It has not been an easy year at Renault, but Daniel Ricciardo nevertheless says this season has “emphasised his love” for Formula 1.
The Australian seven-time winner left Red Bull to join Renault on a two-year contract for 2019 and 2020 worth more than $50m (£40.2m), and his new team started the season with the ambition of closing on the top three teams.
Instead, Renault have slipped backwards. But Ricciardo says he “still feels good” about the decision, has no regrets, and that he would like to continue with the team if they can show sufficient improvements next season.
“Do I want to stay? Yes, because ideally we do get this to the next level,” Ricciardo tells BBC Sport in an exclusive interview.
“It was my massive intention to come here. My intention wasn’t to have a two-year layover somewhere else. I know people might still think that, but I really want this to work. I feel like the hours I have put in this year have shown I have the drive to want to do so.”
After comfortably finishing fourth in the constructors’ championship last year, Renault are fifth with seven races left in 2019, one place behind McLaren, a customer of Renault’s engines.
The regression – and the contrast with the startling progress at McLaren – has led to disappointment and significant internal pressure, but Ricciardo says he was expecting a difficult season all along.
“Definitely not to be negative, but regardless of even if we were coming sixth every weekend, I knew there were still bigger targets and that we were still not going to be where we want to be,” he says.
“Yes, we’re at times further back than we expected and hoped, but I knew there would be work to be done and a lot of hours to put in. I feel like I was prepared for that.
“Even though I feel like I have worked more hours and probably worked harder this year than in previous years, it has still been quite enjoyable because the environment is different – new people, new relationships.
“If anything, it has reiterated what I want in the sport.”
‘Get me back to the front’
There have been some dark moments along the way, though, and the nadir was a weekend in Austria at the end of June when Renault were uncompetitive.
“Austria, literally, I can tell you conversations going in my head during that race,” Ricciardo says. “I am literally driving around – I don’t want to say not present – but my thoughts were: ‘I don’t want to be here.’
“When I say that, I mean: ‘I don’t want to be in this position.’ I was 14th or something and it was one of our worst weekends. But it wasn’t a head-down defeat, it was: ‘Get me back to the front – this is not where I should be. This is not where we should be.’
“So a really bad weekend emphasised my passion and love for the sport and how much I wanted to get everyone back up to the front, including myself.”
There have been some strong weekends, too, especially Canada, where Ricciardo qualified a brilliant fourth, splitting the Ferraris and ahead of both Red Bulls.
“Through some of these struggles, it has been really quite positive for me this year, and it’s really driven me to want more from it,” he says. “That’s been cool.
“And on an actual pure positive – Canada. We’ve had some lows but that high was for me like a pole position. There have been some moments that have lasted.”
In five years at Red Bull, the team were never consistent frontrunners, but Ricciardo took seven victories, and established a reputation as one of the sport’s most exciting drivers, in addition to being possibly its most likeable and amusing character.
Most of his victories were outstanding, featuring drives through the field and audacious last-minute overtaking manoeuvres.
Ricciardo has inevitably faded slightly from the limelight this year, but the move to Renault has done nothing to damage his reputation as a driver.
He has comfortably out-paced his team-mate, German Nico Hulkenberg, who has out-qualified Ricciardo only four times in 14 races. This performance disparity will have made Renault’s decision to release Hulkenberg and sign Frenchman Esteban Ocon for at least the next two years all the easier.
And while Ricciardo would obviously prefer to be further up, he says he is enjoying the intensity of the midfield fight.
“If anything, [qualifying] is tighter than last year,” he says. “The battle a lot of the time was just me and Max [Verstappen], where this year it’s all the midfield. So that’s definitely getting the blood flow going. I am enjoying the driving.”
Why have Renault gone backwards?
As for the car’s performance, Renault think they know what has gone wrong this year.
Their strong performance at tracks such as Canada, and the past two races in Belgium and Italy, all ‘power circuits’, have emphasised that the French manufacturer has finally made a good step forward with its engine after years of underperformance. The issue now is the car.
Ricciardo says: “It seems when I speak to the team, the base of the car, the fundamentals, the base direction, has limited us. So we developed it a little bit but it’s reached, I don’t want to say its peak, but it can’t really be developed that much more with this philosophy.
“So, as far as now looking at next year, it seems like they want to change the whole aerodynamic philosophy of the car. Instead of focusing on this part of the car, say the middle part, and trying to generate as much downforce in the middle, it’s like, no, we need to focus on the front.
“It seems like it might be more difficult at first, but in the bigger picture we’d be getting more downforce ‘points’, as we call it, from that.”
This sounds very much like Renault have done what Ferrari have done this year – pursued an aerodynamic philosophy that looks better initially, but which limits overall downforce; in contrast to Mercedes, whose car was harder to get working initially, but is better in the end.
For Ricciardo, then, a lot hangs on Renault getting that right. If they can make their new direction work, and take a big step forward, Ricciardo may well stay. If they can’t, they fear he would leave.
This was emphasised by Renault Sport managing director Cyril Abiteboul, when he said recently that signing Ocon “wasn’t just about 2020, but also 2021 and what’s happening to his team-mate”.
Does Ricciardo think Abiteboul suspects he might be looking for pastures new for 2021?
“I definitely haven’t made any decisions yet,” Ricciardo says. “I haven’t had this discussion with Cyril. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s frustrated with this year.
“I think part of him feels like – I don’t want to say [he feels] he’s let us down, but we did expect to do better.
“When we chatted last year, there were higher hopes for this year. We’re confident next year is going to be a lot better, but he’s thinking probably: ‘If it doesn’t go [better], why would Daniel want to stay?’ That’s probably where his head’s at and that’s probably where those comments come from.
“It’s him just being brutally honest with himself and wanting to do better and wanting the team to do better – to basically keep me and any other assets.”
The contracts of most top drivers come up for renewal at the end of 2020. Along with Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, both Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen are all on the market next year.
“So next year, what would I need to see?” he asks rhetorically. “Obviously improvements – not just from one position to the next, but solid improvements that actually we could realistically fight for a podium at some point next year. That would be very encouraging and motivating for everyone.
“I know we’re still a long way off that but I still believe it’s in reach. I don’t think we’re dreamers; we just have to clean up a few things. I still look back at Canada – if we can qualify fourth at the seventh race of the season, I still believe anything’s possible with these guys.”