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January 22, 2023

Monaco created plenty of talking points on the event itself, but before the cars even spun a wheel there was a driver under pressure.

Daniel Ricciardo arrived at a circuit he loves – but has sometimes hated – with just one point scored on Sunday to his name this season, although his points tally was also boosted by a sixth-place finish in the Imola Sprint .

What was of concern for McLaren was Ricciardo’s inability to extract performance from the car at Barcelona, ​​wasting time every time he tried to push. It’s something team principal Andreas Seidl said the team needed to figure out before heading to Monaco, but during that work McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown was ratcheting up the pressure a bit. .

It’s all about timing, and Brown was in Indianapolis ahead of the Indy 500, dealing with questions from the media after Pato O’Ward’s contract extension was confirmed. Naturally, the topic touched on Formula 1 opportunities after O’Ward’s Abu Dhabi test day last year and Colton Herta’s development role this season, and it allowed Brown to give a little boost to Ricciardo.

“There are mechanisms where we engage with each other and then there are mechanisms where we don’t,” Brown said. “I talked about it with Daniel. We are not getting the results we both hoped for. But we’re both going to keep pushing.

“He showed at Monza (in 2021) that he can win races. We also have to keep developing our car, it’s not capable of winning races, but we would like to see him higher on the grid.

“We’re just going to play… I don’t mean ‘one race at a time’ because we’re not going one race at a time – but we’ll just see how things develop.”

Such comments would not have taken the Aussie by surprise, or anyone else. Brown likes to act decisively when it comes to his drivers and isn’t afraid to move on when he feels something is wrong.

Look at the IndyCar team. At one point it looked like O’Ward might be heading elsewhere when negotiations with McLaren became strained before the two sides reached an agreement on the future, while Felix Rosenqvist is currently in the top 10 of the championship, but that’s not the case yet. guaranteed him a contract extension for 2023.

And none of those names came with the fanfare Ricciardo made on the F1 side. As a multiple Grand Prix winner – something Carlos Sainz didn’t have on his CV despite being poached by Ferrari – and hugely marketable, Brown saw an opportunity to elevate McLaren’s line-up even further after the departure of Sainz just over a year ago.

The struggles of the first season were far from ideal, but McLaren knew they had a difficult car to drive and while they wanted to see Ricciardo start to find ways to improve the situation, they still saw exactly what he was looking for. was capable at Monza when he won. A 2022 rules reset would surely bring him back to top form.

Ricciardo’s crash in Monaco dealt a blow to the team’s budget as well as his own preparation for the weekend, and raised the stakes for the Aussie in the races to come. Images by Mark Sutton/motorsport

Circumstances made it not happen. Ricciardo contracting COVID and missing the final pre-season test in Bahrain set him on his feet from the start, although he seemed a little more comfortable with the car before that. And once the horror show of the opening race was pushed aside and McLaren started to look more competitive, the same trend as in 2021 emerged.

Lando Norris holds a clear advantage at most circuits, and even the only real highlight of Ricciardo’s season so far in Melbourne was a sixth place finish behind his team-mate. After that he sparked a first-round tangle at Imola that wiped him out for points, and since then he hasn’t quite kept pace with the young Briton.

If Monaco offered an opportunity to change that, Ricciardo threw it away. His FP2 crash was costly not only in terms of finances, but also in losing extra time to build confidence on a track that needed it badly. And once again the result was Norris picking up strong points in sixth – with the fastest lap to start – and Ricciardo languishing outside the top 10 after failing to qualify so strongly.

To complicate matters, Norris has comfortably passed Ricciardo in the last two races despite suffering from tonsillitis. If anyone should have been on the back foot, it’s not the experienced race winner.

The impression is that Ricciardo will still have time because McLaren knows how good he can be, but incremental improvements will be needed to maintain that patience. Gains are unlikely to come quickly at single tracks such as Baku and Montreal – although both hold fond memories as places of Ricciardo’s wins – but there must be some spurts of recovery at least.

And something Ricciardo really can’t afford is a repeat of Monaco, where not only does the performance end up lacking, but also at the cost of a damaged car.

The next two sites offer increased opportunities to make a costly mistake, and it’s understandable that a pilot might end up overdoing it when working so hard to turn around a tight spot, but someone with Ricciardo’s experience shouldn’t make such mistakes. In an age of budget caps, they are even more of a pain for a team to accept.

The constructors’ fight is a bit odd in the middle of the pack in that all of the main contenders for fourth place – McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Alpine – rely heavily on a single driver to pick up the majority of the points. Norris has scored just over 81% of McLaren’s total, while Valtteri Bottas is over 97% of Alfa Romeo (or all but one point) and Esteban Ocon 75% of Alpine’s return.

The car that regularly poses a bigger threat to McLaren – the Alfa Romeo – is the one that presents the most understandable difference between the drivers with rookie Guanyu Zhou in the other seat. But Alpine will really challenge the standings once Fernando Alonso’s luck turns. A number of good performances went unrewarded at the start of the year.

This is going to require a response from Ricciardo to avoid a repeat of 2021 when Ferrari moved on and beat McLaren to third, thanks in large part to strong and consistent scores from both drivers.

Something is clearly off right now for Ricciardo and McLaren wants it all to come together but can only wait so long. The only reason he went with an experienced and proven driver is to avoid such a wait, and he suddenly finds himself between a rock and a hard place deciding whether to wait for a return on that investment or cut losses. on both sides.

If the contractual situation means an early breakup has to be mutual, it’s also in Ricciardo’s interest to do so while there are still plenty of options to pursue. It’s unlikely to come to that, but it keeps the team and rider happy to move forward, and makes the next races even more crucial to show a positive trend.

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