HAS RICCIARDO ALREADY PEAKED?
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
The Australian driver is undoubtedly one of the most talented on the grid, but have timing and teammates ruined his chances of a world title?
Speaking on Nico Rosberg's podcast in 2019, Daniel Ricciardo described how many drivers would take liberties when overtaking him, as they thought he wasn't brave enough to fight for positions. You certainly don't see many drivers have the same attitude now.
The Perth-born driver, who's had 7 wins in his Formula 1 career, has developed a reputation for late braking, a key part of the 'honey badger' nickname he's known for. He's known for his infectious smile and humour, but also his bold performances on track, and plenty of fans believe that he's always been destined for a world title or two. So when I saw a tweet from F1 Youtuber BMPHF1, questioning whether he'd peaked in 2014-2016, I immediately disagreed.
Upon further consideration, though, I realised how possible it was. Ricciardo has seven wins, all of which he achieved whilst racing for Red Bull, and three in his first year there. Whilst it's up for debate whether his departure was because of competition with gifted teammate Max Verstappen, it's clear that he thought he should've won a title with the team. Speaking with EFTM last year, he said, “I was at Red Bull for five years, they’ve won four world titles and I joined straight after that. So in five years looking from that first year I’m like ‘OK, in five years I’m going to win a world title, it’s going to happen’.
“It didn’t. We never really got close. And I’m not bitter about it, it’s what happened.
"And I don’t want to be that unhappy, bitter person that’s just always ‘what could’ve been’ or ‘if only I’d joined Red Bull in 2013’. That sort of thing."
Whilst Ricciardo's time at Red Bull didn't produce a world title, it was certainly very fruitful; he scored 956 points for Red Bull in total, and his character seemed to be a good match for the team's personality. Although I personally believe it doesn't represent his full potential, it's certainly a very respectable 'peak', if it is one.
Therefore, when he announced he'd be moving to Renault for 2019 (who seemed decidedly un-fruitful), everyone was shocked. The French team weren't expected to provide him with as good a car, and therefore perhaps less of an opportunity to win races. However, according to Christian Horner, Daniel moved because he wanted a more central role in the team - perhaps believing more power in decision-making processes could carry the team to a win in the coming years, much like Alonso's victories with Renault in previous years. The thought process was clear that if Red Bull's dynamics had prevented him from achieving his peak, Renault's might have been able to.
Judging from his performance in 2019, that wasn't the case. He achieved just 54 points across the season, his lowest since 2013, and his performance at the beginning of the 2020 season doesn't give out much hope. Clearly, Ricciardo's peak isn't going to be at Renault.
This lack of success led to the Aussie signing with McLaren alongside Lando Norris for 2021, replacing Carlos Sainz Jr. The two are expected to be, if not the highest-performing, the funniest team next year, due to the reputation both Norris and Ricciardo have. The marked increase in success McLaren have seen in 2019 and 2020 have certainly provided hope for Ricciardo fans, as it seems he can expect a respected role in a consistent, high-performing team, who's relationships between drivers and staff are regularly praised: I imagine the antics expected from Lando and Daniel will only improve this.
It would be premature, though, to assume that Ricciardo is guaranteed boundless success at McLaren. Plenty of parallels can be drawn between him and Sainz Jr, whom Ricciardo is replacing, and his stint at the Woking-based team certainly did not provide the success Ricciardo is hoping for. Both drivers previously raced for Toro Rosso (although Sainz never joined Red Bull) and then Renault, and yet Sainz only remained at McLaren for one season, announcing his move to McLaren in early 2020.
If his career at McLaren disappoints, he doesn't have many other places to go to: it's unlikely that Mercedes would take him in the near future; Ferrari have their driver line-ups sorted for the foreseeable future; and a move back to Red Bull would be a shock, to say the least. Whilst there's still potential for other lower-down teams to make progress, Ricciardo (according to Max Verstappen) doesn't have endless time left. His former Red Bull teammate spoke in a YouTube video about most drivers see their time end at around 40; Hamilton is 35, and appears to be reaching the end of his 'peak', so that supports the claim. Ricciardo will turn 32 during his first season with McLaren. That's certainly not old age, but it suggests his pace will start declining soon.
Overall, I don't think we can make a judgement quite yet - Ricciardo was certainly successful with Red Bull, but he's got more to give if he can find a team he fits into. Luckily, McLaren seems to be a great opportunity for the Australian driver, if he can fit into the team dynamics, and work constructively with Norris, their rising star, in order to show his full potential. But the fact remains - he hasn't got forever to do it.
If he's going to hit his peak in the future, he needs to do it very soon.