AS the two title contenders ramp up the risks in the Grand Prix title bout, it keeps going from bad to worse for the Aussie star, writes PETER COSTER:
DANIEL Ricciardo has come close to admitting he can’t drive a car that too often seems to be driving him.
This time, the Macca refused to engage first gear and was about to be rammed on the starting grid at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort on Sunday.
Ricciardo, who must have been wondering what else could go wrong held up his hand to warn those behind him.
Fortunately, the clutch bit and Ricciardo managed to get away in another miserable race in the worst season he has had in an otherwise highly successful F1 career.
But more of that later.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are the two fastest drivers on the grid and fighting fiercely for the world driver’s championship, much as in the days of Aryton Senna and Alain Prost.
Ernest Hemingway, an aficionado of the Spanish bullring, would have described such a contest as “mano a mano.”
Man-against-man as two great matadors fought against each other in a bloody season in the Spanish bull ring.
Something similar is taking place in F1. Less than two months ago, the Red Bull driver narrowly escaped being killed in a crash at the British Grand Prix.Embed from Getty Images
Hamilton dived inside the Dutchman at Copse, the fastest corner in F1, sending Verstappen into the barriers and into hospital.
There was no apology from Hamilton who leapt out of his Mercedes to celebrate victory with the wildly enthusiastic British crowd.
It brought an increasingly dangerous element into the competition between these two drivers. Hamilton at the age of 36 has won seven world championships and 99 races.
Verstappen, aged 23, became the youngest driver to start in a Grand Prix at Melbourne in 2015 and has since won 17 GPs.
These last two seasons races have suddenly exposed the risks F1 drivers take on the track. French driver Romain Grosjean somehow survived a fiery crash last year when he was catapulted into a barrier at 300kmh.
The car burst into a fireball with Grosjean leaping into the arms of a medical crew as the car was destroyed.
Two months ago, it was Verstappen’s lucky escape at the British Grand Prix. Hamilton held his arms up to the rapturous crowd as if he held the ears of the vanquished Red Bull.
Last week at Spa it was Ricciardo’s teammate Lando Norris who was left sitting in the wheelless wreck of his McLaren after it aquaplaned off the track in torrential rain.
That caused commentators to liken the drivers on the F1 grid to “gladiators.”
This week, “matadors” might be a better description for Verstappen and Hamilton.
But back to Ricciardo who was once Verstappen’s teammate at Red Bull before he left after deciding the team was favouring the young Dutchman.
Danny Ricc (as shortened by those who have had trouble getting their tongues around the second i in his surname) is having the worst case of what elite golfers call the “yips.”
Whatever causes it, physical or psychological, it seems to have crawled into the cockpit with Ricciardo.
He finishes consistently adrift of teammate Lando Norris in qualifying and in the next day’s race, being lapped at Monaco and told to get out of the way as Norris came past with a wave of his hand.
Ricciardo has given all sorts of reasons for one of the biggest slumps in F1.
The McLaren is difficult to drive. That is admitted by Carlos Sainz, Lando’s former teammate, whose switch to Ferrari opened up the seat for Ricciardo.
Once counted among the top five drivers on the grid and “king of the late brakers,” he finds driving the McLaren increasingly frustrating. He finishes what he thinks has been a good lap only to find he is a tenth or more off the pace.
Long hours in the simulator don’t seem to help and at Zandvoort on Sunday the Macca simply refused to go into first gear.
It did engage just before the flag fell when he used the right-hand clutch paddle (there are two) before George Russell following in the Williams reported seeing black smoke and oil on the track.
There followed a list of adjustments to Ricciardo over team radio before the problem, whatever it was, righted itself.
He finished 11th behind Lando Norris who was in 10th place after starting 13th on the grid when a red flag prevented him putting in a fast lap.
How long McLaren will tolerate Ricciardo’s run of poor performances has become a question with the rumours starting about him being dumped at the end of the season.
While this might seem unlikely, with the team still standing behind what they thought was a coup in bringing him over from Renault, it would be a surprise rather than a shock.
Bottas has been dropped by Mercedes although not announced officially.
Fortunately for the Finnish driver, who finished third at Zandvoort behind Hamilton and Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen is retiring at the end of this season, leaving a seat vacant at Alfa Romeo.
Bottas has won nine GPs and contributed to four constructor’s championships since going to the team in 2017 and usually does what he’s told.
Hamilton will not get the same kind of support from Russell, who will take over from Bottas next year.
The British driver replaced Hamilton in the Mercedes at Bahrain when the world champion tested positive for Covid.
He would have won had it not been for a chaotic team bungle when Bottas’s tyres were fitted to Russell’s car and had to be swapped.
At the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa, Russell momentarily had his Williams briefly on pole before being overtaken by Verstappen with only seconds left in final qualifying.
As a Mercedes junior academy driver at Williams, Russell has consistently qualified above expectations.
He is one of the future champions of a sport that has claimed the lives of many of its greatest drivers.
The cars are now the safest they have ever been following the 60s and 70s when a death on the track had come to be expected.
The safety measures themselves have come with their own issues. The last major change was the “halo,” the enveloping structure that saved Charles Leclerc’s life at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2018 when he was driving for Sauber.
The McLaren was pushed over the top of the Sauber, scraping the halo. Without it, Leclerc would likely have been decapitated.
The halo came with a cost and just how it restricts the driver’s vision was demonstrated in a lap at Spa with Fernando Alonso before the rain poured down.
Television viewers saw a driver’s eye view through the Alonso’s visor, more like looking through the slot in a letter box with the central support of the halo in the way.
Add to this the sides of the cockpit enclosing the driver, who is almost lying on his back while driving a two-metre wide car wheel-to-wheel at 300kmh.
Gladiators or matadors? You decide.