Daniel Ricciardo might well be taking part in his final Formula One race at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Ricciardo, whose McLaren contract has been cut short one year early, is set to be Red Bull's third driver next year, meaning he will not be racing in Formula One for the first time since mid-2011. It's quite a remarkable situation for one of F1's top talents to find himself in, and it is hard to see a clear route back to the grid.
How did it come to this? ESPN has spoken to numerous sources in the paddock with knowledge of Ricciardo's moves through the years to look at why things played out the way they did -- and why dream moves to Mercedes and Ferrari just never materialised for the Australian.
Leaving Red Bull
Ricciardo's decision to leave Red Bull in 2018 is well-known now, and many consider it to have been a big mistake, with the benefit of hindsight. When looking at why Ricciardo decided to leave, several key moments stand out.
The first happened 10 months before he put his signature at the bottom of a Renault contract, in October 2017, when Red Bull signed Max Verstappen to a big contract extension. It turned Verstappen's two-year deal to 2019 into a three-year deal to 2020 and made Verstappen, who had just turned 20 and claimed his second F1 win, the higher paid of the team's two drivers. It was a huge statement and ended speculation of Verstappen leaving for Mercedes.
The deal caught Ricciardo by surprise and felt like a bit of a slap in the face. While Ricciardo has always appeared to be on good terms with Verstappen on a personal level, it is clear this deal started the feeling that the team was mobilising around his young Dutch teammate. Several things would happen in 2018 that would reinforce that feeling.
Entering 2018, Ricciardo was in a contract year. He had signed a two-year extension in 2016 and the consensus in the paddock was he would remain at Red Bull for another contract cycle at least, unless Mercedes or Ferrari were seriously interested in his services.
The second major moment, which appears to have been a catalyst for what followed, is a comment made by Helmut Marko, the head of Red Bull's driver programme and a key supporter of Verstappen behind the scenes, shortly before the Monaco Grand Prix. During contract negotiations with Ricciardo's agent at the time, Glenn Beavis, Marko said, off the cuff: "I want to win the title with Daniel in 2018, and then win it with Max in 2019 and 2020."
Beavis, in the middle of negotiating a deal for 2019 and 2020, couldn't believe what he was hearing. Marko had clearly intended it as a good thing, but it seemed to suggest the team's long-term ambitions were focused around Verstappen. More remarkable was that Marko then doubled down on that comment in a meeting with Ricciardo and team principal Christian Horner also present on top of the team's floating motorhome in the Monte Carlo harbour, repeating to the Australian what he had until then only heard second-hand from his agent.
On hearing Marko say this, it is understood a frustrated Horner slapped Marko on the leg and told him the team did not, in fact, think like that. But coming from someone as influential internally as Marko, the comment resonated. Ricciardo would not win the title in 2018 and Verstappen would not win it until 2021, but whether Marko's goal was achievable or not was less important than what he felt Marko was saying: Max is our guy.
Ricciardo's suspicions would only be strengthened a handful of weeks later when he and Verstappen collided at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku. Most observers believed the collision was the fault of Verstappen, who was still showing the habit for moving under braking which had so irritated the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen in his early F1 seasons. While Verstappen bore the brunt of Horner's anger in the postrace debrief, his teammate felt that in the days and weeks that followed the blame from senior management, both privately and publicly, shifted away from his teammate and onto him.
In the context of Marko's earlier comment, it is easy to see how this added to his belief the team was forming around the man on the other side of the garage. ESPN understands this view of Red Bull becoming Team Verstappen -- whether true or not -- was also something close friends of Ricciardo were telling him, including one prominent TV presenter he is on good terms with.
Horner has always denied the team was starting to mobilise around Verstappen. In the weeks after Ricciardo signed Renault's contract, Horner claimed Ricciardo was actually "running away from a fight" with his improving, younger teammate.
In 2022, especially after Verstappen so flagrantly ignored a seemingly simple request to help teammate Sergio Perez in Brazil, it is much easier to buy into the theory that Verstappen runs the team. But in 2018, Ricciardo was the more polished of the two drivers, and his form in the first half of that season had highlighted that.
