Is McLaren going to move on from Daniel Ricciardo? Will he retire at the end of the year?
Those are the two questions that won't seem to go away right now. Ricciardo's form since joining McLaren has been disappointing and so far short of the expectations set when he joined the team last season.
This week, Ricciardo took to Instagram to clarify his current situation.
The Australian posted on Wednesday: "There have been a lot of rumours about my future in Formula One but I want you to hear it from me. I am committed to McLaren until the end of next year and not walking away from the sport.
"Appreciate it hasn't always been easy, but who wants easy! I'm working my a-- off with the team to make improvements and get the car right back to the front where it belongs. I still want this more than ever."
While Ricciardo has played a big role in Formula One's recent boom period, most new fans have probably struggled to see why the eight-time race winner has been labelled one of the sport's best drivers. Bar his remarkable shock win at the Italian Grand Prix last year, his performances for McLaren have been short of the name he built for himself during stints at Red Bull and Renault. Reputations in F1 are hard earned and easily lost.
But the reality of the situation is far more simple than many of the rumours appear to make out.
Can McLaren move on from Ricciardo?
If McLaren is unwilling to pay a lot of money to tear up his deal, the simple answer to this appears to be -- no.
The fact Ricciardo felt his statement, which was effectively 'man with contract says he will stay at team he is contracted to', needed to be said speaks volumes to just how loud some of the noise around his future has been in recent weeks. That noise has almost exclusively been generated by McLaren.
In May, when company CEO Zak Brown was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he dropped a bombshell quote when he said that the team had "mechanisms" in Ricciardo's contract that could see them move on from the Australian this year. It may not be coincidental that a few days later on the other side of the Atlantic, Ricciardo hit perhaps his lowest point of this season, qualifying 14th and then finishing 13th in a totally ordinary display at the Monaco Grand Prix, an event he won in 2018.Coming so soon after Brown's comments, it was like pouring petrol on a fire in terms of the speculation around his future.
That Brown quote was an odd one. ESPN understands Ricciardo's deal does not include exit clauses for McLaren to exercise, something team boss Andreas Seidl even hinted was the case when the team unveiled the Australian driver in 2021.
But the rumour mill has been building steam recently. This week American driver Colton Herta tested the team's 2021 F1 car, something new McLaren IndyCar signing Alex Palou will do later this year too. There have been various reports doing the rounds linking McLaren to Pierre Gasly, or reigning Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri (Alpine's next big F1 prospect, who appears more likely to be at Williams next season).
With Ricciardo making it clear he has no intention of walking away from his deal, the implication seems to be that if McLaren wants him out, they can tear up his contract. That would obviously come with a huge financial cost to the team but Brown is clearly feeling the pressure from McLaren's shareholders and partners -- the team has also fallen well short of delivering the title-contending car it had been hoping for coming into 2021. Walking away would have been an easy solution to McLaren's current dilemma but it is clear Ricciardo is not willing to do that.
The two F1-ready options available don't seem to justify the nuclear option even if Brown wanted to do that. Gasly is a race winner but struggled under the pressure of Red Bull in 2018 -- fair questions remain about how he might fare outside of the familiar environment of AlphaTauri. Piastri is clearly worthy of an F1 seat but a deal would need to be struck with Alpine to get him and there's also no guarantee he lives up to the hype around him either.
On the U.S. side, Herta and Palou are both talented drivers but the switch from American open wheel racing to Formula One is not a simple one and McLaren would likely have to expect a slow adjustment period for both were they to ever race in F1.
Is Ricciardo going to retire?
Ricciardo has given no hint his motivation is waning and those close to the Australian have told ESPN he is genuine about his desire to continue until at least the end of 2023. Ricciardo's defiant statement -- "I still want this more than ever" -- is mirrored in what he has told the media.
Teammate Lando Norris' form has done Ricciardo no favours. While Norris has finished in the points at eight of this year's 11 races, including a podium at Imola, while Ricciardo has only managed a 6th, 8th and 9th place finish on the three occasions he has scored points.
Compared to Norris, it is easy to speculate that Ricciardo has just stopped caring, or that he is simply happy to take the money McLaren is paying him and quietly bow out of F1 when the time is right. In a paddock as closely knit as F1's it is very obvious when someone's demeanour has changed, but there has been no indication Ricciardo's love for the sport has waned.
As the latest season of Netflix's Drive to Survive showed, Ricciardo is his harshest critic, and ESPN understands he has recently upped his simulator time in order to get a handle on the car. Sources present told ESPN Ricciardo got slightly choked up while addressing employees at the McLaren Technology Center this week to reaffirm his commitment to them and to Formula One.
Some have pointed to Ricciardo's increased fame away from F1, that he's appeared on the cover of GQ or that he's been on American talk shows, as an indication his mind is elsewhere, but those things have never seemed to be too much of a distraction. Ever since Ricciardo was inundated and worn down by media requests and sponsor events in the lead up to an Australian Grand Prix with Red Bull, he and his team have been careful to make sure activities away from the race track do not impact his on-track performances.
The one thing fans of the Australian can hope for is that history repeats itself. Ricciardo was keen for a watertight three-year deal as he knew it would dovetail a major regulation change, with this year's new generation of cars arriving in the middle year of that contract. On arriving, he knew he would have one year learning the team's 2021 car, before a new regulation change and a brand new car this year. Like in 2021, he has been slow adapting but, unlike last year, he has a second season with this car.
Ricciardo also started slowly at Renault in 2019 after his move from Red Bull but had found his feet by 2020, scoring two podiums, the first of which memorably earned old Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul a tattoo. Ricciardo was one of the standout performers in 2020 and that form earned him the McLaren move. If he can repeat that resurgence in the remaining months of this year and into next season, these questions will go away, but Ricciardo still appears to be a long way from finding that sweet spot with the car.
Ricciardo is running out of time to convince McLaren he is worthy of a second deal beyond this one, even if he does see it out in its entirety. But as things stand it looks very much like he will at least have the chance to try and rediscover the form which made him one of Formula One's most respected racing drivers. The onus is on him to get there -- that nuclear option will become more and more appealing to McLaren the longer it takes Ricciardo to get back to his old self.