At the end of the 2022 Formula 1 season, Daniel Ricciardo cut a broken figure. He could just not gel with the McLaren and overcome the car’s difficulties and his own limitations. A driver who just three seasons prior was among the best in the world and finished fifth in the standings, found himself the one without a seat when the music stopped. He was given a handsome amount of money not to race for McLaren in 2023, and feeling like the options available did not match his ambitions, opted to take a year out from racing. He would later agree a deal as Red Bull third and reserve driver, appearing at a number of Grands Prix to please the marketing and media departments. Red Bull boss Christian Horner admitted his shock at some of the “bad habits” Ricciardo had picked up during his time away from Milton Keynes when he was in the simulator – but warned Ricciardo was on the way back to being race-ready and sharp. Let’s assume for arguments sake that Ricciardo does indeed want to be back on the F1 grid in 2024 – the eight-time Grand Prix winner has found himself in a far weaker position than he was in the autumn of 2022, and it’s all his own doing. Ricciardo wanted top seat After the announcement of losing his seat at McLaren came, Ricciardo was adamant that if he was given a car capable, he could fight for wins and podiums. That thought was in his mind when it came to assessing the midfield options he was presented with – chief among them a ride at Haas as Mick Schumacher’s future was in doubt. Ultimately, Ricciardo felt a drop into the midfield would not have been befitting a driver of his calibre and so passed on the opportunity, preferring to sit on the sidelines as Nico Hulkenberg – his former teammate at Renault in 2019 – took the seat. The only other realistic option for the Perth-native was at AlphaTauri as he had snookered himself out of a number of other seats, but given their slide towards the back in 2022, this was never going to be a realistic option. But then, neither were any of the top seats he craved. Mercedes and Red Bull had their race drivers locked in, Ferrari had declined the chance to sign him many times, he burnt bridges at Alpine/Renault and had been dumped by McLaren. Aston Martin committed to the big-name World Champion Fernando Alonso to replace another in Sebastian Vettel – and Lance Stroll isn’t going anywhere soon. These are the teams which are upwardly mobile and could win in the next year or two. The other four are all longer-term projects which at 33, he might not be around to see the fruits of. Why he’s in a weaker position Times move fast in Formula 1, and you can be flavour of the month before rapidly becoming the forgotten man. In not taking the Haas seat, a respectable midfield runner that can fight for points on a regular basis, Ricciardo made a crucial error. By not being on the grid, he’s given someone else – in this case Hulkenberg – a chance to prove just how good he is and a chance to make the seat his own. After all the turmoil at Haas after the past few seasons, a period of stability is what boss Guenther Steiner is craving above all else – something Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen will provide in buckets. A Ricciardo firing on all cylinders is better than either of those two, and so a season of dragging a fourth or fifth place out of an eighth or ninth place car could have done his own mindset good, and could have perhaps prompted someone else to take a chance on him. Just be there, be in the conversation, be doing something worthwhile. If the season at Haas proved a disaster on his side, the answer would be clear and he would step away because he wanted to. But by taking a year out, Ricciardo has weakened his position of a comeback as no-one will know what he is capable off. Say Lewis Hamilton quits Mercedes at the end of 2023, and Toto Wolff needs a replacement to partner new team leader George Russell. Is he really going to plump for a driver over whom there are considerable doubts, hasn’t done a Grand Prix in over a year and would take time to get into the groove? Not impossible but is unlikely – especially with Schumacher now installed as third driver. Instead, unless he has to fill in for an injured or unwell Verstappen or Perez, Ricciardo has likely driven his last Grand Prix unless he is willing, and able, to find a seat in the midfield and accept that this is the new reality of his F1 career – and that his days of wins and podiums are firmly over.
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