Ferrari Overlooked Ricciardo Because He’s Fast & Ambitious

Carlos Sainz Jr. & Daniel Ricciardo, F1's Movers & Shakes From Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari Exit
Without a single lap raced in the 2020 Formula 1 season, the careers of four drivers have been impacted already.

After Sebastian Vettel decided to not renew his racing contract with Ferrari, the Italian team were quick to poach Carlos Sainz Jr. from McLaren as his replacement. In turn, McLaren poached Daniel Ricciardo from Renault. The identity of the fourth driver is not known yet as Renault are yet to announce who would take their second seat. For those excited by this week’s mega driver announcements, the wait to hear Renault’s decision will be longer. In fact, Renault’s choices might not be as straightforward as it was for Ferrari and McLaren.

Rejections lead Sainz to Ferrari

Carlos Sainz Jr.’s early Formula 1 career was faced with rejections. In 2016, Red Bull Racing chose to promote Max Verstappen from Toro Rosso ahead of Sainz. In 2017 and in his third season with Toro Rosso, Sainz’s career hit a plateau before he coaxed Red Bull to loan him to Renault for the last five races of the season. In 2018, Renault dropped Sainz to create a vacancy for Ricciardo. Despite the series of rejections, Sainz delivered a fantastic season with Mclaren in 2019 – clinching the coveted 6th position in the Drivers’ Championship ahead of the ever-changing second driver at Red Bull Racing.

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It would be easy to assume that Sainz would be a second-fiddle to Charles Leclerc given the rate of rejections in his Formula 1 career. However, the opposite is true. At Toro Rosso, he raced Verstappen close and for reasons unknown, Red Bull didn’t want Verstappen-Sainz to partner again. At Renault, he was off Nico Hulkenberg’s benchmark by a thin margin but when the opportunity arose at McLaren last season, he grabbed it with both hands to deliver his career-best result in a race (Brazil) and in the championship. If anything, his experience at multiple teams will come handy at Ferrari; it should help him settle in sooner and soak in the pressure that comes with being a Ferrari driver.

Sainz has raced across five seasons and in 102 Grand Prix. Clearly, the Spaniard with one of the most famous last names in Motorsport has the perfect blend of youth and experience – one that Ferrari will be banking on as they build on their youngest driver line-up in 50 years. But why did Ferrari pick Sainz ahead of Ricciardo, a proven race winner? The 2019 Formula 1 season taught Ferrari that running two alpha drivers in the team has more risks than rewards. The team would have created a similar atmosphere in 2021 had it hired Ricciardo – a driver who wouldn’t take well to let Leclerc gain the upper hand in the majority of races.

Furthermore, Ricciardo, who is 30 years of age, is already in his prime and has time and again signalled his eagerness to become a world champion – an ambition that could upset the harmony at Ferrari. While not hiring Ricciardo makes sense for Ferrari, it robs Formula 1 of a high-profile intra-team rivalry between Leclerc and Ricciardo. We all know how entertaining the Ricciardo-Verstappen rivalry at Red Bull Racing was.

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As for Sainz, he’s been consistently quick – in qualifying, in the races and in the wet! He belongs to the list of drivers (that also includes Verstappen!) who started early in Formula 1 and have sufficient technical experience to steer a team forward through a season and through a period of rule changes. Let’s remember, Sainz was the de-facto team leader at McLaren last year and his ability to be a ‘team player’ has been highlighted often.

In fact, 2019 could well be an indication that Sainz might be on his journey to attain his peak in Formula 1 after initial years of settling and resettling. Also, Sainz’s paycheck would be significantly lower than Vettel’s – one that would matter when the sport suffers from the economic aftereffects of the pandemic.

