It took him longer than hoped - 32 races to be precise - but Daniel Ricciardo has finally landed his first Formula 1 podium for Renault. 

Ricciardo’s third-place finish at the Eifel Grand Prix ended Renault’s nine-year wait for an outing on the F1 rostrum and marked its first podium since returning to the championship as a works team. 

Confidence was at a high in the Renault camp when Ricciardo joined the project for 2019, but a frustrating campaign marred by poor reliability and a lack of successful car development left the Enstone outfit well behind on its ambitions of re-establishing itself as a race-and-championship-winning force.

Following a disappointing season, there was a noticeable shift in Renault’s message heading into 2020. Ricciardo was left quietly optimistic after a relatively trouble-free pre-season, but this time there were no bullish statements and no lavish predictions.

After an initial slow start when racing resumed following the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Renault’s fortunes have improved dramatically in recent races, with Ricciardo finishing no lower than sixth since the Belgian Grand Prix.

Renault has subsequently lifted itself up to fifth and within six points of third place in the constructors’ championship, while Ricciardo’s 15-point haul thanks to his podium at the Nurburgring has seen the Australian vault up to fourth place in the drivers’ standings, behind only the dominant Mercedes duo and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Ricciardo has credited Renault’s recent success to a set-up breakthrough it made with the RS20 at the Silverstone double-header back in August. The car’s one-lap potential and race-trim performance have markedly improved, leading Ricciardo to label this year’s Renault as “complete” after qualifying less than a second off Valtteri Bottas’ pole time in Germany.

He capitalised on Bottas’ retirement in the race to beat his midfield rivals to a spot on the podium, a result which Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul believed had acted as vindication for his team’s hard work after a particularly tough 2019. 

“[It] was indeed a very painful year which has pushed all of us, probably starting with myself, to take the measures that we’ve taken, and also supported with the team in Enstone with Marcin Budkowski and so on and so forth,” Abiteboul said on Sunday at the Nurburgring. 

“Now we are finding ourselves in a much better position for this year and for next year and Daniel is capable of doing this type of thing. So I think it’s a statement.”

For Ricciardo, this statement comes as he approaches his final six races at the team before completing his move to midfield rivals McLaren for 2021.

Back in May, and with only pre-season testing to go off, Ricciardo had already committed to McLaren during a driver merry-go-round triggered by Ferrari opting not to keep Sebastian Vettel for 2021. 

Ricciardo’s decision to quit before he had even raced this year’s Renault had left Abiteboul bitterly frustrated, as reflected in an abrupt statement

“I know that our communication was a bit negative when we found out that [he] would not stay with the team at the time,” Abiteboul explained.

“But I think that it’s precisely because it was an honest, emotional, unfiltered communication at the time that Daniel is also being unfiltered and genuine in what he is doing.”

At the time, Ricciardo ultimately felt McLaren was the better bet for the future, a decision influenced by the team’s impending switch to Mercedes engines for the 2021 season. 

With Renault now visibly improving, will Ricciardo be left regretting his call to jump ship?

This is a notion Ricciardo has fervently dismissed despite Renault’s recent resurgence, with the 31-year-old insisting that he stands by his decision to alter his career path and change teams for the second time in three years.

“Obviously no disrespect to Renault, and where I currently am, but no I don't regret it," he said ahead of the Eifel Grand Prix. "Am I happy to see us progress? Absolutely.

"If it means that we've got Renault as a competitor next year to push McLaren further, then I think that's good for everyone. So no, I'm not regretting it.

"But I'm also not unhappy with the progress. I want to be racing at the front, and obviously every race in F1 is so important. So, every chance I get to do it, you know, the sooner the better.

"I am glad we're making progress and I feel a part of it, which is important as well for me, and I guess my growth as a driver.”

The signing of Ricciardo alongside Lando Norris is a huge coup for a McLaren team that is heading in the right direction following a major restructuring process that has seen the likes of its impressive team leader Andreas Seidl and technical guru James Key come onboard.

While it has struggled to fully grasp its MCL35 and feels there is still more potential to be unlocked from its latest challenger, McLaren has still claimed two podium finishes already this season and has largely been the best-performing team behind Mercedes and Red Bull. 

McLaren remains ahead of Renault in the championship (albeit by just two points) and is set to be boosted by having the best engine on the grid next year. Over the past 18 months, it has also enjoyed the more consistent upward trajectory out of the two teams. 

There is of course the unknown curveball of the 2022 regulation overhaul to consider, which has the potential to completely shake-up the pecking order.

But with McLaren and Renault each boasting attractive and valid options in the absence of a seat at a race-winning team, there is seemingly little to choose between them, with both sides having reasons to be confident heading into the future. 

Naturally, only time will tell whether Ricciardo lives to regret his choice, but unless Renault holds an advantage over McLaren for the rest of the year and manages to translate it into 2021, Ricciardo should not be losing any sleep over his decision.

 

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