His win in China that year had come after Verstappen had squandered a race-winning opportunity and featured the move on Valtteri Bottas that led to Ricciardo's "lick the stamp and send it" comment. A few races later, Verstappen crashed out of practice before qualifying in Monaco when Red Bull had the car to take pole position. Ricciardo made no such mistake and would win from pole despite a complete MGU-K failure in his car. Earlier this year, Horner commented that the Ricciardo of 2022 is unrecognisable from the driver who won those two races.
It is certainly true that Red Bull had no desire to see him racing elsewhere. His departure would leave Red Bull in a bind for the next few years and forced them to promote Pierre Gasly and then Alex Albon much earlier than planned in order to fill the void. Both struggled to match Verstappen's pace like the Australian had been able to. Regardless of what was and wasn't the case at the time, perceptions can be easy to form and difficult to shake, and there's little doubt his head was turned in this period of time.
At the Germany and Hungary races that preceded the 2018 August break, Ricciardo did his best to dodge serious discussions around the contract extension Red Bull had presented to him, as he waited to see whether Mercedes or Ferrari would join Renault and McLaren in offering him a deal. Neither did. Although frustrated he had not yet signed the deal they had laid out for him, Horner and Red Bull management went into the summer break as close to 100 percent confident as you can be that he would.
After taking part in a tyre test for Red Bull in Budapest after the race, Ricciardo boarded a flight to America. While on the plane he signed a two-year Renault deal, which reportedly paid him a staggering $25 million per season. Publicly he would cite concerns with Red Bull's upcoming partnership with Honda, who had struggled with McLaren since 2015, but having spoken to multiple sources over the years with good knowledge of Ricciardo's thinking during this time, the Verstappen issue was clearly a major factor that shaped everything else.
Later that day, Ricciardo phoned Horner to let him know the news. The call took longer than intended because of the amount of time it took him to convince Horner that he was serious and that it was not an elaborate wind-up. Horner just could not believe what he was hearing and to this day, he is baffled by the decision -- it made little sense to him that his driver was joining the racing team of the company making the unreliable and underpowered engines Red Bull felt were preventing them from being title contenders. McLaren CEO Zak Brown was also floored by the news, having felt confident the decision was between joining his team or staying at Red Bull; most who knew multiple offers were in play did not think Renault were serious contenders until the day the French company announced the signing.
The confusion over the decision went higher up the Red Bull chain than Horner. A few races before the summer break and before he signed the Renault deal, Ricciardo met with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz on the balcony of the team's hospitality unit. There is a fundamental disagreement about what happened at that meeting: Red Bull's version is that Mateschitz offered a contract which was exactly the same as Verstappen's in all areas, in a bid to end any suggestion of favoritism. Red Bull maintain that is the deal they offered. Ricciardo's camp always denied that was the case. It has been suggested to ESPN by several well-placed sources that he would have signed that deal if those terms had been offered.
A misunderstanding appears to have occurred at that meeting, too. After their chat, the two men shook hands. Ricciardo was appreciative of the talk with Mateschitz but it had not swayed him either way, his mind was still not made up. To Mateschitz, given what he had felt to be the nature of their conversation, the handshake which followed was confirmation he was going to stay with Red Bull. This helps explain why Red Bull felt so blindsided by the move, which created a spectacular narrative for the first season of Netflix's wildly successful "Drive to Survive" series.
Ricciardo's time at Renault (now Alpine) clearly never went the way he thought it would. He joined a team that were not only struggling to meet the lofty goals they had set themselves when returning as a fully fledged manufacturer in 2016, but they were plagued with in-fighting within their bloated leadership structure. Like other drivers who have been part of the team recently, Ricciardo was surprised at how poorly the team were run. Similar reasons have prompted Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso and Oscar Piastri to leave the team at the first possible opportunity in the past few years.
In the early days of lockdown, Brown and Ricciardo talked again. In 2018, Ricciardo had seriously considered McLaren's offer but felt that, ultimately, Brown had a lot of promises about things that were going to happen down the line, with little to actually show for it. Flash forward 1½ years, and McLaren was making good on Brown's vision -- he had signed two highly rated personnel, team boss Andreas Seidl and technical chief James Key, in early 2019, and the results on track were improving. McLaren had been a feel-good story that year, rising from sixth to fourth and claiming their first podium finish in five years.
