Why Ricciardo’s Renault gamble won’t emulate Hamilton’s switch

Let’s be frank. When Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull for Renault, he hoped he was emulating Lewis Hamilton’s gamble when he moved from McLaren to Mercedes.

But it hasn’t worked out.

The main difference between the two situations was that when Hamilton moved to Mercedes, although he knew he wouldn’t be fighting for titles immediately, he could see the level of investment the German manufacturer were putting into the team, and it wouldn’t be long before that started to provide opportunities for him to win races.

And it panned out just as he expected. Hamilton finished his first year with Mercedes fourth in the driver’s standings, but the following season he clinched his third world title, and as we all know, since then he has only failed to win the championship on one occasion, when his then team-mate Nico Rosberg won the championship in 2016.

But it wasn’t just about money.

The timing of Hamilton’s move was perfect. He picked the exact moment where McLaren were falling from grace and out of the top three, while Mercedes were on an upwards trajectory, straight to the top.

Embed from Getty Images

You can’t guess that. You can’t force it to happen. It simply comes down to luck, circumstances and coincidence, but it meant that Hamilton’s decision to step away from a team that had looked after him since his teens was genius.

Having had five seasons where he was unable to ultimately fight for a world championship, Ricciardo wanted the same. He wanted to engineer a brilliant move that would see him become world champion, but it hasn’t worked.

There are a number of reasons why it hasn’t happened, and we will start with Renault.

The French manufacturer made their return to F1 in 2016 and set themselves a target of breaking into the top three within three years, but they have never got close.

To start with, upon their return Renault didn’t have the most experienced of drivers and that would have cost them from a development perspective, but beyond that, they were never prepared to put the kind of investment into the team that was needed.

When Mercedes took over Brawn, they threw money at the team to get the right personnel on board and to get the right equipment in so that there were no excuses. Renault simply haven’t done that.

They have come in with a strict budget that is far less than the top three teams, and as such, it was never realistic that they were going to become Grand Prix winners in such a short space of time.

Embed from Getty Images

Since their return to the series, Renault’s best finish in the constructor’s championship has been fourth place, in 2018 and the team slipped to fifth last season after McLaren put together a strong recovery.

Renault got Ricciardo on board by showing that they were well on their way to fourth in 2018, and lured the Australian by convincing him that they could go a step further in 2019.

But, the Enstone-based team, simply did not have the required funds or the right personnel in place to be capable of doing that.

The other thing to remember is that when Mercedes jumped to the front, they took the place of McLaren who had a sudden fall from grace. It was one in, one out.

With Renault, that isn’t the case. Neither Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull look like falling behind, and on top of that, McLaren have recovered to a point where they are a credible candidates to muscle their way back to the front.

When Ricciardo took the gamble, he was banking on Red Bull falling down the order, with the Milton Keynes-based team taking on Honda engines for the first time.

He assumed that like McLaren, Red Bull would struggle with the Honda powerplant, that up until 2019, had been by the far the slowest of the engines on the grid.

But Honda got themselves together, and matched Renault for pace, which meant Red Bull secured three victories in 2019 and became the second best team by the end of the year.

Embed from Getty Images

The plan didn’t work, and at this stage, it doesn’t seem likely to either.

The Hamilton/Mercedes gamble was a move that plays out once in a lifetime. It rarely happens. Even when Michael Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari, it took him five years before he had any major success, and once again, Ferrari had to pump a huge amount of money into the team to get the right people in place.

Renault have made it clear that they are not prepared to throw a limitless amount of money at their team just to secure a championship win. That’s what Ricciardo needs, but it’s not what he is going to get.

It means that if Ricciardo is ever going to get a title, he is going to have to do it the hard way. He is going to have to consistently out-perform his car and put it into places it has no right to be.

Yes, there are opportunities at top teams in 2021 where Ricciardo would have the opportunity to fight hard for a championship, but if he is going to end up at the likes of Ferrari in 2021, he is going to have to shine in 2020.

2019 never really panned out how Ricciardo envisioned, and it impacted on his form. Even when he was unable to win in a Red Bull he still shone, but last season he disappeared into the background, and while he beat Nico Hulkenberg in the head-to-head, it wasn’t overly convincing.

It all means that either Renault are going to have to find a golden ticket in their car development for 2020, or Ricciardo is going to have to step up his game.

And while all of it is full of uncertainty, the one thing Ricciardo can be certain of, is that 2019 is going to be the most important one of his career and could be the make or break season that will decide whether he can become world champion at some point in the future, be it at Renault or not.