Exposed in the first two races of the Formula 1 season, Daniel Ricciardo has been forced to eat the biggest mistake of his career.
Glass half full or glass half empty — Daniel Ricciardo is not where he wants to be.
The Aussie has made a promising, solid start to his time at McLaren, and his decision to leave Renault at the end of 2020 is already an undeniably clever move after last year’s game of musical chairs between drivers across the grid.
The bigger picture though, is that the 31-year-old had to watch on as former teammate Max Verstappen charged to victory in the Imola Grand Prix on Monday morning.
It is what could have been.
His much-debated move from Red Bull at the end of 2018 has been, for the most part, justifiable — but two races into the 2021 season, it reeks of being the biggest mistake of his career.
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Even Ricciardo’s argument for exploring options outside of Red Bull under the view that the team was not going to be a legitimate title challenger any time soon no longer holds up.
Red Bull is in fact a very genuine title challenger to Lewis Hamilton’s all-conquering Mercedes — and McLaren is not.
It was impossible to predict what the pecking order would be in 2021 three years ago when Ricciardo made the jump to Renault — no doubt motivated at some level by his reported monster $32 million per-year salary which made him the third highest paid driver in the sport.
That doesn’t change the fact that in 2021, it appears to have been a very wrong call.
Verstappen is breathing down Hamilton’s neck in 2021 and is as short as $2 with some corporate bookmakers to win the world championship this year.
Red Bull has been nearabouts since Ricciardo’s move, but now this year is a very different beast.
It boils down, unfairly, to the realisation that Ricciardo could have been driving a world championship-winning car for the first time in his career this year — if he’d been prepared to play second fiddle to Verstappen, or perhaps even challenging him for supremacy in the Red Bull garage.
Instead he is locked in a fierce battle with teammate Lando Norris for top dog honours inside the McLaren garage, having been outperformed by the British rising star during the first two races of the season.
So after finishing seventh in his first race in Bahrain, before holding his start position with sixth at Imola, Ricciardo’s fortunes are incredibly easy to look at glass half empty.
Ricciardo was forced to let Norris pass him under team orders during Monday’s race and finished almost 30 seconds behind his teammate, who produced the race of the day to finish third behind Verstappen and Hamilton.
In two laps, Norris had gone 4.5 seconds ahead of Ricciardo.
“That’s where I’ve got to swallow my pride,” Ricciardo said. “The team were fair enough, they gave me time to try and show my pace. There were some laps where I had a bit and I could do a decent time but they gave me the time to show what I had and today it wasn’t enough so I’m not going to get into fisticuffs over it.”
He has admitted his seat at McLaren has taken some getting used to.
Ricciardo said it was a “challenging” race in Italy.
You could argue Ricciardo traded a chance to scrap it out with Verstappen with a world title on the line for scrapping it out with Norris to squeeze onto the podium.
The glass half full argument is that Ricciardo and McLaren are showing their third-place finish in the 2020 constructor’s championship was no fluke.
While Renault, now Alpine Racing, have shown improvement, his move to McLaren is undoubtedly the right one.
Picking up 14 championship points in the first two races of the year is a far cry from his early days with Renault that saw him DNF in three of his first four races.
While it was hardly the perfect performance from Ricciardo, the Aussie said he didn’t come into the move to McLaren blind.
“I don’t think I underestimated it, I was well aware of this (the learning curve at a new team) when I left Red Bull for Renault, but it’s just unfortunately going to take a bit of time,” Ricciardo said. “But the season is long, it’s only race two, of course I want to be quicker already but if I look probably by race seven and I look back at race two, I’m probably giggling because panic not.”
The position he finds himself in still leaves him as a genuine podium threat with McLaren where he will likely have to jostle with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez — the man that sits in the seat Ricciardo could have.
Even after Ricciardo’s departure from Red Bull there was still an open door for him to return to the energy drink team last year when it became clear it simpy wasn’t working out with Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly.
The mystery of why Ricciardo, who was out of contract at Renault, was never mentioned as an option to take the second Red Bull seat has never been fully explained.
Popular Sky Sports pit lane commentator Ted Kravitz had his own theory earlier this year.
He said in a podcast last month there still seemed to be lingering tension between Ricciardo and senior figures at Red Bull, including the team’s special advisor Helmut Marko.
Ricciardo, however, appears to still enjoy a friendly relationship with Red Bull boss Christian Horner.
“It looked like Red Bull weren’t going to go back to Daniel Ricciardo, or maybe they just hadn’t thought of it,” Kravitz told the In the Fast Lane podcast.
“I think they’re still annoyed really, (about) the way he left them actually.
“I think (Red Bull advisor) Helmut Marko hasn’t really forgiven him, for disappearing off to Renault of all people, which was kind of the final insult.
“If you’re going to leave us, OK, but don’t leave us for Renault, our dreaded rivals and ex-engine partners.”
The next race weekend is April 30 to May 2 in Portugal.