When Daniel Ricciardo passed Valtteri Bottas to score a stunning win at the Chinese Grand Prix last season, there was a genuine feeling that the Australian could challenge for a future world championship.
At 28, he was entering into his prime and had the vast array of skills and pace to light up F1 tracks worldwide on a fortnightly basis. Added to that was his high-watt smile and contagious personality, serious marketing tools for any of the elite teams.
Ferrari and Mercedes looked like frontrunners to secure his signature at one stage during last season, but the Perth native shocked the F1 world by opting instead to pen a bumper two-year deal with Renault.
The French outfit finished fourth in the constructors’ championship in 2018 and while it was hoping to make up ground on Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari with their new man, there has been little evidence of this in the opening four rounds of the season.
In the four race so far, Ricciardo has retired three times and finished seventh in China. Two weeks ago in Baku, he reversed into Daniil Kvyat after trying to overtake the Russian and then going down the run-off area.
As a result, he will have a three-place grid penalty at the Spanish GP this weekend.
Moving to a team who have not clinched a podium in eight years seemed like a bizarre decision – maybe the £26.5 million-a-year salary didn’t – and bodes the question as to whether it was a poor career move for the once-firing Monaco resident.
The early-season struggles sees Renault languishing in seventh in the constructors’ standings, behind fellow midfield contenders McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Racing Point.
Ricciardo’s smile is still evident on race weekends, although not as high-watt as his Red Bull days, nor is his supreme overtaking, partly down to the fact that the Renault struggles to overtake fast cars much anyway.
But his initial difficulties are normal in a new machine. The biggest problem for Ricciardo is how the car would not allow him to brake as aggressively as he is used to on the Red Bull’s approach to corners.
A secondary issue was the Renault was disrupted when it was driven heavily over kerbs, forcing him to change his lines in some cases.
Looking back, it is hard to argue with Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull, though, especially knowing only one driver can be a world champion from the factory and special preference acting in Max Verstappen’s favour.
Whether Renault talked too good a game during contract discussions and Ricciardo fell for the trap remains to be seen. But he was clearly fed up at his former employers and needed a fresh challenge after his disappointing eight retirements last season.
However strong the Red Bull might be, Ricciardo wasn’t happy and never would have performed to his maximum if he had stayed.
Renault were the only other option on the table at the time and has allowed him to rediscover his love in a new environment and a hefty pay day (three times his 2018 salary).
But one thing he may not have realised was the significant drop from a top team to a midfield outfit.
It’ll take time to adapt, but if he can understand the car and its limitations better over the course of the season, then results will be more positive and Renault could be sitting tidy at the top of the midfield.
It’s still early into his two-year contract but with his sky high confidence and strong driving ability, the 29-year-old needs to show why is one of the leading men on the grid.
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