A heady mix of a highly regarded and expensive, yet struggling driver, alongside the availability of a cache of youthful exuberance may be about to give McLaren a headache – albeit a good one, on the surface.
But are the options available as refined or as speedy as the incumbent?
“We ultimately just weren’t quick enough this weekend. So not much more to say.”
It was difficult, if not impossible for Daniel Ricciardo to hide his disappointment following the Monaco Grand Prix earlier this year.
The Australian had won there in 2018, having also come desperately close to victory in Monte Carlo two years previously, but in the principality in May, he struggled to a dismal 13th place, while his teammate – Lando Norris – secured a top six finish and the fastest lap.
It was a result that has run parallel throughout the 2022 season so far. While no challenger for the top positions, the McLaren MCL36 vies for points on a regular basis, although Norris is currently the driver who is collecting much of the prize.
There is little doubt that the Mercedes-powered machine is somewhat recalcitrant at times, but few were expecting these results from Ricciardo.
Ricciardo is no slouch though. He won the Italian Grand Prix last September, ahead of Norris, for McLaren – the team’s first victory since 2012, but even last year, Ricciardo’s inconsistent running raised eyebrows.
Having arrived from Renault (now Alpine) for the 2021 season, Ricciardo brought an expectation that he would command the Woking squad, at least while Norris garnered experience and maturity, but motorsport is littered with daring deals that shine paper, only to flatter to deceive on track. From the off, the younger Englishman has dominated his race winning counterpart and left Ricciardo with no answers.
This would be far from the first time. So much was made of Alex Zanardi’s transfer from Chip Ganassi’s CART team to Williams in 1999, only for the Italian to score no points, as he trailed team leader Ralf Schumacher. Arguably, one could point to Michael Schumacher’s big name return to Mercedes in 2012, only to flop alongside Nico Rosberg.
Indeed, McLaren have suffered this in the past when Michael Andretti and Stoffel Vandoorne both failed to resonate, despite strong reputations amidst previous successes.
Yet it would be a mistake to think Ricciardo as some slow ambassador peddling around to a quiet retirement, as Ricardo Patrese did at Benetton in 1993. Since debuting in 2011, the Australian has proved to be a fast and effective operator who has mastered the art of the surprise lunge.
Spells with Hispania Racing, Toro Rosso and Red Bull saw his reputation soar, but there is little doubt that against the might of Max Verstappen, he would have come unstuck. A move to Renault saw the Australian deliver several stellar performances in a team slowly restructuring following years of null investment, but with Fernando Alonso incoming, Ricciardo jumped to McLaren, only for his form and perception to slump.
Now more than ever, the Australian is looking backward a career peak that is floating further and further away. The well-known wide smile and unerring grin – once such common features – are now shadows, and Ricciardo is looking more and more like a man ill at ease with the task ahead, as the names of potential suitors ring louder.
Emerging from Indycar are three stars that could play into the second seat at McLaren – Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou, although the latter not without a smidgen of controversy.
As it stands, neither Herta nor O’Ward have qualified for an FIA Super Licence (Herta requires a top-five at the end of this Indycar season (currently 8th) and O’Ward needs a top-four (currently 6th)). However, Palou does qualify and should McLaren wish, the Spaniard would qualify to race for the F1 team in 2023.
At this stage though, that does not appear to be the plan. Ricciardo has been keen to underline that he does possess a seat with McLaren for next year, whereas Palou’s recently announced 2023 deal places him within the McLaren Racing stable and not necessarily with any programme; however, his deal does include testing with the 2021 McLaren F1 machine; however, even that is on hold, as Chip Ganassi Racing have argued that they have Palou under contract for 2023.
Most likely, this will end up with lawyers, several reputational bloody noses, and some empty pockets.
This is not to say that Palou, Herta or O’Ward would even be quicker than Ricciardo, but McLaren have already started testing the latter pair with the MCL35M, alongside simulator drivers Will Stevens and Oliver Turvey, who is providing a critical benchmark for the Indycar racers.
Should any one of these racers move to Woking, the trio will be faced with several critical hurdles, including the ability to adapt to a series with open regulations, where development is key and adapting to an ever-changing car is critical to success and data processing and understanding, which is far more critical in Formula One than in any other racing category – Le Mans Hypercar aside.
Thus, McLaren find themselves in the midst of a holding pattern. The team are clearly looking abroad for talent to eventually sit alongside Norris once Ricciardo has left, while simultaneously catering to Ricciardo for what could be his last hurrah in the top level of single-seater racing.
Yet at they look to new power unit regulations from 2026, McLaren will be looking to continue their rebuild following a disastrous last decade and they will need a driver who can deliver week-in, week-out.
It remains to be seen if that driver can be found with Palou, Herta or O’Ward.