The disconnect between McLaren duo Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo has been one of the key storylines of the 2021 Formula 1 season.
With one absolutely at the top of his game and overachieving every weekend, the other has been left perplexed by his struggles to adapt to the car.
It also means that on days Ricciardo feels he has done well, like his charge to seventh in the Austrian Grand Prix, it is all overshadowed by what his teammate has done.
As a team player, Ricciardo is obviously pleased to see Norris make progress and benchmark the MCL35M.
But it’s not making his life any easier as the world at large questions his form. Indeed he’s decided that he has to not be overly concerned about his young teammate’s pace.
“I feel like it's obviously for whatever reason been a very unexpected and difficult season so far, just from a pace point of view,” he told Motorsport.com after the Austrian race.
“And I guess the easiest way for me to kind of move forward is to accept that. Did I expect more? Absolutely. But I think if I every weekend go into it now expecting to be quicker than Lando, or whatever it is, I'm probably just going to end up resenting the sport, because clearly it's going to take a bit more.
“Clearly there's something that is missing. I feel good in the car, especially the last three weeks, it's felt better.
“I don't want to say, what's the word, wave the white flag, or succumb to whatever it is, I'm just going to not really focus or lose too much energy on that, and just accept that he's driving very well. The aim is to obviously get closer, and help the team out as well.”
In other words, he just has to focus on what he’s doing: “I think that's it, you can get lost obviously with other things. And maybe that's the wise kind of 32-year-old in me now. But I think I've just got to focus on myself, and then hopefully, I can keep chipping away at it.”
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
Around the time of Monaco and Baku Ricciardo acknowledged that the upcoming triple header at “normal” circuits, with two races at the same venue, would be a huge opportunity for him to learn more about how to get the best out of the car.
His French GP weekend was solid, 10th on the grid followed by sixth in the race, some 11.8s seconds behind Norris at the flag. He started 13th at the Styrian GP and had a typically good first lap to get up to eighth. Decent points appeared to be possible, but an early engine glitch cost him four places and saw him ultimately cross the line where he qualified, in 13th.
In that context the Austrian race represented a step forward, and at least he was able to fight.
“Yeah, it was better,” he said. “I think it was just the day I needed. And for sure I would say for the team, the points, it was nice to get in seventh and get points for them.
“But I mean personally, right now obviously I'm not in a championship fight, so the points are, I don't want to say irrelevant, but I think the important thing for me was just have fun, be in some battles, and put myself in a good position.
“And that's what I did, and the end result was some points, which is nice. I just enjoyed it. Obviously it's been hard to fully enjoy it when the results have not been there, so I took a bit more fulfilment from from the race.”
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Ricciardo is still getting those first laps right. He passed George Russell and Carlos Sainz at the original start, and then Sergio Perez (who went through the gravel) and Charles Leclerc after the early safety car.
“I don't know if it's I'm getting old, but the first laps are a blur!,” he smiled. “I remember getting George into turn seven, I don't remember much else, but I do remember I think on lap one I got two cars, and at the safety car restart I got two cars.
“So that was good, obviously moving forward, and I needed it because obviously out of track position from qualifying. I mean it was a fun race, I saw people get squeezed off, I heard there were some penalties.
“Because we've got the big screens and a lot of long straights, you can kind of see what's going on. So sometimes I'd see a replay of someone get squeezed, and then I'd see their radio get broadcast. Hopefully the fans were entertained!”
However despite Ricciardo’s obvious satisfaction with his Sunday afternoon there was no escaping the fact that, even with a five-second penalty taken at his stop, Norris crossed the line 40 seconds earlier.
Ricciardo remains mystified by his struggles, especially in qualifying. His woes continue despite all the homework that he and his engineers have been doing as he tries to adapt his driving style.
“A little bit of the frustration was that I was pretty happy yesterday [in qualifying]. The car doesn't feel perfect, but it felt pretty good. It felt better than a 13th place car.
“So I think everything felt okay, it's just not there on the stopwatch. But from a feeling, it's getting better. Maybe it's just literally half a tenth in each corner. And then I'm there. I don't know, but it felt okay.”
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
On the plus side, as he had predicted, the triple-header did allow him the opportunity to log more miles and try more things in the car.
“Absolutely. And even if I overlay my data from last week to this week, I'm doing a lot more things that this car requires. So I feel like let's say my McLaren driving improved a lot, and I think that was a bit of the kind of sadness from [qualifying], that unfortunately it didn't translate into lap time yet.
“So maybe it's still a bit conscious and I'm just spending too much energy trying to drive it like that. Maybe just a few more races and then it's more my subconscious, and then I can put the car more on the edge. Maybe it's that? We'll see.”
Next stop is Silverstone – the circuit where Ricciardo made his F1 debut with HRT exactly 10 years ago. It’s not been a particularly fruitful venue for him, and third with RBR in 2014 remains his only podium finish.
New for everyone this year is the sprint qualifying format, and Ricciardo is hoping that it will play to one of his obvious strengths.
“The way my starts have been, the last three races, I think I've made minimum two places every first lap. So having a sprint qualifying actually means I'll probably start further up the grid on Sunday! So I'm happy to have two race starts.
“I think probably you have to treat it like a race. If you're being complacent then ultimately you're going to start Sunday further back, and then you're going to take all the risk on Sunday, and maybe risk the front wing then.
“So I would say right now the mindset would be just a normal approach, try to attack when possible and make the most of it.”
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, makes a pit stop
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Ricciardo admits he has reservations about the format: “I mean pitstops make it fun, I've got used to obviously doing pitstops, and also it really gets the team involved.
“And if they execute a good pitstop, and if you undercut a car or something through a pitstop, everyone feels like they've contributed to that that victory or that result. I like the team element of it, but we'll see what it's like.”
Looking further ahead Ricciardo can only be happy about his decision to join McLaren, as it’s clear that momentum is continuing to build.
“I think at the moment, it's Lando just having the pace he's having, and obviously the speed,” he said. “The speed is there in the car. So I think that gives the team a lot of motivation as well to push hard for next year, with new regulations. But obviously something is clicking with the car. So I think that's encouraging.”