Ricciardo deserves better than being McLaren’s fall guy

Formula 1

The remarkable events of Tuesday around Alpine junior Oscar Piastri — which have been labelled Oscargate and the Piasco online — appeared to confirm McLaren is intent on replacing one Australian in Daniel Ricciardo with another.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown now appears to be playing a game of chicken with his superstar driver, waiting for him to walk away from his contract so he doesn’t have to pay a heavy penalty for tearing it up before it expires at the end of 2023. Ricciardo has exit clauses on his side of his deal, but there is a clear unwillingness from the eight-time race winner to fall on his sword to get Brown out of a legal mess of his own making.

Multiple sources have told ESPN that Piastri has signed an agreement with McLaren. Although the exact terms of that deal are unclear currently, it is believed Brown is determined to get him into the team’s race car. Piastri’s declaration that “I will not be racing at Alpine in 2023” highlighted that he sees his future with McLaren and not Alpine.

McLaren declined to comment when contacted by ESPN.

Piastri’s tweet spawned a remarkable amount of attention in a driver who has not even turned the wheel of a Formula One car during a grand prix weekend yet, which speaks volumes to how well rated the 21-year-old is.

Formula 2 champion Piastri has a brilliant record at junior level and is seen as the best graduate from F1’s feeder series since the class of 2019 — George Russell, Lando Norris and Alex Albon. But his Formula One experience is limited to tests of F1 cars, most of which has been paid for by Alpine. The French manufacturer recently laid out a 5,000km testing programme, which is ongoing.

Of course, whether McLaren can even get Piastri remains to be seen, with Alpine clearly ready to fight to keep their prodigy at the team and driving for them in 2023, however badly the events of the last 24 hours might have soured relations between the two parties. Alpine’s statement that Piastri was getting promoted was the team setting out its legal position that they have no doubts whatsoever about where he is contractually bound to race next season.

That decision will be made by the FIA contract recognition board and, despite the fast-paced drama of Tuesday afternoon, might well take a little bit of time to resolve itself.

Regardless of how that plays out, McLaren’s position seems to be clear and it is difficult to see how their relationship with Ricciardo will develop beyond this point.

Ricciardo deserves better

It reflects very poorly on Brown and McLaren how they have treated Ricciardo over the past six months. Ricciardo, the only McLaren driver to have won an F1 race since 2012, has been the first to admit his performances have not been up to the standards he set at Red Bull and Renault but it feels as though he has been made as a scapegoat to deflect away from deeper problems at the team.

There have been other narratives in 2022 — Mercedes’ violently bouncing car or regular Ferrari capitulations, to name two — which have distracted from the fact McLaren has been one of the most disappointing stories of this season. The team came into the year promising a return to the front of the grid, an opportunity provided by the huge technical rule change, but has fallen incredibly short of what they had promised 2022 would be about.

While Ferrari, who McLaren fought for third in last year’s championship, jumped to the front of the pack with their new car this year, the British team have floundered in the same no-man’s-land they found themselves in last year and are locked in a battle for fourth (and now, Piastri) with Alpine, some distance off Mercedes and even further off the lead pair.

So while Ricciardo has been struggling, and Norris, likely a generational talent but one who has still not won a race, has been extracting much better results in the other car, the bottom line is McLaren has delivered yet another underwhelming and underperforming car. Given the gap to the front it is fair to suggest McLaren might be floundering around in the midfield for another year or two. Replacing Ricciardo with another driver isn’t going to change that, especially one who is likely going to come with the growing pains associated with any rookie driver in F1. Brown has been lucky that there have not been harsher questions asked about why, under his leadership, McLaren seems incapable of putting together a winning F1 race operation.

And that’s just covering the on-track aspect to it. Ricciardo remains one of the most marketable talents in F1 and has done wonders for McLaren’s brand away from the racetrack. The recent arrival of OkX was linked to Ricciardo, who is the cryptocurrency exchange’s brand ambassador. A relative unknown outside of motor racing like Piastri would not fill this gap that would be left by Ricciardo, who is one of the most unique personalities the sport has had in it for a long time. It is also unlikely Brown would want Norris to shoulder the majority of McLaren’s commercial duties if it came at the risk of hurting his racing form.

Ricciardo deserves credit for how he has carried himself during an awkward situation, with Brown adding three drivers — Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou — to McLaren’s stable and making no secret about his desire to get Piastri to the team. Brown has shown a disregard for contractual agreements already this year. The Piastri situation is remarkably similar to what happened in IndyCar last month, when Chip Ganassi announced Palou would stay with them, only for Palou to tweet that the press release was sent out without his knowledge. An announcement Palou was joining McLaren’s roster for 2023 followed shortly afterwards, although that part has not happened yet in the case of Piastri.

It has been an open secret in the F1 paddock for several months Brown was in talks with Piastri and his manager, Mark Webber. In that backdrop, and with Ricciardo doing a significant amount of McLaren’s commercial work behind the scenes, there are plenty of things going on away from the race track which would distract a driver from the job of racing.

Most drivers would have felt disrespected and some would have made their feelings known in the media but Ricciardo has been remarkably professional in the face of Brown’s manoeuvring. The statement Ricciardo put out last month saying he intends to see out his contract until the end of 2023 is as close as we’ve seen him come to a public disagreement with his boss.

ESPN understands the same is still true now, although Ricciardo is open to the reality that he needs to consider what his options might be away from McLaren. Despite his struggles this year and last he will not be short of suitors. ESPN knows of four different teams who contacted him over the past two weeks to assess where his head is at. Teams sounding out a driver during the summer months is not uncommon in F1 but clearly Ricciardo would still command the attention of teams up and down the grid — at his best, he’s still one of F1’s top drivers and overtakers, as well as being one of the most marketable drivers on the grid at the moment and one who is especially popular in America, a market which is booming like never before for Formula One.

Ricciardo has an option on his side of the McLaren contract to leave and he might well see the seat Piastri does not want at Alpine as a good landing spot. However, as the events of this week have shown, with Alpine losing Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and potentially losing Piastri to McLaren, there are questions about how well run the French team is and whether it will ever be more than a glorified midfield outfit. A move to Ferrari or Mercedes, both a long-time ambition of Ricciardo’s, look unlikely to materialise but he might well take comfort in the examples of Kevin Magnussen and Valtteri Bottas this year — both joined competitive midfield teams and have excelled.

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