Daniel Ricciardo: Where Has It All Gone Wrong For The Smiling Assassin?

By Eoin Harrington

I often wonder what new fans of Formula 1 must think of Daniel Ricciardo. There's no doubting that Ricciardo is the star of Drive to Survive, with his feel good presence injecting life into the series when it debuted in 2019.

Fans who have been brought to the sport by Drive to Survive would surely have been expected Daniel Ricciardo to have been tearing it up at the front of the pack, battling to be world champion against the likes of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.

The sad reality is that, with every passing race, it becomes abundantly clear that it would take a miracle at this stage for "Danny Ric" ever to be world champion. I say this as a long time admirer of Ricciardo - he is one of the most out of form drivers on the grid, and appears completely lost at McLaren.

But, what has happened to the Honey Badger? Only in 2018, Ricciardo won two of the season's opening six races, and hinted that he could contend for the title. Now, he finds himself outside the top ten in the drivers standings, with only one points finish out of seven races.

Just last week, his team boss Zak Brown even hinted that there are "mechanisms" to end Ricciardo's contract early if his performances continue to underwhelm.

For a man touted as a future world champion the best part of a decade ago, it's extraordinary for things to have gone so south. So, where has it all gone wrong for Daniel Ricciardo?

Daniel Ricciardo: Is leaving Red Bull to blame for dire run of form?

You'd have to rack your brains fierce hard to think of the last time you saw a top level driver as out of form as Daniel Ricciardo has been since the beginning of the 2021 season. I'd hazard a guess that Sebastian Vettel's 2014 - or perhaps Max Verstappen's 2018 - are the last examples.

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The key difference is that Vettel had his awful run of form off the back of four drivers championships, while Verstappen would go on to become the most explosively consistent young driver in the sport, and claim the 2021 title. For Ricciardo, by contrast, that first ever drivers championship seems further away than it ever has, and time is running out.

When Ricciardo joined McLaren for the beginning of 2021, it seemed like a promising match. The iconic team had worked their way back to the top three in the championship during 2020, while Ricciardo had carried the progression of the Renault team for the past two seasons. It seemed like both were on the way up, and that Ricciardo would be the face of the new era.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. The stat that is most damning for Ricciardo is that he has finished outside of the points in over half of the races he has entered for McLaren. Given that the team finished fourth in last season's championship, that is a shocking underperformance for a man once touted as the future of F1.

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Perhaps the worst part of this downturn of form is that Ricciardo appears completely dejected. The Aussie's consistently smiling, mischievous demeanour has made him one of the paddock's most popular drivers for the best part of a decade - but he now seems a shadow of his former jokey self.

The recent Monaco Grand Prix saw Ricciardo finish a poor 13th, after struggling to wrap his head around the car all weekend. After qualifying, he told Sky Sports he was frustrated and confused, and his post-race interview saw him even more deflated. For a man famed for his smile, Ricciardo seems completely down and out:

Obviously it's a tough weekend to take. Unfortunately, I'm experienced with these, I've had a few of them in the past 12 months, so I feel like I can handle them a little bit better and therefore I will continue to smile.

Or, at least, try to smile.

I'll probably take a few days off. I have a few friends here and I'll try and enjoy a few moments away from the track and then reset for Baku.

Ricciardo is an eight-times Formula One Grand Prix winner - his lack of insight into what has gone wrong is perhaps the most worrying sign here.

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The McLaren this year is admittedly a tough car to drive, and the start of the season saw them comfortably outside the top five cars in terms of pace. Their upgrading strategy, however, has been ferocious, and Ricciardo's team mate Lando Norris is once again a driver of the year contender for the excellent work he has done in the other car.

Norris deserves to be commended for his brilliant driving. The Brit's excellent form has often been forgotten when pundits have discussed his teammate's struggles, but Norris has been consistently reliable, and is proving himself to be one of the fastest drivers on the grid.

That being said, the juxtaposition against the poor form of Daniel Ricciardo in the other McLaren raises massive questions. If Norris, of relative youth and inexperience by comparison, can pull a podium out of this 2022 McLaren, why is Ricciardo - an eight times race winner - struggling to even get it into the top ten?

READ HERE: Balls Remembers: When An Irishman Nearly Won The 1982 Monaco Grand Prix

Even if you look past statistics, there is still something off about the Honey Badger. Watch him driving for McLaren, and compare it to a clip from his Red Bull days - it is like chalk and cheese. The daring youngster with more bravery on the brakes than just about anyone else in the sport now seems unsure of how to get any amount of speed out of his McLaren car. It is a truly baffling turn of events.

