The launch of McLaren’s MCL35M not only marks a new era with Mercedes but also the start of its partnership with Daniel Ricciardo, who has pledged the next three years of his career to help the team make the next step of its route back to the top, as MotorsportWeek.com explains.
For Ricciardo, and McLaren, the wedding vows have finally rung two years after a union was first mooted.
In mid-2018 Ricciardo, contemplating leaving Red Bull, was courted by a McLaren team that was at its lowest ebb. McLaren had split from Honda but its Renault alliance only served to highlight its own flaws, including the management structure, which was a mess. Since that initial flirtation McLaren has appointed the erudite Andreas Seidl as Team Principal, recruited James Key as Technical Director, and rekindled its engine partnership with Mercedes. McLaren vaulted from sixth to fourth, surpassing the factory Renault team Ricciardo joined, and then improved to third last season, despite infrequently having the fundamentally third-fastest package.
Following that previous rejection Ricciardo, 31, now takes the place of Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz through at least 2023, at a team that has transformed its reputation and aspirations.
“I feel like I’m coming here with a bunch of momentum behind the team,” said Ricciardo during a news conference.
“I think as well, not only results, but there’s really good stability in the team, infrastructure… I think when I talked to McLaren a couple of years ago in 2018, I don’t think Andreas was there yet, James Key wasn’t, so there were still quite a few moving parts.
“Ultimately, the results weren’t quite there on track yet, but they were still trying to figure out their own structure and trying to establish that now.
“I’m basically just fitting into the puzzle as opposed to trying to put it all together. I’m certainly feeling good about it, hanging out to try the car, but it all feels pretty right at the moment.”
Ricciardo won’t have long to wait to try the car as he is set to get his first taste of McLaren’s MCL35M during a filming day at Silverstone on Tuesday. He has spent the last few weeks in a wintry United Kingdom finally getting up to speed with a team to which he committed last May – before a wheel had even been turned in the 2020 season. Ricciardo has undertaken the usual steps, such as the seat fit, simulator sessions and meeting new colleagues, where possible, amid ongoing Covid-19 protocols and restrictions in a country that has been under lockdown since January 4. Ricciardo has identified “fitting it and feeling like you’re part of the team” as the biggest challenge of changing employer.
“Being integrated, not only in the driving side, but into all of it,” he explains. “Into the engineering, into the strategy. I’ve already had so many meetings here at the MTC with not only my engineer, but really the whole racing department. So it’s kind of like, feeling like you’re sitting in the room with a voice and with enough knowledge that what you say will be taken onboard. I think that whole integration into all areas of the race team, that’s probably got a lot more power than just being the driver, and only the driver. So that feeling, feeling like you can sit in every room and have a presence, that’s probably the most important, but also the most difficult thing to get going.”
Getting Ricciardo assimilated within McLaren has been a primary target for Seidl, particularly given the short off-season, and lack of track time before the first of 23 planned grands prix.
“Our goal is clear: we want to make sure that once we hit the track in Bahrain at the first race it doesn’t feel like Daniel is doing his first race together with us,” explained Seidl. “That is the goal. Based on that we have worked out a clear plan, with a clear focus on the technical and operations side of which boxes we have to tick together with him to make sure he is ready at the first race and first practice session. We also have plans in place to integrate him on the commercial and communications side, marketing side of the team. Looking at what we have achieved so far, I am very happy. We have obviously had a lot of online sessions with him to make him familiar with the way we work with our car and our systems. I am very happy with the preparation so far and how it went given the circumstances we are all in.”
Ricciardo’s arrival not only brings race-winning acumen to a team that is on an eight-season drought but alters the dynamic within the driver line-up. Ricciardo will partner Lando Norris, a decade older than the Briton, but with less experience of the McLaren organisation, and both see benefits to the new situation.
“For sure there’s some things I can learn from him, particularly in the team itself, and kind of the integration into the McLaren family,” commented Ricciardo.
“I think every time you have a new team-mate it’s a real opportunity to learn something new, whether it’s work ethic, driving technique, or both.
“I’m always pretty open minded. I know every driver has confidence in themselves and their ability, I am very confident as an individual but I’m also open-minded, and if there is something I can take from Lando and use it to better myself then obviously I’m looking to learn as much as I can.”
For Norris it will be a first change of team-mates at McLaren having been paired with Sainz since his own debut in 2019.
“I only see it really as a positive,” said Norris. “He’s a guy who’s been credited, he can win races, he can score podiums, he’s good in probably every single area. So for me [it is good] to learn that little bit more from a different driver, get to know someone who has a different approach on things and not kind of get into the same habits that you know from one particular driver.”
This year is a transitional one for most teams, given the anticipated regulatory overhaul was postponed by 12 months as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic and long-term uncertainty that reigned last spring. A title challenge from McLaren is unrealistic and the main ambition is to reduce the overall performance deficit to champions Mercedes – an eminently achievable proposition. But McLaren is also wary that, while third in the standings was an outstanding achievement, small margins dictated an exceptionally close battle. It entered the final of 2020’s 17 rounds in fourth, snatched third, but could have fallen to fifth – and is likely to face a renewed threat from a Ferrari team that was weakened by its season-long power woes. Seidl reiterated that McLaren “needs more time to get our infrastructure in place” and is likely to have “limitations” during the process – for example, the first benefit of its new windtunnel is unlikely to be felt until early 2023. But 2022 is a reset for all teams – with work already ongoing behind the scenes on the new cars – and one that Ricciardo and McLaren are eager to grasp.
“Do I know 100 per cent how it’s going to turn out? I don’t,” says Ricciardo.
“But I certainly feel like McLaren has done the right things, particularly in the last few years, to set themselves up, for in particular, let’s say these rule changes coming in 2022.
“I think that kind of, let’s say, next era of F1, has the ability to certainly turn the field around a little bit. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve known up until now certainly excites me about where McLaren is heading.
“They’ve got more backing as well from the end of last year, some more investment. They’re expanding, I think they’re doing what it takes to be a real contender in the championship. Let’s do it!”