Once in the mid-pack, traffic can seriously hinder a driver’s race and it becomes difficult to get into a nice rhythm.
A psychological battle
It’s amazing to think we’re talking about a driver who stunned Sebastian Vettel in 2014, taking three magnificent wins along the way.
Equally impressive was the way Ricciardo held himself against Max Verstappen at Red Bull in one of F1’s strongest driver line-ups this century.
But, never has Ricciardo been in this position, being beaten comprehensively every weekend. Worryingly, he hasn’t been able to deliver consistent performances to respond to his poor run of form.
“Some of the low days this year weren’t for a lack of trying, so in a way, I don’t regret anything either,” Ricciardo said when asked if he had any regrets in 2021.
“I don’t feel like I could have tried any harder. If I felt like I hadn’t given it my all then maybe I would have some regrets, but I don’t. So no regrets, just memories, those words were my first tattoo, actually.”
Every F1 driver has at least one bad season during their career in the sport, but the greats ensure they don’t repeat their below-average campaigns.
At 32-years-old, Ricciardo should be at the peak of his career, but now he faces his biggest battle yet to get back on track.
Can Ricciardo bounce back in 2022?
F1’s new technical regulations could be the lifeline Ricciardo needs to reset and return to his best.
The new cars will require a different driving style to the 2021 machines, and it’s possible they could suit the McLaren driver.
Ricciardo‘s slump in form was very strange because he is incredibly talented and, prior to 2021, highly rated by most team bosses and drivers.
A strong start to the new season will be pivotal for Ricciardo‘s head and confidence.
The six days of pre-season testing, of which each driver will get approximately three days in the car, will be key for Ricciardo to re-gain the trust in the car that he’s missed.
It would be surprising if Ricciardo repeats his 2021 season, as he should at the very least be close to Norris. Whether he can beat him is up in the air.
Will McLaren drop Ricciardo?
Ricciardo signed a three-year deal to drive for McLaren until the end of 2023. However, contracts don’t always matter in F1, especially when a driver is not performing as expected.
He’s been publicly backed by McLaren CEO Zak Brown and team principal Andreas Seidl, but there will almost certainly be contingency plans in place in the background, in case Ricciardo fails to show any significant improvement.
Arguably, Ricciardo‘s reputation and eight wins in F1 has saved him from more backlash, but history can only save a driver for so long.
F1 is a fast moving world and the teams only care about how a driver performs in the present.
Ricciardo will know this, which may have inflicted huge self-pressure going into the 2022 season.
It could be what he needs to revive his career, because Ricciardo is no longer driving in the hope of becoming World Champion, he will be racing his heart out to simply remain on the grid.