OPINION: Ricciardo's running out of time to recapture his mojo

OPINION: Ricciardo's running out of time to recapture his mojo

Monaco created a lot of talking points about the event itself, but even before cars had turned a wheel there was a driver under pressure.

Daniel Ricciardo arrived at a circuit he loves – but at times has hated – with just one point-scoring Sunday to his name this season, although his points tally was also boosted by a sixth place in the Imola Sprint.

What was concerning for McLaren was Ricciardo’s inability to extract performance from the car in Barcelona, losing time whenever he tried to push. It was something team principal Andreas Seidl said the team needed to understand heading into Monaco, but while it was going about that work, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown was turning up the heat a little.

It’s all about timing, and Brown was in Indianapolis ahead of the Indy 500, facing media questions off the back of Pato O’Ward’s contract extension finally being confirmed. Naturally the topic got onto Formula 1 opportunities following O’Ward’s day of testing in Abu Dhabi last year and Colton Herta’s development role this season, and it allowed Brown to give Ricciardo a bit of a nudge.

“There are mechanisms in which we’re committed to each other and then there’s mechanisms in which we’re not,” Brown said. “I’ve spoken with Daniel about it. We’re not getting the results that we both hoped for. But we’re both going to continue to push.

“He showed at Monza (in 2021) he can win races. We also need to continue to develop our car, it’s not capable of winning races, but we’d like to see him further up the grid.

“We’ll just play it… I don’t want to say ‘one race at a time’ because we’re not going to one race at a time – but we’ll just see how things develop.”

Such comments wouldn’t have taken the Australian by surprise, and nor anyone else. Brown likes to act decisively when it comes to his drivers and doesn’t mind moving on when he feels something isn’t working out.

Just look at the IndyCar team. At one stage it looked like O’Ward could be heading elsewhere when negotiations with McLaren got tense before the two sides could reach an agreement on the future, while Felix Rosenqvist is inside the top 10 in the championship right now but that hasn’t yet guaranteed him a contract extension for 2023.

And neither of those names arrived with the fanfare that Ricciardo did on the F1 side. As a winner of multiple grands prix – something Carlos Sainz didn’t have on his CV despite being poached by Ferrari – and hugely marketable, Brown saw an opportunity to elevate McLaren’s line-up even further after Sainz departed just over a year ago.

First season struggles were far from ideal, but McLaren knew it had a tough car to drive and while it wanted to see Ricciardo starting to find ways to improve the situation, it still saw exactly what he was capable of in Monza when he won. A 2022 rules reset would surely see him back on top form.

Ricciardo’s Monaco crash delivered a hit to the team’s budget and also his own preparation for the weekend, and has raised the stakes for the Australian in the coming races. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

Circumstances have meant that hasn’t happened. Ricciardo contracting COVID and missing the final pre-season test in Bahrain put him on the back foot from the word go, despite his having looked a little more comfortable with the car prior to that. And once the horror show of the opening race was out of the way and McLaren started looking more competitive, the same trend as 2021 appeared.

Lando Norris holds a clear advantage on most circuits, and even the one real high point of Ricciardo’s season so far in Melbourne was a sixth place behind his teammate. After that he was the trigger for a first-lap tangle in Imola that wiped him out of contention for points, and since then hasn’t been quite on the pace of the young Briton.

If Monaco offered an opportunity to change that, Ricciardo threw it away. His FP2 crash was costly not only in terms of finances, but in losing further time to build up confidence on a track that so needs it. And once again the outcome was Norris picking up strong points in sixth – with the fastest lap to boot – and Ricciardo languishing outside the top 10 after being unable to qualify as strongly.

Compounding matters is the fact that Norris has comfortably outperformed Ricciardo at the past two races despite struggling with tonsillitis. If anyone should have been on the back foot, it’s not the experienced race winner.

The impression is that Ricciardo will still get time because McLaren knows how good he can be, but incremental improvements are going to be needed to maintain that patience. Gains are unlikely to come quickly on unique tracks such as Baku and Montreal – despite both holding fond memories as venues of Ricciardo wins – but there need to be at least shoots of recovery.

And something Ricciardo really can’t afford is a repeat of Monaco, where not only does the performance end up lacking, but it comes at the price of a damaged car too.

Both of the next venues offer increased opportunities to make a costly error, and it’s understandable that a driver can end up overdoing things when they’re working so hard to turn around a challenging situation, but someone of Ricciardo’s experience shouldn’t be making such errors. In a budget cap era, they’re even more painful for a team to accept.

The constructors’ fight is a slightly odd one in the midfield in that all of the main contenders for fourth place – McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Alpine – are relying heavily on one driver to pick up the majority of the points. Norris has scored just over 81% of McLaren’s total, while Valtteri Bottas accounts for over 97% of Alfa Romeo’s (or all but one point) and Esteban Ocon 75% of the Alpine return.

The car that regularly looks a bigger threat to McLaren – the Alfa Romeo – is the one that has the most understandable difference between drivers with rookie Guanyu Zhou in the other seat. But Alpine will really challenge in the standings once Fernando Alonso’s luck changes. A number of strong performances were unrewarded early in the year.

That’s going to need a Ricciardo response to avoid a repeat of 2021 when Ferrari came through and beat McLaren to third, thanks in no small part to consistent strong scoring from both drivers.

Something clearly isn’t clicking at the moment for Ricciardo and McLaren wants it to all come together, but can only wait so long. The whole reason it went for an experienced, proven driver is to avoid such a wait, and it suddenly finds itself between a rock and a hard place deciding whether to wait for a return on that investment or cut the losses for both sides.

If the contract situation means an early break needs to be mutual then it’s also in Ricciardo’s interest to do so while there are still plenty of options to pursue. It’s unlikely it will come to that, but it brings up the timeline for team and driver to be happy moving forward, and makes the next few races even more crucial to show a positive trend.