With McLaren turning a corner, Ricciardo and Brown agreed a deal for 2021 before the first race of 2020 -- held in July that year, because of the pandemic -- with a full season left to run on his Renault deal. It was effectively like spending a year with a significant other you have already dumped. This would cause frustration behind the scenes at the French team, especially as McLaren were and remain a direct rival in the midfield. Some at the team have commented behind the scenes that they did not feel Renault had got value for money with Ricciardo's lucrative deal, despite his two podium finishes in 2020 before he departed, with the Australian enjoying a much lower volume of the commercial obligations he had grown to resent at Red Bull.
Renault, whose F1 team were now called Alpine, would remember how this all went down. Renault CEO Luca de Meo felt slightly betrayed by Ricciardo's decision, given the company's big investment in him just 12 months earlier, and he believed the Australian did not speak about the team in glowing terms before he left. When Ricciardo and McLaren confirmed their split in August of this season, Ricciardo quickly found that the route back to Alpine -- now featuring a different leadership team to the one he had struggled to connect with -- was firmly shut. Initially, it seemed like the prospect of returning to Alpine was a very appealing one to Ricciardo, with new team boss Otmar Szafnauer also understood to be keen on bringing him back. However, De Meo was set on securing an all-French lineup, which Alpine achieved by signing Gasly from AlphaTauri.
Although it started with huge optimism, the McLaren move never turned out how either side wanted it to. Ricciardo's remarkable win at the Italian Grand Prix in 2021 was an anomaly in what was otherwise a disappointing first season. McLaren were hugely encouraged with that performance but over the offseason Brown made it clear to Ricciardo that results would need to drastically improve in 2022; otherwise the team would have to consider all options.
One of the most puzzling things about Ricciardo's time at McLaren is that neither he nor the team seem to genuinely understand why he has struggled so much. Ricciardo's cause hasn't been helped by Lando Norris' brilliant form in the other car. It is fair to say that Ricciardo and the media underestimated how good Norris would be -- when McLaren and the team unveiled its 2021 car, lots of the questions for Norris were about whether he was confident he could raise his game to his new teammate's level.
The improvement in form McLaren so desperately wanted never materialised, and Brown's mind was finally made up after Ricciardo languished to 13th at the Monaco Grand Prix, his fourth straight race out of the points. A couple of days earlier, Brown had made headlines by saying there were "mechanisms" in Ricciardo's contract which would allow the team to part ways with the Australian if they wanted to -- this statement was not correct, with the exit clauses all lying exclusively on Ricciardo's side. With Brown in America that weekend for the Indy 500, team boss Andreas Seidl effectively told Ricciardo after the Monte Carlo race that the team was now exploring its options for 2023.
Over the next two months, the team grew increasingly confident about signing Oscar Piastri, whom Alpine had inexplicably left on a deal which made him a free agent for 2023. Ricciardo returned to the points in Austria and France, but the wheels were already in motion -- negotiations between McLaren and Piastri quickly accelerated. By the evening of the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Ricciardo was told the team was moving on. Negotiations about a settlement continued over the summer break and his exit was confirmed ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. To his credit, Ricciardo has never made excuses about his performance level at McLaren. Lots of work has been done behind the scenes to rectify this, but nothing has seemed to work. Ricciardo offered a glimmer of what might have been at the Mexican Grand Prix, when he capitalised on a great tyre strategy to storm through the field to seventh late on.
Remarkably, the relationship between Ricciardo and McLaren has remained good throughout the whole saga, despite social media rumours to the contrary. McLaren's senior management have been very complimentary at how professionally Ricciardo has dealt with the situation; on the flip side, Ricciardo feels McLaren did right by him in the contract exit settlement in what otherwise could have been a long and protracted tug of war over money. It is clear Ricciardo is still hugely popular within the team -- reputations within the paddock are important, and that will be a major plus point to any team that might look to sign him to a race contract for 2024.
Were Ferrari or Mercedes ever an option?
Ricciardo's form in his Red Bull days might have warranted interest from Ferrari or Mercedes but, curiously, neither move ever seriously materialised.
What is clear from conversations in the F1 paddock over the years is that Ricciardo's personality may have hindered his chances of a move to Ferrari, not only in this specific period of time, but more recently too. Sources have told ESPN that former Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne, who died in 2018, felt Ricciardo was not serious enough to drive for F1's most famous team. Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari's F1 team boss at the time, once told a colleague that he felt Ricciardo laughed too much.
