Daniel Ricciardo is one of Formula One’s most popular drivers, with a smile that could light up the full length of the Trans-Canada Highway. He joined F1 in 2011 with now-defunct squad HRT, before rising up to Red Bull’s top team at the start of the sport’s hybrid era in 2014. There, he became a Grand Prix winner — standing on top of the podium first in Montreal, and then Hungary and Belgium. He’d made it. But Ricciardo ultimately fell out of love with Red Bull due to unfulfilled promises for title campaigns.
For 2019, he moved over to Renault, but disappointment there — despite two podiums — led him to take a gamble on McLaren for 2021. And so far, it hasn’t been easy, with the Australian seemingly fighting the car at every turn. In fact, his teammate, Lando Norris, in his third season with the squad, has regularly beaten Ricciardo in large part due to his familiarity with the car. 11 races into the F1 season, the Brit has shaded Ricciardo in qualifying 8 to 3, reached Q3 11 times to the Aussie’s five, and beat him 9-1 in races where they could be compared. All in all this season, Norris has three podiums to his name, yet Ricciardo has none. Sobering stats, no doubt.
Despite it all, Ricciardo is always a threat on track. We caught up with the 32-year-old to chat about his tough start with McLaren and getting up to speed for the season’s second half.
Stewart Bell: Talk to me about the season so far and how you’re feeling.
Daniel Ricciardo: The season so far has been challenging, just [in terms of] personal expectations. And I think the results have been a bit so-so, but it’s definitely not through a lack of trying. I’ve just come to a point now where I’ve accepted this car is different, and something I’ve never quite experienced. I’m going to have to dig into a new skillset or toolbox to figure it out. And there’s been days where it clicks and obviously I’m pretty happy, and days where I’m scratching my head. So, yeah, I think it’s just taking a little longer than I probably thought. But that’s alright, I’ve got my work cut out [for me].
Tell me about driving for McLaren. Does the reality match the hype?
That’s been, in a way, the frustration as well — everything around me is awesome. I love the team. The facilities are obviously ridiculous. It’s pretty surreal walking into the MTC [McLaren Technology Centre]. I feel like every time I walk in there they’ve changed the boulevard. You know, they’ll have some different historic cars there, so every time you’re kind of pinching yourself, [thinking] like, Oh wow, this team has done a bit and it’s been around a while. Everything is good, and it’s now, more often than not, just the lap times and the results [that are missing]. And everything feels like it should be there, it’s now just [about] getting the quickest [time on the] stopwatch going.
From what we understand, the MCL35M requires a very particular driving style. What does it need?
I guess, at this level, it’s the little things. But it all starts with braking, [which] is a big emphasis in F1 and I think in any racecar driving. Obviously, everyone thinks accelerator and you’ve just got to get on the throttle hard, but there’s so much technique and there’s so much that happens when you’re braking. And because the cars are so fast now, the braking points are so late and everything is so short that you don’t get much time to, let’s say, fix something during the braking zone. So, if you don’t nail it and get it right, then it really just upsets the car throughout the whole corner. So it’s really just the technique and the approach of the corners — and it’s not every corner, but kind of the majority. That’s been something different. I guess when I drove in the past it was my natural technique that kind of got me by. But here, I guess the car doesn’t always work well with what I would typically like to do, so therefore I have to adjust. I’m definitely telling the team what I wish [the car] could do to try to let me get back to a little bit of my style. But for now, it’s really about trying to adjust to what works for the car.
Has it been tough watching your teammate Lando Norris doing so well?
I mean, there’s two bits to it. Obviously, as a competitor, it’s frustrating because you want to be the quickest guy. Whether it’s your teammate or everyone on the grid, I want to be the best. So that’s obviously just the competitiveness in me, but then there’s kind of the flip side where it’s encouraging to see that the car can do it. And although I haven’t been able to fully get it yet, it shows that if I just keep working at it and persisting through it all, then there’s definitely some light at the end of the tunnel. So I think it’s encouraging and it’s obviously keeping the team highly motivated. Again, because I feel like I’ve [fit] into the team so well and I’ve already got a lot of good relationships, I obviously want to be the guy to give them the result.
How are you unwinding and relaxing away from the track?
It’s definitely been challenging for two reasons. One is that because everything is not completely natural in the car, we are doing quite a bit of simulator and work on the off days. So, it’s kind of like I want a break, but there’s still a lot to learn. But I’m definitely aware that at some points you just need to switch off and your brains needs to reset as well — otherwise, it can be a bit like paralysis through analysis. You can go a bit too deep into the hole. But what’s making that tricky is obviously there are still travel restrictions. So, I mean, laying on my couch is nice, but trying to get away and completely switch off — whether that’s going and seeing friends and having a weekend off or whatever, let’s just have a few beers or something — that’s a little bit tricky at the moment. But I’m trying to find a balance somewhere [in] this crazy world that it currently is.
We’re starting to see fans return to circuits. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, it’s gotten to a point where, you know, because we raced more or less with no crowds the last year or so, we nearly forgot how cool it is — and how much more it gives you. I found myself in FP1 [at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone] waving to some of the stands, just excited that they’re back. I loved it. It’s cool. I always feel like I would be as competitive and as ferocious with or without crowds, but you do get a bit more of a pick me up when there’s a full capacity, so I’m loving it.
We’ve seen the life-size version of the 2022 car. What do you think of the concept?
It was pretty cool. I mean, we’d seen some renders but that’s nothing like when you see it in the flesh. I think the front wing looks pretty different, and there are a few other things. But, ultimately, it looks like there are a lot of standard parts on the cars, meaning everyone’s going to have the same [car] to some extent. I think that’s exciting. The teams can still design a lot themselves and find those extra few tenths [of a second], but if it does bring the field closer — the biggest thing [for me] is ‘raceability’. I don’t know if that’s a word, but if we can follow cars and run side-by-side more often, that’s what we want. It doesn’t bother me if the cars are a bit slower at all. I think if we gain some raceability through that, I’ll take that seven days a week. I try not to look too far ahead into next year because I’ve still got a lot on my plate this year, but I’m looking forward to the next evolution of it. It’s exciting.
It’s going to be a long, tough season, but when we get to the final round, what would make you happy?
I think, because I do feel good within the team, the thing that is missing [is results] — that’s going to make me happy because everything else is gelling pretty well. You know, like today [qualifying at the British Grand Prix] was a good day, and I was pretty angry when I got out of the car because I really felt like — I saw [Ferrari driver] Charles [Leclerc’s] lap time in P4 — and I felt like that I was there and we just missed a little bit on the last run. But I think today was a better day and I think if I can just consistently [perform] through the year that, on paper, is what would make be happy. But I think, internally, it’s getting to a point where I’m driving this car like it’s mine, you know? Like it’s completely natural and I’m not thinking about it too much. It’s just coming and there’s a flow. By the end of the year, if I’ve got into a swing of that, that’ll make me happy.
Lead image courtesy of McLaren.