Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Will Baku see Daniel Ricciardo find his form at McLaren? The Australian Formula One driver’s time with the Woking outfit is yet to kick into gear after leaving Renault over the winter. All the while his teammate, Lando Norris, has secured two podium finishes.
Ricciardo heads to Baku this weekend fresh off a bitterly disappointing Monaco. He qualified half a second down on Norris’ pace. And come the race, finished a lap behind in 12th place while the Briton stood on the podium in third.
It marked Norris’ second rostrum of the year after five rounds and arrives in Azerbaijan third in the driver’s championship. Ricciardo, with 24 points to the Briton’s 56, is eighth as he continues to get to grips with his machinery.
Ricciardo is not the only Formula One driver struggling to adapt to their new cars. Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Vettel and Carlos Sainz all have endured mixed or underwhelming starts. For Ricciardo, the main issue has been in corner entry and braking, two areas he usually thrives.
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What is holding Ricciardo back at McLaren?
Ricciardo has long been considered the last of the late brakers in Formula One, dancing his car on the edge. But the Australian has struggled to get on top of the McLaren’s set-up after leaving Renault over the winter.
He compared the learning process to being “back at school” after qualifying P7 at last month’s Spanish Grand Prix. Slow corners, particularly, have proven troublesome for the 31-year-old compared to faster bends due to the sensitivity of the McLaren.
“It’s like being a beginner all over again, like tutor yourself through every corner,” he said, via quotes by Autosport. “Whether it’s braking or the way you get on throttle. Some are unique, and I guess I’m still having to be a little bit conscious about that and teach myself enough that it does become natural.”
Ricciardo did not underestimate the difficulty of switching machinery after two years at Renault. But the learning process is taking longer than he, and the team, would have wanted when the Aussie signed a €10m-a-season (£9m), three-year contract.
What success has Ricciardo had at Baku before?
Ricciardo has flourished on the streets of Baku in the past, even though results have not always been secured. He qualified third for Red Bull at the 2016 round when called the European Grand Prix on Formula One’s first-ever visit to the Caspian Sea.
Headrest problems for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and a penalty for then-Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel saw Ricciardo win in 2017. He had fallen as far down the order as 17th at the first running of the renamed Azerbaijan Grand Prix but stormed back through the field.
Ricciardo was forced into an early pit stop to remove debris from his brakes on Lap Six. Safety Car periods helped keep the pack tight as he worked his way back up the order. And on one restart, overtook the Williams pair of Lance Stroll and Felipe Massa at Turn One.
The move personified Ricciardo’s strength as a late braker and would eventually return the lead of the race. Once Hamilton and Vettel peeled into the pits, it was clean sailing for the fifth of his seven F1 career Grand Prix wins.
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Ricciardo’s Baku pain in 2018 and 2019
Ricciardo returned to Baku as the reigning Azerbaijan Grand Prix winner in 2018 but enjoyed far less success. His race would end with contact with his teammate, Max Verstappen, as the pair duelled over fourth and fifth places.
Verstappen and Ricciardo switched place most laps, although the Australian trailed his Red Bull stablemate after the pit stops. Attempting to regain the position, Ricciardo sent a late lunge down the Dutchman’s inside at Turn One, but neither would see Turn Two.
As Ricciardo aimed the nose of his car to Verstappen’s left, the Dutchman tried to cover with a sudden change of direction. A second move was illegal but worse, took the downforce from the Australian’s front wing causing him to lock up.
Ricciardo piled into the back of Verstappen’s car, sending both off into the run-off area and ending their races. After moving to Renault for 2019, Ricciardo admitted the team’s handling of the fallout was a factor in his decision to leave having felt unfairly blamed.
His return to Baku the following year with the French-owned manufacturer failed to atone for the disaster of 2019. After overshooting his braking attempting a pass on Daniil Kvyat, he reversed into the Toro Rosso trying to re-join the track too quickly. It ended both of their races and 2021 now offers a chance at redemption after last year’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic.
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