It's easy to forget sometimes that Daniel Ricciardo's step up to the big time in Formula One was almost as explosive as Max Verstappen's. Ricciardo entered a Red Bull team in 2014 off the back of four consecutive championship wins, and made the team his own.

He completely outperformed the more experienced Sebastian Vettel, with Vettel so disillusioned that he would ultimately leave Red Bull at the end of the 2014 season. Ricciardo was the only man outside of the dominant Mercedes team to win a race in 2014 - he would eventually win three that season.

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There are echoes of that 2014 season and the Vettel-Ricciardo dynamic in how the man from Western Australia is now being bested by his younger team mate Lando Norris. Vettel was similarly inexplicably out of form, and struggling to wrap his head around simply driving the car.

Many have pointed to Daniel Ricciardo's 2018 decision to leave Red Bull as the moment his career took a turn for the worst, including Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

Such an explanation is easy to point to. Red Bull have progressed rapidly since Ricciardo's departure, and Max Verstappen claimed a first championship in eight years for the team last season.

But they have progressed exactly because of the faith that they put in Verstappen. The team has been built around the young Dutchman, and that was an arrangement that Ricciardo could feel developing in 2018 - he would have to play second fiddle, no matter how well he performed.

Daniel Ricciardo got out of Red Bull at the end of 2018, with the aim of finding a team that was willing to build around him, in the manner that Mercedes had done with Lewis Hamilton. That decision in itself was understandable - a man at his peak should not be happy playing second fiddle.

The decision that is more baffling than that to leave Red Bull is the decision to leave Renault (now Alpine) at the end of 2020. Renault did indeed seem committed to Ricciardo heading the ship, with the team stunned by his decision to leave after two years of building them up again.

2020 saw Ricciardo take two podiums for Renault - the first time in nine years a car under the Renault name had finished in the top three in a race. The excellent work he did at Renault seemed to be going somewhere.

READ HERE: 'Without Monaco Is Not F1' - Leclerc Keen To Keep Home Race On Calendar

The McLaren move effectively landed Ricciardo in the exact situation he had been so desperate to leave at Red Bull - his teammate was a prodigious young talent, improving rapidly, with the full backing of the team.

It's sad to say, but Ricciardo is now likely to be remembered as the "what if?" of this era of Formula 1. He was a bit too late to properly fit in with the era of Hamilton and Vettel, and a bit too early to sit alongside the likes of Norris and Verstappen.

The younger generation now appear to have passed him out - ask any F1 fan who the exciting prospects are, and they will say "Norris, Russell, Leclerc..."

Ask them for the wise old heads on the grid, they will say "Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso..."

It's heartbreaking that a driver that promised so much when he spectacularly burst on to the scene in 2014 is likely to end his career with single digit race wins and no championships. This is not what appeared to be in store for Ricciardo when his exuberant personality exploded into the public consciousness at Red Bull.

But there's no one to blame here but Ricciardo himself. He chose to leave Red Bull. He chose to leave Renault. He has ended up at a team built around someone else, in a car that doesn't suit him, woefully out of form, as the younger generation pass him by. And there is something very sad about that in a sporting sense.

And, the curious thing at the centre of it all. Who is the only man to win a race for McLaren in the last ten years, and fully deserved said win? Sure it would only be Daniel Ricciardo at Monza last year.

That Monza win might be remembered as the "Last Dance" of sorts for Daniel Ricciardo in F1, if things do not pick up this year. There was a deeply personal feel to it, and he fully earned his win with a stunning qualifying, sprint race, and Grand Prix performance. It was truly one of the great "feel-good" moments of the 2021 season.

It will likely end up being his last race win in F1. If it is to be, then it's hard not to be happy that we got one last glimpse of Ricciardo magic.

Who knows - maybe the zenith of Monaco will spur Ricciardo on, and he will make a storming comeback with a rejuvenated McLaren. It seems unlikely, but the brilliance of it all is that you just don't know with Ricciardo.

He is a man who has made his career off the back of spectacular last-gasp overtakes, moments where you watch and think "he's too far back" or "he'll never make that". Time after time, he has pulled them out of the bag.

To turn things around from here will require the biggest late push of Daniel Ricciardo's career.

SEE ALSO: What Monaco Taught Us About Ferrari And The 2022 F1 Title Battle

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