Most drivers circle highlights when they look at a new calendar; the races that they really want to do well in, or look forward to the most.
For Daniel Ricciardo, Monaco is right up there, so it was about as painful a weekend as it could possibly have been when he found himself the best part of a second off Lando Norris’ pace, and his teammate finished on the podium.
While it had taken him a little while to get going at McLaren, the Australian had shown plenty of encouraging signs and performed well in Spain, suggesting he was on the way to delivering the sort of performances McLaren will expect from him. The lack of performance in Monaco went against the trend, and he really felt it.
Ricciardo wanted to get away and put Monaco behind him,and tried his best not to overthink the situation. But the experience taught him that he needed to put in a lot of work to understand how to drive the McLaren quickly.
“F1 is complex; you can fall down that little rabbit hole and it’s hard to pull yourself out,” Ricciardo said ahead of last weekend’s race in Baku. “I think (through) my experience in the sport, I have pretty good self-awareness of that. And sometimes (it doesn’t) help go (to) down that path as you also get emotional, and emotion sometimes doesn’t lead to the clearest decision.
“But I’m definitely aware of it. By Monday morning I was full steam ahead, ready to go, and that led to a productive couple of days in Woking.”
Despite needing to quarantine when not working, Ricciardo headed for the McLaren simulator in the UK to have a bit of a reset when it comes to the way he has been approaching this year’s car. For experienced, successful drivers, the risk is they rely on doing what has worked for them before, and struggle to forget the habits built up by driving previous cars.
“I did spend a few good days on the sim last week, and it was… really just trying to take a step back and understand what’s going on and how the car works and what needs to be done to get the car working well,” he says.
“I don’t want to say we started from zero, as we learned a bit in the first few races, but we took more of an open-minded approach and we just tried lots of different things, even things that don’t feel, let’s say, correct. We’ll try them, and understand why that doesn’t work.
“Played around a lot, and certainly some things now do seem more clear to me. And it was really productive to do that, so I’m looking forward to putting it in play on track.
“When you’re trying to learn any sport, the best way to learn is practice, and doing it. The unique thing with our sport is that we cannot do it every day, we cannot just go out tomorrow and run a few laps. So having three consecutive weekends (in France and Austria) and putting in that practice consecutively will fast-track my progress. We have the simulator and these things help, but in the simulator the walls don’t hurt, so it is never quite the same.”
Ricciardo’s struggles have been put into sharp focus due to the impressive performances coming from Norris on the opposite side of the garage; his less experienced teammate picking up two podiums and only failing to finish in the top five in Spain.
While Norris does at least have experience of the team and its recent car characteristics, the 21-year-old says he has had to adapt to 2021 car too, in a claim that both tallies with Ricciardo’s struggles but also suggests the Briton has managed to react more quickly…
“The last two years I have just been getting used to driving a Formula 1 car,” Norris says. “It takes longer than some people think. You can start to feel comfortable but then it is about extracting that last tenth, those last hundredths and so on, which is a lot trickier to do.
“This year, the car is different. You have to drive it in a different way. I’m still learning a lot about the car with every race that we do. Monaco was the best qualifying that I have done, and I made mistakes in previous qualifyings and races because I have not known enough about the car. I’m still learning a lot of things. Especially in Bahrain, for example, in the first couple races of the season, I was driving it too much like last year’s car.
“There are definitely a lot of differences, and it has not been easy going from the last two years to this year. I cannot just drive it the same way and then just be a better driver. I have had to adapt to a lot of different things, and I still cannot drive it the way that I want to, as a preference from how I drove in Formula 3 and Formula 4 and things like that.
“So a bit of it is that you have to adapt. Every car in Formula 1 is different and you have to get used to it. But even this year from the last two years, the car is different and I have had to change.”
There’s a clear issue that is hampering Ricciardo’s progress; one that was central to the focus of the work ahead of Baku from both his side and the team’s. The plus side is that both can see the roadblock and the rewards that will come with navigating past it, but Baku was hardly the ideal place to try new things.
When a driver is deviating away from their natural driving style, mistakes are all the more likely to happen, especially when they’re trying to push to the limits of both themselves and the car. And in Azerbaijan, Ricciardo did exactly that in Q2 and hit the wall hard, but it wasn’t a crash that he allowed to hurt his confidence.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am honestly disappointed, but it is a street circuit,” he told RACER when asked about the difficulty adapting his style in Baku. “If you’re going to push to the limit, then there is already a risk of things happening. And obviously if I am still trying to find where the limit is exactly, then the likelihood is that bit higher.
“It is a shame that it bit me in qualifying as opposed to maybe a practice session, but at the same time, qualifying is where you are trying to really eke out everything you’ve learned from the car. So it is one of those ones… to be challenged at a circuit like this is good. But I think going now to… I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’m kind of excited to go to Le Castellet, and just get a fairly basic track to maybe get away with a few more mistakes on!
“The kind of familiarity with that, and then a doubleheader in Austria will hopefully make this learning phase a bit easier. It is what it is. It is obviously on a knife-edge, and just trying to get the most out of it. But I still do stand by the productivity we have had last week, and unfortunately I cannot show it on the scorecard. But it has been a work well done so far.
“I’m looking forward to a triple header. Getting into a rhythm in three races in a row, a bit more conventional, a bit more run-off won’t do us any harm.”
McLaren believes Ricciardo will be flying once everything clicks, and his positivity has not taken a hit either. Both sides are convinced the partnership will come good, and over the past few weeks it might already have done so – we just haven’t seen the results prove it out on track just yet.
While both driver and team exude calm and patience, both publicly and behind the scenes, Ricciardo’s in a good place. But with Ferrari moving into third in the constructors’ standings, these next three rounds in France and Austria are going to need to show tangible improvements, or the atmosphere might start to change.