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Formula One’s Jolly Protagonist Is Barely Hanging On

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Daniel Ricciardo is a nice guy, made for the general populace: Australian, funny, mostly apolitical. Even when struggling, he's still got a sense of humor and a killer smile. The people behind Drive to Survive did well in selecting him as their opening-season protagonist—here was the rare driver who, gasp, had a personality, was willing and able to advertise it, and was either not successful enough, or not good enough, for consistent victory to turn his narrative trite. Unfortunately, you might argue that comes with the corollary of not being good enough to stick around.

Oscar Piastri's contract issue, brought on by Alpine's inability to re-sign Fernando Alonso, was resolved just before the Dutch Grand Prix, with the FIA's contract recognition board ruling that McLaren's contract is the only valid one. Just in time, too, to prevent it from becoming an ordeal, unless the moral litigation surrounding Ricciardo posting a commitment to McLaren on his Instagram mid-July, after Piastri had signed with the team on the 4th, drags on any further. Poor communication on McLaren's end, or a PR move on Ricciardo's—either way, we learn once again that team loyalty doesn't carry much water in F1. Now McLaren is legally permitted to move on from Ricciardo, and Ricciardo doesn't have much choice but to try and prove his worth to another team for the following season.

If any of the people who are Ricciardo fans, or perhaps just like him because he seems like a nice dude, were engaging in an act of collective amnesia to forget the Belgian GP happened and instead hope that the official official Piastri announcement would kick off the contract half-season of the century, the Dutch Grand Prix was an awful start. Lando Norris, Ricciardo's teammate, qualified seventh, slotting just behind the top-three teams, as he is wont to do. Ricciardo started 10 places down, and sat in that still water through two safety car stints that wreaked havoc for the rest of the grid. Even after Valtteri Bottas (Ferrari engine) and Yuki Tsunoda (differential issue, or not, depending on your affection for conspiracy theories) retired, there Daniel Ricciardo was, 17th on the grid, finishing ahead of Nicholas Latifi.

There's other, arguably more interesting stuff to talk about this race than Norris and Ricciardo's finishes, even with the lack of championship tension. Nico Rosberg, armed with his monster antibodies and video cam, said that Ferrari and its pit stops were on the level of, nay, worse than F2 and F3 teams. Lewis Hamilton said "fuck" on the radio! He only thanked the mechanics over the radio! Is George Russell a terrible teammate on top of being boring? Mercedes's strategy is getting the post-race Ferrari strategy treatment! Under the new regulations, is track position after a safety car no longer as important? Sure wish that someone could look at the data and tell us, ha ha.

But McLaren doesn't have the privilege of being at the center of fun on-track drama. They simply aren't good enough. There's the occasional mediocre midfield squabble over team orders but nothing much else. No, all McLaren gets is Mark Webber's managerial prowess and legal issues, ew, mostly because the main issue with McLaren isn't exploding engines or teammate squabbles or the pit wall, but Daniel Ricciardo.

Put simply, Ricciardo has been bad this season—worse, even, than his disappointing 2021. Nobody would argue that. But put up his performance this season against his pre-McLaren record and the contrast is frankly obscene. He won seven races with a Red Bull team for the few years he was there, before he went to Renault for a massive payday and to escape from the 10th circle of hell that is apparently being Max Verstappen's second driver, and during his Renault years, Red Bull was the fool in letting him walk. Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon were merely baby cows in that Red Bull; Ricciardo was getting podiums in a Renault, encouraging Lewis Hamilton to do a shoey and everything.

McLaren's ideal 2021 is a sad, sad tragedy now, but they had reason for hope. They were third in the Constructors' the season prior, and were already making the transition from a dodgy Renault power unit to the fabled Mercedes Power Unit. They had a brilliant young driver in Lando Norris, were replacing Carlos Sainz Jr., another former Red Bull junior who was mostly regarded as a perfectly fine driver, with Daniel Ricciardo, and, as a bonus, Norris and Ricciardo had always had fun with each other off the track—smacking each other on the helmet, joking about pubes and such. And going back years from this, the McLaren was terrible, not to mention struggling for sponsors. To be third now was a miracle; there was nowhere to go but up.

In retrospect, McLaren's 2020 success was never likely to be replicable. Ferrari was bound to recover from illegal-engining themselves in the foot. Where the team had succeeded was in its consistency—Charles Leclerc lapped Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, Ricciardo doubled Esteban Ocon's points at Renault. But Sainz and Norris were separated just by eight points, securing McLaren's third place over Ferrari. Now, Norris has 82 points to Ricciardo's 19. If Ricciardo had even half of Norris's points, they would be rivaling Alpine for top of the midfield.

Teammate difference even in the top teams feels especially stark this year, beyond the standings. "Equal machinery," as Nico Rosberg helpfully offers us, is the easiest comparison. In the races nearing the summer break, it seemed like the improved Mercedes could match the pace of an uninjured Sainz-driven Ferrari or Pérez-driven Red Bull, but couldn't bring the fight to Leclerc or Verstappen, which is why the fact that Mercedes was matched against Verstappen's Red Bull this race—ignoring the disaster that followed—is truly a massive, massive positive.

But, on the other side of the race, it seemed like almost anyone in a solid midfield car—or even Vettel in an Aston Martin—could beat Daniel Ricciardo.

Whether or not Ricciardo is in F1 next season will depend on how short F1 executives' memories are. He has undoubtedly had an awful two seasons; he does still have a good résumé. Still, there aren't many seats up for grabs anymore—the most open ones are at Alpine, who seem far more interested in Pierre Gasly, noted Frenchman; Haas, who are rumored to pick up Antonio Giovinazzi; and Williams, who seem very unlikely to re-sign Latifi.

Even considering Ricciardo's performance this season, you'd be hard pressed to call him the worst driver on the grid, though you could also argue that generally performing better than nepotism babies Latifi and Stroll is not necessarily a selling point in your favor. Would Ricciardo also be a better option than Giovinazzi, who was outperformed by a positively geriatric (by sports terms) Kimi Räikkönen in 2021? Probably. But we exist in an odd world where Kevin Magnussen feels like a safer bet than Daniel Ricciardo, so maybe anything goes.

If Ricciardo doesn't get a seat for next season, his "break" is likely to go the way of Mika Häkkinen's "sabbatical" and look more like retirement, at least from F1. If there isn't a spot for Ricciardo this year, it's harder still to imagine a spot for next, with the plethora of young talents clamoring to get into the same, stagnant 20 spots. It would be a shame if Ricciardo leaves, for all of the standard reasons: everyone loves a comeback story, everyone loves a return to form, and everyone hates, or should hate, pay drivers.

But, fair or not, memory is short, and the greatest shame at this point for both fans and F1 as a sport is no longer losing Daniel Ricciardo, great driver, but Daniel Ricciardo, good guy. It's everything that made Ricciardo a perfect main character that will be missed most. You'd love to see a podium again; more than that, you'd love to see another shoey. We can cope without the driving, but aw, hell, wouldn't it suck to lose his smile?

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