The decline of eight-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo
The once star of Red Bull Racing has slowly fallen into a slew of poor results and seasons
Daniel Ricciardo started his Formula One career as a bright talent, but in the back marker Hispania Racing Team (HRT), he was never afforded the machinery that his talent could materialize into meaningful results. In the following year, he was moved to the Toro Rosso team, which at the time was not a team that could compete for podiums and wins. While in Toro Rosso, however, he scored a handful of points and put in performances that caught the attention of Christian Horner and Helmut Marko, who were and are the team principal and manager of Red Bull Racing, respectively. During this period, Red Bull was in its third year of dominance over the sport with then three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and proven driver Mark Webber at the wheel of their dominant RB-8 car.
Understandably for Red Bull, it would have been a risky move to put a driver with two years of back marker experience at the wheel of a championship contender and up against who was, at the time, the best driver on the grid, and thus, Ricciardo spent another year in Toro Rosso for 2013. However, with an upcoming regulation change and Mark Webber announcing retirement, Red Bull came to their shining Australian talent to fill in the gap left by Webber with an offer to drive for them in 2014. While Red Bull was unable to provide a car as dominant as their 2011 through 2013 variants, the 2014 Red Bull was certainly the most capable car afforded to Ricciardo up to that point of his career. To start the year, Ricciardo finished second at his home race in Australia, and while he was later disqualified from a technicality, his strong opening to the season foreshadowed what was to come for Ricciardo, who finished the year with five podiums and three victories, third in the championship, and most surprisingly, ahead of his four-time defending world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel. To beat Vettel by 71 points in his first year in the team was enough of an indication to many that Ricciardo would be the future of Red Bull. During the same year, Vettel announced that he would be leaving Red Bull to join Ferrari. Ricciardo would be joined by Kyvyat, who, like Ricciardo, was promoted from Toro Rosso. Ricciardo continued showing his talent in Red Bull; even after being joined by 2021 world champion Max Verstappen in 2016, he continued to produce strong results. In 2018, however, Ricciardo announced his departure from Red Bull to Renault. While he has never explicitly explained why he decided to leave Red Bull for a weaker team, many speculated that his reason to leave Red Bull was motivated by the preferential treatment that Verstappen had supposedly received from Red Bull over him.
Now, as the undoubtedly number one driver at Renault, Ricciardo had all of the tools that he desired when he left Red Bull, with the exception of a competitive car. While he had strong performances relative to teammate Nico Hulkenberg, he never stood on a podium for the entire season and struggled to score points on multiple occasions. In the following year — 2020 — Renault was able to provide Ricciardo with a stronger package and he capitalized on it by scoring two podiums and had an overall stronger season than the previous year. During 2020 however, Ricciardo announced a move to McLaren which had made significant progress during Ricciardo’s time at Renault. The move to McLaren was supposed to rejuvenate his career after a disappointing stint at Renault. At McLaren however, Ricciardo was thoroughly beaten by then 21 year old Lando Norris and despite recording a win at Monza after a strong performance, otherwise had a season to forget with numerous poor performances.
Since leaving Red Bull in 2018, Ricciardo has scored three podiums and one win, a tally that he has surpassed in single seasons during his time at Red Bull. With only 288 points in three seasons, Daniel Ricciardo’s poor performance in recent years comes down to his poor career choices but also a general decline in the quality of his performances. Ricciardo has struggled massively in qualifying against Norris during his time at McLaren, which has significantly affected his ability to record meaningful results in races. As his poor performances continue, it seems more and more likely that his window to win races and championships have all but closed. Had he stayed with Red Bull, he would have had the opportunity to contend for a championship in 2021 and possibly 2022, by the way the current season is panning out. While it is unfortunate to see such a loved and accomplished driver struggle to even finish in the points, at some point, teams must start evaluating whether or not he has passed his peak. In a ruthless and unforgiving sport like Formula One, you are only as good as your last race, and if you finish in 16th place while your teammate is in fourth, the damage to your resume is massive, even for a driver with the pedigree of Ricciardo.