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From being the team leader at McLaren, it will be upto Sainz to be treated as Leclerc’s ‘wingman’ or possess a challenge for his top dog status at Ferarri. It will be a function of pace and attitude for Sainz as he enters Ferrari who have a new fantasy in Leclerc’s talent and capabilities. If Sainz is able to match Leclerc in equal machinery, Ferrari will sit up and take notice. It’s understandable that Sainz will have to work harder to make his own space in Ferrari but years from now, Sainz will be remembered as the first driver who partnered the young prodigies of his time – Verstappen and Leclerc.

McLaren’s career lifeline for Ricciardo, But Missed Chance With Ferrari

Ricciardo’s bold (and illogical?) move to Renault for 2019 and 2020 was expected to be a risky one. Unfortunately for the Australian, the risk factor amplified through all of last season. First, Renault weren’t as quick and lost fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship to McLaren. Second, Renault lost its power unit supply agreement with McLaren to Mercedes (for 2021) – thereby losing the crucial competitive reference that teams need in Formula 1.

This was one of the key reasons why McLaren-Honda took time to recover from the slow start to their partnership. Hence, it wasn’t a surprise that Ricciardo was looking to jump ship after the end of 2020. Thanks to Vettel’s exit from Ferrari, a vacancy at McLaren opened up for the Australian.

McLaren’s gain in the form of roping in Ricciardo is actually Ferrari’s loss for overlooking of his availability. Come to think of it, it was Ricciardo’s pace and dwindling ambition to fight for the world championship that made Ferrari look elsewhere. It could be that Ricciardo’s chances to race for a top team in Formula 1 are over. At McLaren, he will get the opportunity to build a team around him as the former world champion team has made significant strides on their chassis and will have the best-in-class Mercedes power units from next season.

However, the opportunity to fight for podiums and wins maybe a few seasons away – though one hopes that with the budget cap coming into play from 2021, the wait gets shorter. In lieu of this, one assumes that Ricciardo will remain at McLaren for the longer term given the lack of other competitive options elsewhere.

Ricciardo’s Two Wrong Bets In F1

As for McLaren, securing the services of Ricciardo in exchange for Sainz’s would be a win-win. At the end of 2018, also one of McLaren’s worst seasons in Formula 1, the team couldn’t have attracted a name bigger than Sainz – who was also on his way out from Renault. However, after just one good season (2019), McLaren has proved attractive enough for one of the most-prolific racer winners in the recent history of Formula 1.

In Ricciardo and Lando Norris, McLaren will have a super-fast and funny line-up, one that will be a hit with the sponsors and it’ll be interesting to see how Zak Brown, McLaren’s CEO and sponsorship guru, is able to leverage this to the team’s benefit.

Fernando Alonso To Renault?

Renault and Fernando Alonso teased expectant fans on social media adding fuel to a rumour that the two-times World Champion might return to Renault from 2021. Should this happen, it would be Alonso’s third stint with the team he won his twin titles within 2005 and 2006. There are also reports that Liberty Media has agreed to bear a part of Alonso’s paycheck in an attempt to lure the legend back to Formula 1. However, a move to Renault beats conventional wisdom and won’t deliver Alonso’s revised career goals.

Alonso left McLaren at the end of 2018 because he was tired of fighting in the mid-field and wanted a shot at championship glory in Formula 1 or pursue the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’. Since a top team drive didn’t come his way, the Spaniard pursued a season mixed with racing different categories of cars that included the IndyCar, WEC (LMP1) and even the Dakar Rally. A return to Formula 1 could force Alonso to end his pursuits in other series – ones that have been fun and grown his legend in the sport in a different dimension.

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Realistically, one expects Renault to either promote a junior driver from their young driver program, re-hire Nico Hulkenberg who they dropped at the end of last year in favour of Esteban Ocon. Or could Renault be an all Mercedes junior team with George Russell partnering Esteban Ocon from 2021? Russell, the 2018 Formula 2 Champion, will have little more to learn in what would be his 3rd season with Williams. Renault’s second seat might not go to a star driver, but the suspense is all to play for.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

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Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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