For Daniel Ricciardo, the year was 2018. He had been a part of Red Bull Racing for 5 years now. The title fight that he craved for far too long had not materialized with the team. More importantly, the young charger in the other cockpit had started adding maturity to his game. Ricciardo was losing out to his teammate more frequently and he felt that the team was leaning towards the latter more and more.
At the end of the year, the contract was up! Red Bull was more than willing to sign him for the future. For Daniel Ricciardo, however, Red Bull didn't feel like home anymore. He was rated as one of the best drivers on the grid at the time but the team was leaning more and more towards Max Verstappen.
Was Red Bull going to win the title one day? There was no doubt that it was, but would he be the one that they were going to back when the time came? He wasn't sure about that. Max Verstappen was young but more than that he had already shown that he was a generational talent. Red Bull was not Ricciardo's team anymore and he decided it was time to make the switch.
That was 2018. Daniel Ricciardo was young, he was considered to be one of the best drivers on the grid and the future looked promising for the Australian. We are in 2022 now! Ricciardo is in his 30s, he's moved from Red Bull to Renault to McLaren in the meantime and won a lone race in the last three years. He's part of the Woking-based squad where he has no points to his name after two races in a car that is not even capable of podium contention. A career that looked promising in 2018 with endless possibilities looks uncertain now and seems to be heading towards a rather unpromising end.
McLaren is incapable of championship contention!
At the end of last season, things looked promising for both Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren. The team had been making a steady surge towards the front. It finished fourth in the championship, behind only the giants of the grid like Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari. More importantly, it picked up its first win and pole position in over a decade.
For the new regulations that were rolled out this season, McLaren appeared to be one of the dark horses. It had a great pairing of drivers and had a track record of improvement over the last few seasons.
Reality struck this season, however, when McLaren found out it did not have enough downforce on the car as compared to the rest of the grid. From belonging to the top of the midfield, the team went to being unable to take a Q3 slot now.
It's highly likely that the team will make progress throughout the season and we could see them jump back to the front of the midfield. The start of the season, however, has made everyone realize that McLaren might not be well-equipped to be a championship contender.
The team is lagging when it comes to race operations and the car is not where it should be in terms of competitiveness. More importantly, McLaren is dependent on an engine supplier. For now, it is Mercedes that it has partnered with. Will that remain the case if McLaren becomes a direct competitor to Mercedes? You have to question whether the German giant will do anything in its power to prevent that from happening.
McLaren has seemingly reached its ceiling when it comes to where it can be on the grid. Could the team get even better in the future and become a title contender? Sure, it can. Anything can happen in Formula 1, but this is not going to happen in the immediate future.
Daniel Ricciardo's fall in the hierarchy on the grid
Even if we can turn a blind eye to McLaren's performances this season, it won't be easy to turn a blind eye to where Daniel Ricciardo finds himself on the grid right now. Compared to the 2018 season when he was considered one of the elites on the grid, the 2022 season finds Ricciardo fighting it out with the likes of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell, and many other young drivers for the top honors.
Sure, he's still a pretty good driver, but will he be at the top of the list for Mercedes if Lewis Hamilton retires tomorrow? It's hard to say yes to that question. There is an entirely new breed of young drivers that are fast, consistent, and most importantly young enough to build a team around. Daniel Ricciardo, on the other hand, is in his 30s, He also had a rather poor season with McLaren last year, where Norris convincingly beat him, and he has looked like the slower driver this season as well.
Daniel Ricciardo not only finds himself in a team where he cannot fight for the championship, it's the fact that he is not showing the consistency and performance levels you look for in a title challenger that further hurts his chances.
At the moment, on the current grid, drivers like Russell, Norris, Leclerc, Sainz, Gasly, and even Ocon have displayed a better level of performance than Ricciardo, which is probably more alarming than the state of McLaren.
Is there still hope for Ricciardo?
As we alluded to earlier, nothing works for Daniel Ricciardo right now. He's in a midfield team that's not fighting for titles any time soon. To add to this, right now, he's not the prized commodity he used to be a few years back. Norris has been handily beating him at McLaren and every other top team already has one lead driver for the future. Verstappen is not moving from Red Bull, Ferrari has secured Leclerc for the long term, Mercedes has Russell and Hamilton and even McLaren has hedged its bets on Norris.
The only possible option for Daniel Ricciardo, if he wants to look for a seat at a title-contending team, is to go to the teams as the less favored driver. Mercedes might have a vacancy once Hamilton retires, Red Bull might take a second look at Perez if he is unable to perform at the level the team wants him to, but that's it.
Daniel Ricciardo is not young, he's not performing at a level that makes him the most sought-after driver on the grid, and most importantly, there aren't any seats available in the big teams.
Unless Lady Luck strikes for the Australian, it does appear that a career that once looked so promising might look like a rather meek end. Daniel Ricciardo was one of the brightest stars in F1 in 2014. Sadly for him, the lack of luck and the emergence of Max Verstappen derailed what could have been a very successful career in F1.