Daniel Ricciardo knows he faces a tough choice if he is to resurrect his Formula 1 career in 2023, and he also knows he cannot afford to give the F1 paddock a bad impression when he takes this decision.
Since accepting McLaren’s decision to buy him out for the final year of his F1 contract and losing his seat to fellow Australian Oscar Piastri for 2023, Ricciardo has often spoken of his openness to mind regarding its next steps.
That next move could be as a reserve driver for Mercedes – a role Ricciardo has been linked to but Lewis Hamilton says he is too good for. He could also continue to race in F1, but for a less competitive team than McLaren – although Ricciardo is not seen as a serious contender for the seats (Alpine/AlphaTauri, Haas and Williams) which currently remain vacant.
Ricciardo has also said he’s ready to take a sabbatical – but it won’t be the type that Fernando Alonso touched with in 2019-20.
Alonso has spoken on several occasions about the added benefits he gained from his break from F1 to win the World Endurance Championship, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona, as well as competing in the 500 miles of ‘Indianapolis and the Dakar Rally.
But Alonso left F1 on his own terms. Ricciardo’s situation is very different. He knows his stock in the F1 world has dropped, and that realization clearly informs his thinking as he weighs his next move.
Perception matters a lot in F1, so Ricciardo knows he can’t afford to look like he’s anything but laser-focused on convincing the paddock that his two seasons at McLaren were an aberration rather than a signal that he completed as an F1 top-line driver.
Ricciardo has spent most of the extended break imposed by F1’s cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix at his home in Australia on his family’s farm – in his words ‘messing around on the bikes’ and ‘being a kid again “.
He has returned to the F1 paddock in Singapore having gained some ‘clarity’ in his thinking, and it looks like he now knows he has to choose between racing in 2023 but almost certainly at or near the back of the grid. , or sit next season. while working on the sidelines for a top team – and on a full-time return for 2024.
It means he is categorically ruling out racing outside of F1 in 2023, lest it further damage his “image” in F1 circles.
“I love the other disciplines of motorsport, but I don’t see myself there,” said Ricciardo. “I also feel like I jump into something like that and it closes the door in F1. I feel like I checked and I didn’t.
“I’m still very determined to stay here, so I don’t want the view to be ‘ah, he’s focusing on other things’.
“That’s also what I have to weigh. As fun as these things are, I think what has to be best for me, and even my image goal, is to stay in the sport.
“It’s very quick, I think, for people to see me do something else and be like ‘this is where his head is now; he won’t come back. So yes, I focus only on F1. »
That’s pretty much the only certainty in Ricciardo’s mind right now. Everything else, as he suggests, requires careful weighing of the pros and cons.
He describes a reserve role with a top F1 team and a race with a lesser team as his ‘two realistic options’ to stay in F1 next year – but he also realizes there are significant downsides to these options. .
Racing with a lesser team takes him even further away from his fundamental reason for being in competition, which is to succeed: “I guess I don’t just want to race to race – I want to race with the belief and understanding that I can be back on the podium eventually”.
The reserve role discussed with Mercedes would allow Ricciardo to re-enter a big F1 team and could give him the space for a mental reset that perfectly motivates him for a return to racing.
It could also put him in a prime position for promotion in 2024, when (in theory at least) Mercedes could have a vacancy if Lewis Hamilton doesn’t agree to another contract extension, and/or Mercedes chooses to stop working with him. George Russell.
But it could very easily (and possibly probably) quickly become a total dead end.
“I know that if I choose to play a reserve role, or not to race next year, nothing is guaranteed – so obviously that comes with a risk,” admitted Ricciardo. “But that’s what we weigh. At this stage, especially with a top team, there are no guarantees.
Ricciardo insists his confidence and self-confidence remain intact, despite ‘a few knocks’ in a bruising 2022 season with McLaren, but he also says he has received kind words from the F1 world in the sense wide that “fills me with confidence to always want to persevere”.
“The conversations are of course private, but I will say there’s still a lot of kindness, or positivity, or compliments,” Ricciardo added.
“A lot of people have been in the sport for years – they’ve seen how it works and I don’t think…of course there’s a saying ‘you’re only as good as your last run’, but I think a lot of them appreciated that it’s not like I forgot how to do this.
Nonetheless, it remains that Ricciardo’s F1 stock is at rock bottom, so whatever he does next, there’s no easy path to the top, even for an eight-time Grand Prix winner.