The future of Daniel Ricciardo's Formula One career has never looked so uncertain. On Wednesday, he and McLaren confirmed they will part company at the end of 2022, one year before his contract was due to expire.
It's a remarkable turn of events for one of F1's most talented and popular drivers. Ricciardo's stock has taken a big hit over the past 18 months since he arrived at the British team. There was the obvious high of his stunning Italian Grand Prix victory last year -- a tantalising glimpse of Ricciardo at his absolute best and McLaren's only race win since 2012 -- but it stands out as the anomaly in an otherwise frustrating spell of falling well below the expectations McLaren and F1 fans had of him.
Things have been made worse by the superb form of teammate Lando Norris, who is currently 57 points ahead of Ricciardo in the championship, but McLaren's decision to pull the trigger was still a shocking outcome to the whole saga.
It would be a massive disappointment if Formula One lost Ricciardo. At his best, he is one of the best drivers in the sport and arguably the best overtaker in F1 -- memorably, he once said his approach to out-braking his opponents was "lick the stamp and send it" -- but it's been a long time since we've seen that version of Ricciardo, who claimed seven of his eight career wins between 2014 and 2018 at Red Bull. He remains one of the most marketable athletes on the grid right now.
Big questions now linger. Where will he go next? And, if he finds a new seat, can he ever rediscover his old self?
Despite the humbling end to his tenure with McLaren, it's hard to imagine Ricciardo not racing in F1 next season.
Rumours of Ricciardo thinking about retirement have lingered all year but have not been based on anything the Australian driver has actually said publicly or privately. His desire to stay in F1 is clear -- ESPN understands he is reluctant to take a sabbatical from the championship next year because it could quite easily turn into a retirement if the right opportunity does not materialise in 2024.
Notably, his quote in Wednesday's press release finished with: "I've never been more motivated to compete and be a part of a sport that I love so much and look forward to what comes next".
The circumstances around his early exit from McLaren will have only added fuel to that fire to compete. It is hard to imagine Ricciardo wanting his F1 career to end on the sour note of having a contract torn up one year early. Right now a return to Alpine, where he raced when it was called Renault in 2019 and 2020, seems like the most logical destination and it is believed there is interest on both sides about rekindling the partnership.
The most appealing part of that move would come from Alpine's position alongside McLaren in the competitive order. The two teams are currently fighting for fourth position in the championship and the feeling in F1 is the order is not likely to change in a dramatic way next season, meaning a return to the Enstone team would come with the tantalising opportunity to fight the team which gave him the boot.
Of course, McLaren would not be too concerned about that happening based on Ricciardo's recent form, but there is a feeling within Ricciardo's camp and within the F1 paddock in general that a change of scenery is what he needs to get back to the level he once competed at.
The move would suit both parties. Alpine's current reputation has taken a bit of a battering in recent weeks in how badly it has managed the short- and long-term future of its driver line-up. The team has let Fernando Alonso and, in all likelihood, Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri (who looks set to replace Ricciardo at McLaren) slip through its fingers in the space of a few months through some fairly remarkable mismanagement of the situation. Signing a name driver like Ricciardo would soften the blow of that a little bit for team boss Otmar Szafnauer.
Alpine would also likely not feel compelled to pay Ricciardo anywhere near as much as they did when he joined in 2019, which was reported at $25 million a year, given the reasons his McLaren contract has been cut short.
Haas and Williams are yet to confirm who will partner Kevin Magnussen and Alex Albon, respectively, next season, and it is unlikely either team will sign another driver while Ricciardo is still on the market. Both are understood to have reached out to Ricciardo this summer.
Haas would be a tantalising option, linking two of the stars of Netflix's hit documentary 'Drive to Survive', Ricciardo and Haas boss Guenther Steiner, in the same team. A Ricciardo-Magnussen driver line-up would quite comfortably be Haas' best since it joined the grid in 2016.
The American team has been impressive this season in the midfield but it would be a massively risky move given its limited resources. One obvious plus point would be the team's close links to Ferrari, which might give Ricciardo a route in to the Italian team in future were he to rediscover his old form, but it would represent an enormous gamble.
As fun as the prospect of Ricciardo at Haas seems to be, Alpine makes the most sense for everyone involved. While Ricciardo will need to rebuild his reputation wherever he does end up next the F1 grid would be a much worse off without him racing on it.