Daniel Ricciardo - from forlorn struggler to McLaren's first race winner in 9 years

Daniel Ricciardo hasn't had the ideal first season at McLaren. But an eighth Formula 1 win - and McLaren's first in 9 years - changes all that.

Daniel Ricciardo celebrates winning the Italian GP. (Image: Twitter/@F1)

It’s a known fact that, in Formula 1, it’s not always possible to hit the ground running for a new team. Cars are often built differently, meaning driving styles would need adjustment. However, not even people with a lot of patience expected to see Daniel Ricciardo struggle in a McLaren as much as he did.

The ‘Honey Badger’ is a proven race winner and podium getter. His move to McLaren was seen as a signal of intent from both him and the team. This was the team that could use a driver of his pedigree to help them take that next step.

Yet, in a hint of irony not lost on anyone, he left a team (Red Bull) where he felt overshadowed by a younger driver (Max Verstappen)… only to join a team where he would be overshadowed by a younger driver.

That’s not discounting his stint at Renault. But in the French team he outperformed both Nico Hulkenberg in 2019 and Esteban Ocon in 2020. In McLaren, Norris was fighting for podiums whereas Ricciardo was struggling for points.

But all of that seems a memory of the past now. Daniel Ricciardo is a race winner again – more than three years after his win at Monaco. As are McLaren, whose last race win prior to this came in 2012.

Ricciardo said “I never left” on team radio after the race, dismissing this as a comeback of sorts. However, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t anywhere near his best for most of 2021.

Ricciardo’s struggles were made worse by the fact that teammate Norris was flying in the Mercedes-powered McLaren.

The second-place at Monza was Norris’ fourth podium finish of the season. By stark contrast, it was Ricciardo’s first.

Daniel Ricciardo – comfortable in a McLaren at last

The Australian had previously said that the McLaren car needed him to learn a new driving style. His natural style of driving was well-suited to the Red Bull and to an extent the Renault, but McLaren’s are built different.

It didn’t help matters that, when results weren’t going his way, his confidence seemed shot. It cannot be easy for a multi-time race winner to finish outside the points or just in the top 10. Especially since the car is a good one.

It was pretty evident from Ricciardo’s demeanour that he was not in a good headspace. His radio messages, usually a source of entertainment for fans and the pit wall, were now short and terse.

His trademark toothy grin was less visible as the struggles continued to mount. And even though he’s on a multi-year deal with the team, questions about his own future would have doubtless cropped up.

After the Italian GP, Ricciardo admitted he needed time away from the sport. Which is why the August summer break was timed perfectly for him.

“It’s just wild… but deep down I never lost faith or the belief and I think I needed to step back and that’s where I think having some time off in August helped, and I truly think that helped this weekend, to get to this position,” he stated.

He also stated that the win felt ‘reassuring’ for him. “It feels, I don’t know what the word is… it’s reassuring for me.

“I believe in myself obviously; I think everyone does to get to this point in the sport. I’ve certainly been challenged this year and you know the sport is just a tricky one.”

Consistency now the key

The main thing for Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren now will be to push for consistency. He still doesn’t seem fully comfortable with the car; there were times in Italy when Norris appeared faster.

In fact, towards the end of the race, the young Brit was subtly told on team radio to keep the race order as is, essentially barring him from attempting an overtake on his teammate.

Yet it is clear that Ricciardo looked re-energised after the win. And sometimes, that little bit of confidence is all that is needed to bring in that all-important consistency.

One of the issues Ricciardo has faced so far this season is that he hasn’t managed a consistent run of decent or good results. A sixth-place finish in Spain was followed by a 12th in Monaco, where Norris finished third.

Another sixth-place finish in France was followed by finishes of 13th and 7th in the double-header at Austria. And a fifth-place finish at Silverstone was followed by 11th at Hungary.

No one is expecting McLaren to challenge for race wins when Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are both in the thick of things. But Ricciardo can push for podium finishes – or even a place in the top six – on a consistent basis.

With 8 races to go now, the win in Monza gives the driver the perfect platform on which to finish the season strongly. And to prove that the result was a real turning point rather than a flash in the pan.

Shayne Dias

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