It took Ricciardo a little time to re-adapt to life in the midfield after his megabucks move to Renault, something that really hit home after the second race of the season in Bahrain where he struggled to extract the most from the car in qualifying then retired late in the race.
But soon he was turning in the performances expected of him. While the first half of the season was a little inconsistent, he really hit his stride after the summer break. When the car allowed him, he extracted the most from it and outperformed Nico Hulkenberg by a small margin on Saturdays and decisively on Sundays.
Signing Daniel Ricciardo should have been a statement of Renault’s intent in Formula 1. Instead, it became a beacon of its underachievement as $25million-per-year’s worth of driver was restricted to scrapping in the midfield and finished in the top 10 a paltry eight times. The perception is that it was a spectacular waste of money that could have been better spent on making its car go quicker.
There’s some truth to that, but while there’s a lot to be said for the idea that a team only requires a true top-line driver when it has the machinery to match, Ricciardo did bring his prodigious talents to bear at the team - even if it took a little time to adapt to being back in the cut and thrust of the pack.
The second race in Bahrain appeared to be the point where he clocked the need to modify how he was driving and that was where he started talking in depth about it being more difficult to step back to a less good car than to move forward to a better one. During the first half of the season, he didn’t always master this, although there were some outstanding performances – qualifying seventh in a tail-happy car at Monaco, finishing sixth in Canada, a run to seventh in Britain that would have been one place better but for unfortunate safety car timing. But in the second half of the year, he really offered value.
His qualifying record relative to Nico Hulkenberg was good, although not remarkable, but he was often a cut above in terms of race performance. His four ‘Class B’ wins to Hulkenberg’s none prove that. His performance level was generally outstanding over the second half of the year, proving he’d fully adapted to his new circumstances.
“You are always going to get lows throughout the season,” says Ricciardo “The high was in line with [expectations] - top five - but the lows, at times we were scratching our heads and shouldn’t have been that far down. To be P14… we thought we were done with this.
“The lows actually have been the most fuel for the fire and the hindsight of the lows has been very positive, personally wanting to get back to the front but also the way the team turned them around.”
Ricciardo was, however, relegated to the role of bit-part player having been one of F1’s pre-eminent drivers of the hybrid era - emerging first in our top 50 drivers in both 2014 and 2016. Having returned to the unfamiliar surroundings of the midfield, he can still draw positives from the experience.
“I guess I can’t be disappointed,” he says when asked about his tally of 54 points and ninth in the championship. “It was always going to be difficult. Coming into a new team from a higher-level car to a lower one and having to adapt - coming into a car with more grip is normally easier. How I adapted coming from Red Bull to here, I was quite happy with. The first few races, I wasn’t happy but I think I developed well.”
But the appetite is clearly there to get back to the sharp end. He’s not content to pick up his pay package and scrap for minor points finishes on most weekends.
“I don’t see myself as the ninth driver on the grid, I don’t look at it too much because I believe I am better,” he says. “I don’t want to be ninth for the next few years and have the excuse that I’m better than ninth. I don’t like seeing myself in ninth.”