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Despite a frustrating Renault debut, Ricciardo is still one of F1’s best

There were plenty of eyebrows raised and heads scratched late last year when Daniel Ricciardo shocked the world and announced he would be departing the Red Bull family.

Nobody could quite understand why the happy-go-lucky Australian would throw away one of the six prized seats in Formula One and make the switch to Renault, a team which has essentially made up the numbers in the midfield for the better part of a decade.

Did he not want to play second fiddle to Red Bull’s young protégé Max Verstappen?

Was he seeking a greater pay packet?

Or did he really just want a fresh start at a new team?

Netflix’s documentary Drive to Survive attempted to shine the light on how Ricciardo came to make the surprise decision. In the end, perhaps all of the above were contributing factors.

The checkered flag falling in Abu Dhabi on Sunday officially ended season 2019 and Ricciardo’s inaugural year at Renault. In a word, it has been frustrating. But that was always to be expected.

Even before Ricciardo arrived at the team, the French manufacturer was struggling enormously to deliver a sound power unit. This year was no exception with engine failures a far too regular occurrence, particularly in the first half of the season.

In addition, there were disqualifications, intra-team drama and, most notably, horrible inconsistency. One weekend Renault would look as if they were the clear leaders of the midfield, the next they were nowhere.

Ricciardo hasn’t exactly fallen from grace or lost any of the skill which saw him win seven races and score 29 podiums during his tenure at Red Bull. He remains one of the most talented drivers on the grid and is still widely viewed as the best overtaker in the sport.

Unfortunately for the Australian it’s been a case of out of sight, out of mind. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have; without the right tools you simply cannot compete at the front in Formula One.

Ricciardo wound up ninth in the drivers’ championship — his lowest finish since his final season at Toro Rosso in 2013 — but take out rivals who drove for any of the top three teams (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) which are streets ahead of the midfield, and only McLaren’s Carlos Sainz bettered him over the course of the season. This proves he’s still in the elite category.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Ricciardo was always playing the long game at Renault. He knew there were going to be some difficult times.

Don’t forget what Lewis Hamilton did earlier in the decade. You know, the guy who recently wrapped up a sixth world championship title. Hamilton was heavily criticized when he announced he was leaving McLaren for Mercedes at the end of 2012. He had one average season in 2013 before F1 shifted into the V6 turbo era and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hamilton has now won 62 races in the past six years and established himself as possibly the sport’s greatest driver of all time.

This is not to say Ricciardo is going to follow a similar path as Hamilton, but he deserves more time before we judge whether or not his move from Red Bull has been a failure.

“When I signed with this team, 2020 was the target, to finish on the podium at least once,” Ricciardo said last month. “McLaren is proof in the pudding that you can really make a big difference in one season.”

If 2020 doesn’t yield a podium, it still won’t be disastrous as the focus will quickly turn to 2021 when Formula One’s rules are set to be overhauled. It’s effectively the sport hitting the reset button.

Leaving Red Bull was an unpopular decision when Ricciardo first announced it and the feeling hasn’t changed too much 12 months on. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking Ricciardo has lost any of the qualities that made him a household name. His best Formula One season may very well still be ahead of him.

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