Ricciardo in need of inspiration in Baku

Daniel Ricciardo arrived as McLaren’s 2021 star signing, but the race-winning Australian is at a loss to explain his thrashing at the hands of his junior teammate.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Daniel Ricciardo, former Monte Carlo poleman and race winner, wasn’t even in the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix.

The Australian had  the words ‘These are my streets’ scrawled on the back of his helmet in a one-off design for motorsport’s most recognisable race as a nod to his fearsome reputation in the principality, but if the streets really did belong to him, McLaren teammate Lando Norris was making a bid to claim them for himself.

Norris, at 21 years old all of 10 years Ricciardo’s junior, qualified fifth to Ricciardo’s lowly 12, and the young Briton coolly held off the faster Sergio Perez at the end of the race to finish third, his second podium of the season.

Ricciardo not only trailed home 12th but was lapped by his teammate in a thoroughly forgettable afternoon at a circuit around which he was once a force.

While its size was anomalously large, the defeat wasn’t off trend. Except for the Spanish Grand Prix, where damage in qualifying left Norris on the back foot in the race, Ricciardo has been the slower driver of the pair on every Sunday this season.

The points table tells the story. A couple of high-profile podiums for Norris has him an outstanding third in the standings with 56 points — ahead of a Mercedes and a Red Bull Racing car — while Ricciardo languishes 32 points behind in eighth.

It’s a sudden halt to the moment Ricciardo rode into McLaren this season after two years at Renault that culminated in his re-establishment as one of the grid’s pre-eminent racers.

With results on Saturdays and Sundays beyond what should have been possible in his midfield machinery, including the team’s first podium in nine years, his defection to McLaren was a statement of intent that the British team was ready to rejoin the fight at the front with a proven winner.

But those high expectations have been tempered by Ricciardo’s difficulty adapting to the extremely particular McLaren MCL35M.

“In order to drive our car fast at the moment, you need a special driving style which is not natural for Daniel,” team principal Andreas Seidl explained. “[We must] do two things, which is him further adapt to our car … and at the same time we look at the team side as well to see what we can do to help him.”

Ricciardo, with the experience of seven victories and 31 podiums, is undeterred.

“Sometimes, when the weekend’s this bad, it’s kind of easier to deal with and move on because you’re so far off,” Ricciardo said, his ever-present grin barely diminished. “Put it in the bin and let’s go again — that’s I think what I’m going to do.”

And there’s little doubt he’ll get there eventually. He suffered similarly in his first season with Renault until he could unlock the secrets of the car early in 2020, and already at some races this season he has hinted at finding some of the pieces he needs to assemble the right set-up to extract the McLaren’s peak performance.

But while he struggles, Norris excels.

Norris knew his position in the team that delivered him to F1 could be threatened by Ricciardo’s arrival and has raised his game commensurately, and the further he sprints ahead, the more the team will naturally gravitate towards him — and the more the team gravitates towards him, the more he’ll influence the characteristics of next year’s all-important car.

With every passing race momentum swings a little further from Ricciardo, and at the next race in Azerbaijan — another street circuit and another race won by the Australian — it’ll be more important than ever to win some back.