MEDLAND: McLaren’s big Ricciardo call and what comes next

It had been coming for a while, but finally we have confirmation of the split between Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren, with one year of a three-year deal still to run.

Let’s be honest, it sucks. Ricciardo and Lando Norris create one of the most likable and relatable line-ups on the grid, and at his best the Australian is brilliant to watch. It felt like an excellent pairing when Ricciardo was first signed, but somewhere his best got lost, and was so rarely seen by McLaren that it’s an understandable decision.

It’s an expensive one, too, with McLaren understanding to be paying out Ricciardo’s final year in full, but not holding him back from moving to a rival despite that paycheck. That shows that for McLaren, it’s not just about money. Zak Brown has been portrayed as a bit of a villain in recent months after the acquisition of Alex Palou (on a contract set to be debated in court) and then Oscar Piastri (on a contract that could also be debated in court), and he probably had to expect that when dropping arguably the most popular driver on the Formula 1 grid.

But being popular doesn’t automatically translate into success, and it’s tough to argue with the intent behind the ruthlessness. Ricciardo wasn’t signed as a long-term project when he was brought in to replace Carlos Sainz, he was hired to deliver immediately. He’s in his early 30s, is a proven race-winner and had performed well at Renault. He was meant to be the lead driver, not a distant second to Norris.

By Ricciardo’s own admission, “to consistently get the results and the form I was after, it wasn’t always there”, and in fact it has rarely been there this year. So McLaren has looked to strengthen its hand rather than wait and see what a final season with the 33-year-old might bring.

Signing Piastri is a gamble, but it’s a calculated one. Although he comes highly-rated, the Ricciardo situation has shown that there is no guarantee of good performances. But even if Piastri fares no better than his countryman, he’s of the age where that’s an acceptable starting point as long as he gradually improves. The problem with Ricciardo was that improvement hadn’t been forthcoming.

I’m torn, because on the one hand I really wanted to see Ricciardo succeed with McLaren, and his video message earlier today confirmed how hurt he is to be losing his seat. But his struggles go beyond just him in isolation, and a bigger picture that needs to be considered if you put yourself in Zak Brown or Andreas Seidl’s position.

If Ricciardo was operating closer to Norris’ level, McLaren would be clear of Alpine in the battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship and on target for a greater amount of prize money income from F1 at the end of the year. That can also translate into bonuses for team members and performance-based clauses being activated in partner contracts.

Aside from the financial impact, there’s clearly a balance to be found between giving the driver time because you like him and appeasing nearly 1000 employees by trying to ensure you have two drivers both getting the most out of the car, securing results that directly benefit such a number of people.

But with the change has come an admission from McLaren that it is partly to blame. It signed Ricciardo because he knows how to win races, and as he’s proven at Monza, he can still win them given half a chance. But after the solid 2021, there hasn’t been a major step forward towards the top three under this year’s new regulations, so the team isn’t in a position to get the most out of Ricciardo’s potential.

Oscar Piastri is McLaren’s first option to fill Ricciardo’s seat, assuming he wins the contract dispute over the Australian’s services. If it doesn’t, one of the several IndyCar drivers who are or might soon be McLaren-aligned – such as Pato O’Ward, who tested a McLaren F1 car late last year (above), Colton Herta, who tested a McLaren F1 car this year and Alex Palou (depending on what happens in the courts) could enter the frame. Zach Mauger/Motorsport Images

And Ricciardo’s been too good a driver during his career to date to ignore the warning signs that come with his struggles. McLaren blinded itself by blaming Honda for its woes until it put a Renault power unit in the back of its car, and then had its own weaknesses brutally exposed in 2018. That said, it has spent the past 18 months trying to improve things around Ricciardo , so at which point do you cut your losses and find out if another driver will fare better?

There’s no room for sentimentality if you’re serious about success, but that certainly doesn’t mean Ricciardo’s a spent force in F1. In fact, quite the opposite.

Not only is there no room for sentimentality, but there’s also no room to hold a grudge, and although he left Alpine (then Renault) for McLaren 18 months ago, Ricciardo could well be the best option Alpine has, assuming it loses Piastri. And it’s a good option given what Ricciardo produced during his two years at Enstone. Things that obviously didn’t work with McLaren did work at his former team, and could still work again.

He will have to wait for the Piastri situation to be resolved in the coming weeks to be able to finalize such a move, but if it doesn’t provide an opening then there will be other opportunities on the F1 grid.

Of course, if Alpine doesn’t prove to be an option that would suggest that Piastri is staying put, which raises a potential situation where McLaren has let Ricciardo go but not secured his preferred replacement. That’s a case a number of IndyCar drivers are likely to be hoping for.

It’s understood that McLaren would turn its attention to the drivers it has been testing in F1 machinery – Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and eventually Palou if that contract wrangle gets resolved in its favor – to fill the gap. Neither of the first two yet have a Super License, but O’Ward is closing in on one if he can secure his third consecutive top-four finish in the IndyCar Series.

Herta would need to be signed from the Andretti stable and to secure a Super License, and Palou obviously needs to be confirmed as a McLaren driver before anything else can happen, but along with Piastri you’d think one of the four would end up in the right position if needed.

Such a shortlist suggests that not only does McLaren accept a share of the blame for where it’s gone wrong with Ricciardo, but also acknowledges how far off the front it is and will remain over the next few years. It has the time to develop a young driver and let them make mistakes while gaining experience, because it’s not in a race-winning position.

But the aggressive approach that Brown and his different teams are displaying to go after talented drivers – even if that includes upsetting popular ones and rival teams – shows just how serious McLaren is about trying to get into that race-winning position in the future.

If it gets there, Brown and Seidl will be praised for their ruthlessness. If not, the point will come where it won’t be a driver who is under the most scrutiny.

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