It is not difficult to imagine those words coming out of Arrivabene's mouth. Now CEO of Juventus, Arrivabene once criticised rival teams for "Cirque du Soleil" antics during a washed-out Japanese Grand Prix practice session -- the antics included Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat dancing for the cameras, Verstappen pretending to cast out a fishing line and one team having the audacity to race rubber ducks from one end of a puddle to the other. This mindset has prevailed at Ferrari for a long time -- they are a team that feels there is a certain way of doing things. How much Ferrari's feelings toward Ricciardo's personality diminished his chances of a race seat is a hard thing to actually quantify.
In 2018, Ricciardo and his father, Joe -- who had dreamed of the Ferrari move as much as anyone -- grew frustrated at how the Italian team appeared to have banked its long-term future on a young Charles Leclerc, who was enjoying an impressive rookie season at Alfa Romeo after a stunning rise through the ranks. Leclerc would eventually be chosen to replace Kimi Raikkonen in 2019. Ricciardo had hoped to be in the frame for Ferrari in 2021, but negotiations with the team were never too serious. Ferrari's attention quickly centered on Sainz instead, whose signing opened the move to McLaren for Ricciardo. If there is a "company guy" Ferrari looks for, it is easy to see how Leclerc and Sainz are more in that mold than Ricciardo might be.
Multiple sources have also suggested to ESPN that Mercedes once offered a one-year deal to Ricciardo, although it is hard to pin down which season this was for. While Toto Wolff is a fan of Ricciardo, any discussions with him seem to have been used more as an incentive for Valtteri Bottas, whom Mercedes kept at the team on a succession of one-year deals before it finally signed George Russell to a long-term deal ahead of this season.
A move to Mercedes was the most desired, as it is for most drivers racing in the V6 hybrid turbo era, but never actually seemed too likely to happen. Even in late 2016, when Nico Rosberg's sudden retirement blew the driver market wide open, Ricciardo and several other drivers who saw it as a chance to move to the all-conquering Mercedes and reached out to Wolff quickly discovered that the Austrian had made up his mind on adding Bottas to the team.
Can Ricciardo find a way back?
For someone who enjoys quoting comedic movies so much, the most fitting way to describe Ricciardo's decision to sit out 2023 might be from "Dodgeball": "It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's hope it pays off for 'em."
Ricciardo looks set to take on a role with Red Bull for next year, which is likely to involve demonstration runs, simulator sessions and some marketing work. The actual reserve role many speculated he might get has fallen to Liam Lawson. The Mercedes offer on the table for Ricciardo was more of a full-on reserve role, with Red Bull's allowing him to be loosely associated with an F1 team next year without committing himself to too many visits to the paddock in a reserve capacity.
It seems likely he will take on some media commitments in 2023, although ESPN understands he is reluctant to fully embrace the role of pundit or on-screen personality, fearing that it will cement people's belief that he is done with F1 when he is sincere in his hope of returning in 2024. He has said on numerous occasions he intends to return "with a vengeance" in two years. It is why there have been no genuine links with IndyCar or NASCAR teams, as he does not want to race anywhere else full-time right now.
One potential way back appears obvious, even if contingent on several factors. If Red Bull's relationship with Sergio Perez should sour next year, he will be in a perfect place to step in and fill the void. If that is the case, he will return with a team still likely to be running at the front end of the pack, regardless of its windtunnel penalty from its 2021 budget cap breach.
Beyond Red Bull, it is hard to see an obvious route back. Mercedes and Ferrari look likely to be set with their current lineups beyond 2024, while moves back to McLaren and Alpine seem unlikely. However, it is difficult to predict the driver market 12 months out, and it might be that some things open up in a way we can't imagine now.
One thing undoubtedly in Ricciardo's mind will be Audi's arrival in 2026. The German manufacturer hopes to be instantly competitive under F1's new rules and will want a big-name superstar with which to kick off their team. Ricciardo would likely need to have raced somewhere in 2024 and 2025 to be in the frame, but if he is willing to play the long game, a move to a midfield team and a return to form might well set him up perfectly to be Audi's guy once they are on the grid.