Daniel Ricciardo's struggles in the early part of 2021 are becoming a fading memory as the season goes on, with the Australian driver finding pace and form in the second half of the year, capped off with a win at the Italian Grand Prix.
It hasn't been plain sailing, at all, for Ricciardo, with his struggles to find pace in the MCL35M perhaps illustrated most at Monaco. At a circuit where he last won a Grand Prix, in 2018, Ricciardo was lapped by teammate Lando Norris, but has managed to bounce back strongly from that nadir.
His race engineer, Tom Stallard, has opened up about what has been going on behind the scenes on Ricciardo's side of the garage, and said that the team knew there were going to be issues almost immediately at the start of the season.
"I think the Bahrain race [where Ricciardo finished P7 to Norris' P4 on his McLaren debut] he did quite well, but that was with a lot of time in the car in the [Bahrain] test – I mean, not a lot of time, but a bit of time at the test, and a circuit that suits him well," Stallard told the official Formula 1 website.
"And then at Imola [where Ricciardo finished P6 as Norris claimed a podium in P3] we kind of exposed the problems, if you like, that he was having with the car, and we understood the struggle that we would have."
The seasoned veteran Stallard proved calm under the pressure of trying to help Ricciardo, saying that a clear process was put in place.
"We put in place a plan of what we needed to do differently and how we needed to react. And since then, actually, we've been on an upward trajectory from that point, but you don't always necessarily see that from the outside," he said.
"There have been a number of races where after the race, he's been frustrated and I've been reassuring him that actually we are seeing progress, and we don't have the good results yet but they're coming."
The main issue for Ricciardo appeared to be a simple case of a lack of confidence in what the McLaren was doing, with Stallard confirming that he struggled initially to adjust his style to the unique demands of the car.
"Ultimately, all the drivers would choose the same thing, which is very good rear stability, and front end that increases as you add steer," he explained.
"That is totally universal, but the truth is that having a car that does that is the Holy Grail of Formula 1 design; every team up and down this paddock is trying to do that, and succeeding to a greater or lesser extent.
"We have a car that understeers and that's been something that he's had to adapt to and modify his natural approach to get the best out of."
But, despite his outward happy-go-lucky demeanour, Stallard underlined that Ricciardo took the challenge extremely seriously and with focused determination to get himself out of his rut.
"Obviously Daniel seems like the most laidback guy in the world," Stallard said, "but behind the scenes, under the water, the duck feet are going quite quickly.
"Because we were in lockdown and he was in Los Angeles [over the winter break], we did most of his initial integration virtually, and during that phase, he learnt all the switches, what all the toys do, how to use the steering wheel.
"We spent a lot of time talking through the strategy with Daren [Stanley], our strategist. And actually all the communication side, all of the switches, all the controls, he had completely down by the time he went to winter testing."
The summer break seemed to mark a turning point for Ricciardo, with the mental switch off from Formula 1 helping him clear up the issues. Since then, Ricciardo has been much more competitive and closer to matching the performances of Norris in the other car, as well as achieving that tremendous victory at Monza.
"He's been in the factory loads, doing the simulator, partly working on his driving with that, but also giving feedback to the team about what he wants from the car," Stallard said.
"And at no point during the phase where he was getting up to speed with our package did he question that there was any kind of, the team backing the other driver, or the engineers didn't know what they were doing, or the car was set-up wrong.
"He just knuckled down, got on with the work, and I think that the whole team has a lot of respect for him for that."
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