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Daniel Ricciardo struggles at McLaren, driving analysis, why is he slow? Lando Norris, future, contract, 2023

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the feeling.

You’ve probably felt it, too, amid the intensifying rumors and increasingly brutal punishment.

With every passing race on the F1 calendar, a Daniel Ricciardo resurgence feels further away.

The promise of 2022 removing the shackles on the Australian now nothing but empty.

Instead, doubts born out of a difficult debut season with McLaren have persisted well into the new campaign, which now shapes as make-or-break for Ricciardo.

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The 32-year-old is contracted for next year, but McLaren boss Zak Brown made it clear on the weekend that both parties have escape clauses.

“I don’t want to get into the contract, but there are mechanisms in which we’re committed to each other, and mechanisms in which we’re not,” Brown said about 2023.

“I spoke with Daniel about it. We’re not getting the results that we both hoped for, but we’re both going to continue to push.”

If you’re feeling confused, in disbelief over how it all came to this so quickly, then spare a thought for Ricciardo who’s ultimately been set up for failure.

Ricciardo once again struggled badly at the Monaco Grand Prix.Source: Getty Images

We can only speculate over what McLaren’s pitch looked like to pull the driver from Renault after only two seasons, but this isn’t what either party signed up for.

Of course, F1 is unpredictable and there are many insurance teams simply cannot offer, such as being competitive. Ricciardo signed on the dotted line at the end of the 2020 season with no guarantees of success.

However, it’s unlikely that Ricciardo — 31 years old at the time and reaching a critical juncture — would have taken the gamble had he known just how disagreeable the car would be to his driving style.

Twelve months ago, Ricciardo recounted how the driver he replaced at McLaren, Carlos Sainz, asked him how he was adapting to the “strange” car.

“And I was like, ‘Thanks for telling me!’” Ricciardo joked.

Like many jokes, you feel as if there was an element of truth behind it.

True that it takes two to tango — McLaren wouldn’t have offered a contract if it knew Ricciardo would still be trying to adapt. It should also be said that Ricciardo bounced back after the Monaco Grand Prix last year, and could do so again.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder if he got the full picture before signing up to the McLaren project alongside young gun Lando Norris.

The McLaren has, and continues to, strip Ricciardo of his unique driving strengths, replacing them only with doubts.

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WHY IS RICCIARDO SLOWER THAN NORRIS?

Last year, Ricciardo called his MCL35M “peculiar” to drive and a “different beast”. As the season reached its midway point, and he was still not up to speed, Ricciardo accepted it as his new “reality” and not a transitional problem.

The issues largely related to corner-entry speed and braking; two areas in which Ricciardo once had an edge on the field.

Ricciardo was once known as the master of the ‘dive-bomb’ — a late lunge on an opponent by braking later without locking tires. But contrary to popular belief, this is not how Ricciardo typically approaches a corner.

Without a driver to overtake, he prefers to brake earlier and more gradually while turning in on entry, known as ‘rolling the speed’ into the corner.

This was an aggressive cornering style that fit well with the aerodynamically superior front-end of Red Bull, where Ricciardo broke out as one of the category’s best drivers.

Last year’s McLaren, however, had a problematic front-end that was counteracted with late braking, and a two-phase approach to cornering.

Norris was well-accustomed to this style, which allowed him to brake later, and get back on the accelerator earlier than Ricciardo, who would be stuck in the mid-corner phase for longer fighting for front-end grip.

This season promised a change in fortunes for Ricciardo due to a complete reimagining of cars, with the power unit the only untouched element.

After seven races, there is a dreaded sense of deja vu with Ricciardo seemingly tackling the same issues that have him at war with his own driving style.

Lando Norris has been made to look a class above Ricciardo.Source: Getty Images

“I would say there’s still some stuff to get on top of,” Ricciardo told the F1 website after the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday. “Obviously it’s been a while now so I wish it wasn’t still the case, but I think the reality is that.”

He added: “I think there will be some tracks where it just clicks from the first practice and we’re good, but I think I’ll probably expect to still work at it and try to keep trying.

“I won’t go down without a fight, but of course I don’t wish to be fighting for 13th, so try to get back into the points soon.”

Why the raft of technical changes hasn’t translated into an upswing in Ricciardo’s form is unclear from the outer.

The Australian missed a bulk of pre-season testing due to Covid, while Norris was fast during the sessions when key development decisions were being made.

