Regardless of where Daniel Ricciardo’s Formula 1 future lies given McLaren’s attempt to drop him for 2023, he needs a stronger second half of the season after a difficult 18 months. But it will take more than the “natural reset” offered by the August break that he talked about after the Hungarian Grand Prix to make that happen.
Ricciardo will certainly benefit from the break given the frenetic pace of the first 13 races of the season. And he deserves time off as, for all his struggles and amid uncertainty about his future, he has remained ultra-professional on and off track and tackled his struggles with dignity and honesty.
But any expectation that the August shutdown will automatically lead to a revival in form would be naive given the depth of those struggles. That’s something Ricciardo himself will be well aware of.
“Switching off normally gives me a natural reset to the point where I imagine 10 days/two weeks into the break, I would have got a holiday out of my system, then I’ll build that hunger back again,” said Ricciardo after his run to 15th in Hungary.
“I naturally think about it after getting time off, that’s normally how it works for me. Again, go out, be with friends, drink some beers, have fun, and then I’ll get to the point where I start to feel not guilty, but just like, ‘All right, time to turn it on again’.
“Then it’s a natural switch that will probably come back in after 14 days.”
Ricciardo might find it a little more difficult to disconnect than he usually would given the question marks over his future. We do n’t know where he sees his future from him and whether what he described last month as “the feeling in my gut” that represents his competitive fire from him really is still there. Perhaps that’s something he is asking himself right now as he considers his options from him?
If it is, then surely he will pursue the chance to return to Alpine. A different car and a new team – albeit one he knows of old – will at least allow him to test whether his struggles were McLaren-specific. If that is his course of him then a stronger second half of 2022 will be the ideal springboard.
If not and Ricciardo is set to walk away from F1 – something he has said he’s not ready to do but has to be taken seriously as a possibility – then he will be determined to go out on something approximating a high over the final nine races. That’s only befitting a driver who has had such a successful grand prix career and it’s hard to see him abandoning his constructive approach just because he knows McLaren no longer wants his services from him.
“Start that second half of the season with a positive bang” and “set some strong intentions” were phrases Ricciardo used about the upcoming post-break restart at Spa. He also admitted that it was “easier said than done”, which is a wise position to take.
After all, last year the August break did appear to have changed things. Ricciardo produced his two best finishes of the season in the post-shutdown triple-header – fourth in the farcical Belgian GP after a strong wet qualifying performance and that famous win at Monza. But the struggles continued thereafter.
The break last year perhaps helped Ricciardo have the fortitude to produce those performances, and he said at Monza that “having some time off in August helped”. But nothing really changed as he struggled for the rest of the season. The break, at best, helped him to rebuild energy levels but didn’t change the story.
So there’s no reason to expect a few August weeks off to change things for Ricciardo this year. What will make the difference is continuing to battle to improve. It’s clear there are characteristics of the McLaren that he does not get on with, but what’s unarguable is that Norris consistently extracts more from the car – one that he also says does not suit his default style.
Ricciardo has long complained about the inconsistency of the car, which not only lacks the turn-in characteristics he requires to achieve the necessary rotation but also appears to catch him out too often.
“There are some lapses that I’ll put together and it kind of makes sense and I’m like, ‘That was sweet’,” said Ricciardo. “But then a couple of lapses later, I might drop four tenths or something.
“It’s still sometimes not [the case that you] start at one, go to two, get to two, you know what I mean? It’s not as simple as a dot-to-dot. There are some hurdles before getting to the next dot, so that’s a little complicated.”
“Today [race day in Hungary] with the wind, these cars are so sensitive that probably does make it more hard to find that consistency.
“When it’s on more of a knife-edge, when there’s more variables, that’s where it starts to become that step more difficult.”
The ‘joining the dots’ analogy is apposite because Ricciardo has looked disjointed as a driver for the past 18 months. At his best, he’s smooth and committed and capable of carrying tremendous speed into corners. But to meet the requirements of the car he’s deconstructed that technique and struggled for pace having done so. He’s learned a huge amount about his strengths and weaknesses from him as a driver but that’s never translated into the moment when everything clicks and he’s back to his best from him.
And while last year’s struggles were primarily down to what he called a “peculiar” McLaren – and that’s a view shared by Norris and predecessor Carlos Sainz – this year Ricciardo’s difficulties are down to a combination of McLaren’s weaknesses and aero inconsistency through the speed range and the generic characteristics of the 2022 cars.
“Certainly one of the most,” said Ricciardo, when asked by The Race if the McLaren-Mercedes MCL36 is the most difficult car he’s driven in F1.
“In a race stint [in the past]you could stay within three tenths probably for a 20-lap stint at time and be very in control, whereas I feel like stint variation is a lot bigger this year.
“Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the whole field. But I’d be surprised if you see someone doing 0.1s, 0.1s, 0.2s etc, so I think they’re just more difficult this year.”
None of these problems are going to vanish in the second half of the year, although McLaren can perhaps make a little progress in ameliorating them.
So Ricciardo faces a long run-in that’s likely to seem very similar to the first 13 races, during which he’s managed only four points finishes, with the August break nothing more than a much-needed temporary respite.