The seven-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo believes his arrival to McLaren is “his best chance” to win the World Championship. After leaving Red Bull back at the end of the 2018 season, the Aussie has been fighting for the past two years to drag a mid-field team – i.e. Renault, to occasional podium relevance. However, according to the 31-year-old driver, the move to McLaren for the next two Formula One seasons will give him some serious chances to show off that he still got the skills.
After announcing Ricciardo's onboarding in May 2020, the driver will be officially presented as a McLaren driver at the team’s launch on Monday, February 15th (UK time), completing a union that has been nearly three years in the making.
As the driver recounts, he already met McLaren's CEO Zak Brown in 2018, before ultimately deciding to join Renault – a team for whom he secured two podium finishes late last season; a spectacular result, considering that the French-based team hadn’t arrived inside the top three in a race since 2011.
Back then, however, the papaya-team was still far from being the team we know today – and that finished third in the constructors’ championship last year. The Aussie claims that, in 2018, neither he nor McLaren, was really ready for one another. Indeed, while he was coming away from 5 years of podium finishes and wins; the English-team was still struggling to sync with the new engine partner Honda and were constantly relegated at the back of the grid.
“Two years ago, they didn’t have the results on the board and the path to achieving them wasn’t there,” Ricciardo says, adding that Brown acknowledged some shortfalls within the team’s infrastructure that needed to be fixed.
While Ricciardo politely refused Brown’s appeals, the pair remained in contact for all this time, and they eventually reached a deal during the months of lockdown after last year’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne was cancelled.
“I think this is my best chance to achieve what I’ve said all along is the goal,” Ricciardo tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in an exclusive interview.
“I didn’t ever want to get to F1 just to get to F1 – I wanted to be world champion, and I still do.
“McLaren, with the way they’re progressing, feels like the best chance for me to be able to do that, maybe the best chance I’ve had.
Daniel’s two seasons with Renault were comparatively fallow and yet, despite limited successes, he still managed to boost his reputation as F1’s most clinical overtaker, with a propensity for a late-race charge. In the meantime, McLaren’s performance has improved remarkedly, allowing both of their drivers, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz, to step on the podium.
In 2018, it wasn’t only Ricciardo who thought that McLaren’s growth path had still a long way to go. CEO Zak Brown was well-aware too.
“Zak was pretty upfront that they needed to reshuffle some things and recruit some key people. He said he would, and he was as good as his word,” Ricciardo says.
In 2019, James Key, an experienced technical director, arrived at McLaren to oversee the team’s machinery, while operationally, Brown secured the services of highly-rated manager Andreas Seidl from Porsche’s sportscar program, where he’d led the Le Mans assault of Ricciardo’s predecessor at Red Bull Racing, compatriot Mark Webber.
That path to grow seems to be going well, and after finishing third in last year’s constructors’ championship, McLaren was begging for a proven high-class driver to help one of the sport’s most famous teams complete its journey back to the front of the grid.
McLaren-Ricciardo wedding has always been a right idea, the timing less so.
Now, however, both the team and the driver think the Australian can represent the missing piece of the puzzle.
McLaren is one of the most important and famous teams in F1 history, and its intent is that of going back where it belongs, at the front of the grid, where it used to be with iconic drivers including Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton. Ricciardo’s great experience and energy should fit perfectly with the team’s momentum on track. McLaren is due to switch this season to the Mercedes engine that has won the past seven world championships. Moreover, the new technical regulations in 2022 should allow Ricciardo to be with a team having all the resources and pedigree to potentially dethrone Mercedes from atop the sport. The Australian feels the timing of his move represents a “perfect storm”.
“You never know in this sport, but I’m confident I’m in the right place. Can I sit here and say that I can fight for a world championship next year? Who knows, but I feel confident that I’m in the right place to give myself a good shot at it.
“You can see McLaren’s pathway to getting better, and I feel McLaren is ready for me to be one of the elements they haven’t had to help them win.”
In his exclusive interview with The Age, Ricciardo acknowledged how he admired McLaren’s improvements and how this is what led him to decide for a change.
“When I was talking to them in ’18, James hadn’t come into the team yet, and Andreas was a ways away. There wasn’t enough substance about the approach, and even Zak recognised that. But you could feel it changing in the second half of 2019, and we stayed in communication.
“Coming to the races late in 2019, even walking into the paddock, there was a feeling even among us competitors that ‘whoa, McLaren are seriously starting to get it together’. They were having good performances and had good energy around them, and as a competitor, I felt that.”
The delayed start of the 2020 season, due to the COVID pandemic, made it harder for the Aussie to communicate his decision to his former team:
“It wasn’t easy telling them I was out, but this is a sport where you have to look out for yourself first and foremost,” says Ricciardo
“I felt McLaren was going to give me a better opportunity in the years ahead, simple as that.
He also claimed that he didn’t want to leave Renault without fighting,
“A lot of teams would expect their drivers to maybe not give their best when they know they’re out the door at the end of the year, but I vowed they’d get all of me until the end. Maybe they didn’t believe me, but that was important to me. So to say that to have some podiums late in the year and then to get the fastest lap of the last race I did for them in Abu Dhabi on the final lap of the race – the last time I’ll drive a Renault – that was perfect. I gave them everything I had, then we go our separate ways.”
Renault’s advancement in performances led many to wonder whether Ricciardo had made the wrong decision to leave the team just as things were turning for the better, but the Australian isn’t one to dwell on what was, or what might be.
“I came to Red Bull the year after they’d won four straight championships with Seb, but the rules changed for 2014 and all of a sudden Mercedes was dominating,” he reflects.
“And sure, Renault did start to come good the longer I was there, and we were arguably our strongest in my time there right at the end of last year. But you can’t live like that”.