It’s therefore likely that the feedback of Norris — who has only ever driven in F1 for McLaren — carried greater weight and ultimately reinforced some of the car’s old quirks. This has been a nightmare scenario for Ricciardo who eyed 2022 as a fresh start.

More answers surely lie in the mountains of confidential McLaren data, while others cannot be quantified, such as the confidence-hit Ricciardo has suffered.

Ricciardo’s employer has done nothing to help the latter with Brown effectively throwing the Australian under the bus by publicly discussing exit-clauses.

1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve said it shows Brown has already made his mind up, writing in his column for Formula1.nl: “Daniel Ricciardo’s time at McLaren is over.

“CEO Zak Brown is now saying that there are clauses in his contract, and that means that a decision has almost been made. It’s a way to put the pressure on the driver and prepare the media.”

Fellow former world champion Jenson Button was critical of Brown, saying on Any Driven Monday “I was surprised he came out and said that.

“Formula 1 is a real mental game. They all have immense skill but you don’t perform if your head is not in the right place.”

Last weekend, Ricciardo uncharacteristically wrecked his McLaren at the Swimming Pool chicane during practice on Friday after a radical set-up change failed to pan-out.

Immediately after the heavy crash, Ricciardo’s race engineer asked “is the car is okay?” to which the driver responded: “Ahh … I’m okay.”

The crash had a disastrous knock-on effect throughout the weekend with Ricciardo seven-tenths slower than Norris in Q2, and seven spots lower in the race in 13th.

The Monaco layout has a unique way of exposing, and exaggerating a driver’s lack of unity with their car due to its uncompromising layout and relentless demands.

Things are therefore not as dire as they may seem — but they’re not far off.

Norris now has 48 of McLaren’s 59 championship points this year and shows no signs of slowing down.

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The speed gap between the two drivers has been far narrower at high-speed tracks that don’t exploit the weakness in the Ricciardo-McLaren partnership as much.

At the fastest track of all, Monza, Ricciardo was back to his masterful self last year and delivered McLaren its first Grand Prix win since 2012.

A great driver can’t become a bad one overnight — and there could be success for Ricciardo this season yet.

But at tracks with more low-speed sectors, such as the past three in Miami, Spain and Monaco, Ricciardo has been made to look a class below Norris which, on talent alone, he is not.

Spain was of the greatest concern with Ricciardo so far off the pace that he hoped something was wrong with the car. McLaren later said there was, but wouldn’t provide any details.

You now can’t help but wonder if McLaren has made enough development steps to help Ricciardo as initially planned, or grown frustrated with his form and accepted a number of its car’s quirks, content that at least long-term prospect Norris will cope.

The end result is somewhat unfair. A future world champion Norris may be, but McLaren is all he knows in F1. He hasn’t had the burden of unlearning old tricks.

Ricciardo, by contrast, has driven for HRT, Toro Rosso, Red Bull, Renault and McLaren, while he’s just entered a third era of technical regulations.

What’s more is that McLaren’s progress to the front of the field hasn’t materialized as once hoped, making it an attractive option to look further into the future instead.

It’s therefore no surprise that McLaren is already deep into its succession planning with development contracts for the likes of young American drivers Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta.

It’s true that Ricciardo has not delivered the results that McLaren expected, but the team hasn’t given him the car, or development path, he expected either.

Nevertheless, veteran F1 journalist Mark Hughes wrote on the weekend that “the spark is gone” for Ricciardo and he could be set to leave F1 entirely.

“He has not looked anything like the ace of a driver he was since his move to McLaren last year,” Hughes wrote for motor sports.

Jacques Villeneuve believes Ricciardo’s time is up at McLaren.Source: AFP

“In 2014 and ’16, in particular, a very strong case could be made for him as the season’s number 1 performer. That guy hasn’t been seen since the tail end of 2019 with Renault.

“Whether the problem is one of adaptation, focus or desire, this level of performance is not something the hyper-competitive Daniel will even tolerate of himself and unless he can quickly understand and correct it, it’s difficult to envision him still being in the seat next year.”

Meanwhile, Villeneuve said that Ricciardo’s salary is no small factor in the potential decision to ax his recruit.

“Ultimately, he has been a highly-paid driver who has cost the team a lot of money,” he wrote. “He doesn’t bring in any points and he doesn’t have the speed the team needs to develop the car. So he’s just costing them money.

“It would be cheaper for them to continue paying Ricciardo’s salary, let him sit on the couch at home and put another driver in the car.

“It’s a harsh reality, but that’s Formula 1.”

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