The driver market is bubbling along nicely as F1 hurtles towards its midseason break, and with four grands prix in the next five weekends, you can be sure some the year’s highest-profile deals will be inked in the coming month.
But though reigning four-time champion Lewis Hamilton, 2007 title holder Kimi Raikkonen and Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas are all out of contract, there is little prospect of any of them seeking contracts elsewhere given they already occupy three of the four most competitive seats on the grid, leaving Daniel Ricciardo as the season’s big-ticket driver.
Ricciardo’s consideration of his future is ongoing, and the 28-year-old Monaco winner is approaching this contract negotiation period with the aim of securing a deal that will best place him to win a world title sooner rather than later, and thus three options presented themselves: Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing.
The rumour mill was turning at full speed after the Bahrain Grand Prix, when the Australian was reported to have begun negotiations with Ferrari, but the lengthening silence since has shortened the odds of Red Bull Racing retaining the seven-time race winner.
But McLaren perhaps has other ideas, with Germany’s Sports Bild reporting that McLaren was making a big-money move for Ricciardo.
Daniel was coy on reports when asked about them in France.
“There are a lot of things to weigh up,” he said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t interest me at all.”
While Ricciardo was surely being typically diplomatic in his response, make no mistake: such a move would likely be the most serious mistake of his career because modern-day McLaren has made itself a reputation as a career killer.
For a whole host of reasons the past five years have seen only woe visit Woking, and while a range of executive and technical staff have paid the price for a half-decade of a lack of competitiveness, the drivers have also unfairly borne the brunt.
Sergio Perez is a prime example. After two impressive seasons at Sauber as a Ferrari junior, McLaren snapped him up to replace the Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton in 2013.
But the team suffered its worst season in 33 years. The culprit was the dog of a car, the MP4-28, but Perez, who struggled to adjust to the pressures of racing for a top team that also happened to be roiling with turmoil, was scapegoated and dropped at the end of the season.
Certainly Perez has since rebuilt his reputation, but it is as a midfield specialist. The chance of fulfilling his potential as a frontrunning driver has almost certainly passed him by.
The Mexican was replaced by Kevin Magnussen, a McLaren junior driver, who impressively debuted with a second-place finish at the Australian Grand Prix. It was the team’s only podium of the year, however, and the Dane struggled to match teammate Jenson Button thereafter. He was dropped in favour of Fernando Alonso, who had burnt his last bridge at Ferrari, the following year.
Magnussen sat out 2015 before landing Pastor Maldonado’s Renault seat for 2016 and jumping to Haas last year, where he has settled into a groove — but, like Perez, he’s unlikely to see a manufacturer drive again.
To a certain extent the same is true of Jenson Button, who arrived at McLaren as the reigning world champion in 2010 but spent the last four years of his F1 tenure in substandard machinery until his career fizzled out in 2016.
Fernando Alonso too is slowly being eaten away by McLaren. His public outbursts over the team’s ineptitude are well known, but the driver who was oversold the team’s performance first with Honda and later with Renault seems so disillusioned with McLaren and Formula One that he seems likely to switch to IndyCar next season.
It’s not hard to understand why. In France McLaren was the slowest car of all bar Williams, continuing its helpless slide down the competitive order with no obvious escape route.
Indeed the situation is so poor that longstanding F1 reporter Jonathan McEvoy wrote for the Daily Mail that team staff are considering rising up against current management and are considering enlisting deposed former team principal Martin Whitmarsh to spearhead the charge, accusations which led to this testy exchange at the pre-race press conference.
McLaren is a mess. Once great though it may have been, it is no longer, and with the team being forced to admit that it doesn’t know why it isn’t competitive save for the fact that its wind tunnel data doesn’t correlate with on-track feedback — and even then no-one knows why this is the case — there are no real short-term prospects of it coming even close to rekindling its race-winning potential any time soon.
The best McLaren could hope to offer Ricciardo is the chance to lead a powerful F1 brand back to the front of the grid, but even then there can be no promises.
Ricciardo, quite simply, would be foolish to take up McLaren’s offer.