Hard to accept but the smiling face of Formula One is no more as the Australian driver sat alone on the grass at the Belgian Grand Prix while teammate Lando Norris shared a laugh with McLaren team boss Zac Brown.
Daniel Ricciardo, the smiling face of Formula One, is a man in pieces. The face he has shown to the world as his career crashes masks his downfall.
In the interviews of the past two seasons, the toothy grin attempt has slipped but there was an at least an attempt to look for some positives.
But, behind the scenes, as seen in the Drive to Survive TV series, the real Daniel Ricciardo has his head in hands, unable to explain the why of what has happened to one of the leading drivers in an unforgiving sport.
Ricciardo has been constantly outperformed by teammate Lando Norris. The cars are the same but apart from a win in the Italian Grand Prix last year, Ricciardo is a pale imitation of the driver who thought he might become a world champion.
No one, least of all Ricciardo himself, can give a reason for the collapse of a once great career.
Much of it must be psychological. Now in his second season with McLaren, Ricciardo first explained his continuing failures on his difficulties driving a car that appeared to be driving him.
Teammate Lando Norris has consistently out qualified the Australian driver, lapping him at Monaco last year with a wave of his hand as he passed.Embed from Getty Images
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Norris says he has no “sympathy” for Ricciardo and while he expects people will “hate me for it” he says F1 is a tough business and it’s not his job to act as Ricciardo’s “driving coach.”
The final ignominy for Ricciardo was his sacking from McLaren. The Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday was the first of his final nine races for the team.
Ricciardo is now looking for a seat if he is to continue in F1 next year.
The driver known as the “Honey Badger” is a shadow of his former self.
The personal decline of a once-great driver who stood on podiums with world champions Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is “sad” to see, says his former boss at Red Bull.
Christian Horner is unable to explain the why of it. “I don’t recognise him as the same driver as he was when he was with us,” he says.
“He’s one of the best guys out there. He’s definitely got that capability. I hope he finds a seat in F1, I hope he finds his mojo.”
It has become an exhausting search.
Ricciardo won seven Grands Prix for Red Bull before he joined Renault, now Alpine and the team that would give him the best chance of a rebirth next year.
There have been widespread changes at Alpine since Ricciardo decided his fortunes would be better served at McLaren.
The French team will likely take him back following Fernando Alonso’s departure for Aston Martin and test driver Oscar Piastri’s preference to go with McLaren.
What could prevent this is AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly making it an all-French affair by joining Alpine.
Melbourne rookie Piastri shocked Alpine by saying he wouldn’t drive for them next season when the team named him as a replacement for Alonso.
The manoeuvring behind these driver movements continues as Alpine challenges whatever contract arrangements Piastri and his manager Mark Webber have made with McLaren.
If Ricciardo is offered an Alpine seat, he will likely take it, even if it means a dramatic drop in salary.
His payout from McLaren for dumping him before the last year of his contract is being quoted at anything from $14 million to $21 million.
But will he be better at Alpine than he has been at McLaren is again a multi-million dollar question. Lando Norris has made a point of saying he drives a car with the same specifications as the one Ricciardo drives.
Like Ricciardo, he finds it difficult to drive, but he drives it better.
Look at the numbers. Apart from Spain and Canada, where he had his own problems, Norris has out qualified Richard at every race and outscored him on race day this season by 47 points.
So, what is the answer to Ricciardo’s disastrous career slump?
The pressure of competing at motor sport’s highest level is not for the faint hearted and Ricciardo has never shied from that.
No, he has been broken in a slowly evolving disaster.
The answer might not be in another change of F1 seats, but on a counsellor’s couch.
Formula One commentator and former F1 driver Martin Bundle sees Ricciardo as deeply disturbed by what has happened to him.
“I’m not enjoying watching Daniel,” he said on Sky Sports in Belgium. “It’s painful isn’t it. I consider him a friend and I rate him massively as a person an. Racing driver.
“He has been struggling to get pace and you can’t take that for another 18 months. I would have done exactly the same thing.
“How they’ve done it – they’ve made an agreement – this a a tough business.”
Brundle says Ricciardo has not convinced him that he wants to stay on the F1 grid.
“I think he potentially does, but I saw a bit of a broken man.”
Will a move to another team put Ricciardo back together again?
It’s possible. The Alpine might not present the same problems for Ricciardo as the McLaren.
Fernando Alonso has not been complaining and he finished fifth in Belgium on Sunday.
Ricciardo finished 15th and Norris 12th after McLaren contributed to a weekend to forget by attempting a pitstop that didn’t come off. Four tyre changes were at least two changes too many.
Not that very much was expected. Ricciardo started seventh on the grid, but that was after Norris and six other drivers had been shuffled to the back off the grid because of engine changes.
All eyes at Spa on Sunday where on Max Verstappen in the Red Bull. The Dutchman born in Belgium started 14th and gave a master class as he swept through the field.
Sergio Perez was second in the second Red Bull, well behind Verstappen whom the Mexican driver said was “on another planet.”
Lewis Hamilton was a defeated and dejected driver, walking back to the pits after turning in on Alonso on the first lap. He accepted it was his fault.
The Mercedes was launched into the air with Hamilton saying he was “looking at the ground” and wondering, like Ricciardo, whether he too was in a drive to survive.