Daniel Ricciardo has rolled the dice on his Formula 1 future for the second time in 24 months, but will his latest gamble pay off? 

Little over two years ago, Ricciardo shocked the F1 paddock by announcing he would be leaving Red Bull to take the plunge into the midfield fight by joining Renault. 

The French manufacturer had big aims to return to winning ways in F1 and had sold its vision to Ricciardo, who was growing frustrated at his status within the Red Bull fold, with the Milton Keynes squad’s attention leaning more towards Max Verstappen

Despite claiming seven grand prix victories with Red Bull, which provided him with his F1 break at Toro Rosso via a fleeting spell at HRT, Ricciardo was convinced the time was right to head on to pastures new in the hope of mirroring the sort of success achieved by Lewis Hamilton in moving from McLaren to Mercedes. 

The timing made sense, as did the financial incentive. At the end of 2018, Renault appeared to be on an upward trajectory, enjoying year-on-year (albeit incremental) improvements and having sealed a fourth-place finish in the constructors’ championship. 

Things were on the up and Renault was now targeting to move closer to the front of the grid and mix it up with F1’s leading trio. 

Ultimately, Renault failed to deliver on its promise for 2019 and a disappointing and frustrating campaign followed for Ricciardo. Adding to the blow, McLaren - with whom Ricciardo had held talks with while he weighed up his future in the summer of 2018 - made impressive progress and leapfrogged Renault to claim the midfield bragging rights. 

2020 pre-season testing looked promising and Renault appeared to have made some gains with its R.S.20 challenger, but it remained to be seen whether it would be enough to regain its former midfield supremacy and, in the process, succeed in its aim of bridging the performance gap to Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. 

Knowing he was out of contract at the end of the year, Ricciardo planned to use 2020 as the clear indicator in whether he should stick or twist with Renault. But the picture changed when the coronavirus pandemic put the F1 season on hold. 

During the current hiatus which has since followed, Ricciardo unexpectedly found himself with more time to reflect on his future, although it was somewhat blind without the knowledge of how his Renault would perform when it hit the track in anger for the first time. 

The decision to postpone F1’s planned technical regulation overhaul - originally scheduled for 2021 - further complicated the scenario. Renault had long been targeting 2021 as the year it could make the jump to compete with the big guns and re-establish itself as a race-winning - and potentially championship-winning - outfit. 

This vision was no doubt a huge pull factor in Ricciardo’s decision to join the team in the first place and the delay would realistically mean another year squabbling for mid-range points. 

Ricciardo seemed more unsettled as time wore on, and recent non-committal comments about his future did little to cement his faith in the Renault project. He was already beginning to look elsewhere. 

Things accelerated earlier this week, when it was announced that Sebastian Vettel would be leaving Ferrari at the end of the season after talks over a new contract broke down, paving the way for an opening at F1’s most famous team. 

Ricciardo was previously linked with a move to Ferrari before the team opted to retain Kimi Raikkonen in 2016, so it was no surprise to see him immediately branded as a prime candidate to become Charles Leclerc’s new teammate. 

In reality, however, Ferrari was looking towards Carlos Sainz, who was confirmed as Vettel’s replacement on Thursday, while Ricciardo’s focus was solely on McLaren. 

Ricciardo’s move to McLaren was swiftly signed, sealed and delivered and he was actually announced as joining the team on a “multi-year” deal before Sainz’s Ferrari switch was made official. 

Given the developments over the past 12 months, Ricciardo believes McLaren is now the better prospect to help him achieve his ambitions of world championship glory. At 30 years old (soon-to-turn 31), Ricciardo no longer has time on his side and needs some short-term success if his career is to avoid fading out into midfield obscurity. 

McLaren’s gains in parallel to Renault’s stagnation clearly makes the British squad appealing, as does its iconic history and past success in the sport. 

A return to Mercedes engines from 2021 should further boost McLaren’s prospects under the no-nonsense management style of the team’s new leader Andreas Seidl, while the arrival of renowned technical chief James Key last year means McLaren is well-positioned for the upcoming rule changes in 2022. 

The move also makes clear sense for McLaren. In Ricciardo, it has landed one of the most popular drivers in the paddock thanks to his happy-go-lucky and likeable character, while his proven on-track abilities make the Australian a great asset for any team. 

Ricciardo should fit in perfectly next to rising star Lando Norris within the McLaren brand and his capture sends out a big statement of intent to its rivals. Timing-wise, the signing acts as a coup for McLaren as it looks to continue its recent impressive progress. 

While career gambles are no guarantee of success - as he knows all too well - Ricciardo would have been wary to make any knee-jerk reactions regarding his future on this occasion.  

Time will tell whether Ricciardo’s decision proves to be the right one, but from the outside at least, it seems Ricciardo’s risk is a calculated one.

 

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