Asked by Wide World of Sports to sum up Daniel Ricciardo’s two years at McLaren, 1980 world champion Alan Jones doesn’t take long to answer.
“In one word, disastrous,” he replied.
”There’s no other way to describe it.”
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Ricciardo will bow out of Formula 1 after this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently.
He’s spoken about taking a year off, regrouping, and returning in 2024, but that’s far from guaranteed. The Australian will turn 34 next year, and the reality is his stock has taken a hammering during his ill-fated time at McLaren.
If this is to be his last race weekend, it’s a sad end to a career that promised so much. Jack Brabham (14), Jones (12) and Mark Webber (9) are the only Australians to have won more races than Ricciardo’s eight, but the enduring memory will be of his struggles at McLaren, where he simply hasn’t come to terms with the car.
“I’m a bit bemused by the whole situation to be honest with you,” Jones said.
“Daniel is a really good race driver, but I’m of the opinion that a race driver should be able to hop into anything and drive it.
“Some can do it better than others. But in the old days Formula 1 drivers were invited to drive touring cars, or sports cars, you couldn’t just hop into one and say, ‘Well sorry, I can’t get to grips with it.’
“You wouldn’t last too long.”
Jones described the possibility of Ricciardo returning in 2024 as “a long shot” but did concede it was more likely now than in the past.
World champions Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso both took time off during their careers, while earlier this week Nico Hulkenberg was confirmed as Mick Schumacher’s replacement at Haas, Hulkenberg hasn’t had a full-time drive since spending a season as Ricciardo’s teammate in 2019.
“It’s changed a bit now, but the general consensus was that once you left F1 it was very hard to get back in,” said Jones, who made his own comeback to the sport in 1985, having retired in 1981.
“But certainly it’s a bit risky.
“I don’t really know what the sabbatical is all about. I don’t know if it’s about getting his mind right, or a couple of months on the farm to freshen up, I don’t know.
“It’s something I can’t get my head around.”
The decision to take a year off rested with Ricciardo, who chose not to pursue possible drives with Haas or Williams for 2023.
“I’m a little confused by that, to be honest,” Jones said.
“I’ve always been a believer that it’s better to be there. Formula 1 bosses aren’t mugs, if they see you doing a great job in a slower car, and putting it in spots where it really shouldn’t be, they’ll sit up real quick.
“If he was to hop in the Haas or the Williams, and be running consistently in the midfield, people will be thinking that they may have been a bit hasty in writing him off.”
And if he does come back in 2024, how will Ricciardo cope with the mental scars of his two horror years at McLaren? Sure, he picked up a win at Monza, leading home teammate Lando Norris in a drought-breaking 1-2 for the team, but by and large, he was totally eclipsed by Norris.
“It depends who he comes back with, and how competitive he is,” Jones explained.
“If he comes back and blitzes it from the start, all of a sudden those scars disappear and your confidence is back.
“But if he comes back and he’s not going all that well, it could be a double-whammy.”
Many will wonder how Ricciardo’s career may have played out had he not decided in 2018 to leave Red Bull for Renault. While the move was certainly a good one for his bank balance, it signalled the beginning of the end for his career.
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, and nobody is privy to exactly what went on,” Jones noted.
“We can all speculate, but only those who were there know the full story.
“Maybe he thought he was being overshadowed by Max Verstappen, not being given a fair go and he’d never reach where he wanted to go as long as he was in that perceived number two spot.
“If he was unhappy in his own mind with that situation, it was probably a fair gamble.
“Going from Renault to McLaren (in 2021), that probably wasn’t a bad decision either, but unfortunately he’s found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
It’s a far cry from his first year at Red Bull, when he joined the team for the 2014 season.
Three wins saw him labelled by the sport’s bible, Autocourse, as “without doubt a potential world champion”.
The yearbook ranked him as the second best driver in the sport that year, behind world champion Lewis Hamilton, even pointing out “you couldn’t argue if Ricciardo had been given the No.1 slot.”
But his time at Red Bull coincided with a period of Mercedes dominance, and he was never able to mount a real championship challenge.
“That’s how Formula 1 works,” Jones explained.
“There’s been some fabulous drivers who’ve not been able to show their true ability because they’re in the wrong car or because they’ve had bad luck.
“But as Bernie Ecclestone once said, ‘Who needs a driver with bad luck?’
“Chris Amon was one of the fastest drivers of all time, at one stage one of the highest-paid drivers, and he never won a single race, let alone a championship.
“It’s just luck of the draw sometimes.”
The brutal reality is Ricciardo has been sacked by McLaren despite having a year to run on his contract, his place to be taken by compatriot Oscar Piastri, regarded by many as a future star.
Abu Dhabi will be Ricciardo’s 232nd Formula 1 race. If the 233rd never eventuates, it will be an unhappy finish to a career that could have delivered so much more.
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