Former F1 Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul revealed that Daniel Ricciardo was characterized as “selfish” in his departure from the team during the tumultuous 2020 season, marked by the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, he sheds light on the driver’s questionable career decisions, particularly his early departures from Renault and McLaren.
Ricciardo sent shockwaves through the Formula 1 world when he announced his departure from Red Bull Racing in 2018, opting to join Renault. The move was met with both excitement and skepticism, as many wondered if he could help transform Renault into a competitive force once more. However, after a rather challenging 2019 season, Ricciardo’s critics grew louder.
The turning point came in the 2020 campaign when Ricciardo secured two podium finishes for Renault, showcasing his talent and reaffirming his status as one of F1’s top drivers. It was during this period that he inked a deal to switch to McLaren for the 2021 season, marking another significant career move.
Unfortunately, Ricciardo’s struggles continued with McLaren, leading to an agreement to terminate his contract toward the end of the 2022 season. It was a decision that raised eyebrows and prompted discussions about the reasons behind his struggles in adapting to different teams and cars.
Fast forward to the end of the 2023 season, and one cannot help but notice that the McLaren F1 car is now the one that comes closest to challenging Red Bull’s dominance in the title race. The irony of the situation is evident, given Ricciardo’s initial decision to leave Red Bull, which was then followed by his departure from both Renault and McLaren, both teams showing signs of improvement after his departure.
During his appearance on the Dans La Boîte À Gants podcast, Abiteboul expressed his disappointment regarding Ricciardo’s choice to depart from Renault during a season marred by the pandemic. He remarked:
“He makes his decision in April or May; the world is at a standstill, we don’t know how we’re going to get back on track, if we’re going to get back on track.
“In fact, I think it’s a very early move, a bit selfish – because in the end, it will have given the team just one season’s chance, and so it’s true that it’s a decision that I’m taking badly. Badly.”
When questioned about whether he took Ricciardo’s decision on a personal level, Abiteboul confirmed:
“Of course, because I can see that it’s a personal rejection. I take it completely personally. I accept it. And I can see what the consequences are going to be too.”
Delving further into Daniel Ricciardo’s journey with Renault, Abiteboul disclosed that the Australian driver faced an initial adjustment period to the slower car compared to his previous Red Bull racing machine during his first year. However, it was his recurring errors that prompted the team to rethink their approach. Shedding light on the subsequent narrative, he elaborated:
“The team was in the process of structuring itself and getting organised. We’re making progress, but that means we’re not at Red Bull’s level. He came from the standard environment, Red Bull, and so inevitably there was a feeling of being demoted.
“It was difficult for him psychologically. In 2019, the Baku Grand Prix was absolutely horrendous, with him making mistake after mistake. In short, he’s completely out of his depth, and that’s complicated for us.
“I didn’t think it would be this difficult in 2019 and, conversely, I didn’t think that in 2020 there would be Covid, a global pandemic that would block us, and during which he would decide to end his contract at the end of the year. I obviously don’t see that happening.
“And I don’t see it happening either that we [would] have such a good year in 2020, all the same, with podiums and a car that once again, by making a few less mistakes, could [have finished] third in the standings.
“After that, at some point you have to bounce back. And it’s complicated because we issue very cold, very harsh press releases where you can feel the feeling. What’s more, Netflix is probably filming the show at the time, so they’re telling it differently afterwards.
“And the season didn’t turn out at all as we’d imagined, it turned out much better than we’d expected. But at the same time, we set out to do something else. We set off on projects, [signing] Fernando Alonso [as Ricciardo’s replacement].
“I’m completely switching to something else, and I don’t think we had the slightest opportunity to discuss whether [Ricciardo] regretted it, whether we regretted it… In any case, once I’m gone, I’m gone.
“I don’t think [Ricciardo] could have imagined the car making such progress, and neither could we. I can also understand his strategy. McLaren sold him a bit of a bill of goods to get him, but that’s part of the game. Ricciardo always has a timing problem: he left us too early and he left McLaren too early.”
Abiteboul, however, openly admitted that he had reservations about signing Ricciardo prematurely. In a twist of fate, his initial concerns proved prescient, as Ricciardo’s departure from Renault did materialize at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Reflecting on the fateful day when he inked the deal with Ricciardo back in 2018, Abiteboul reached a sobering conclusion:
“I know deep down that it’s too soon, even if we can’t say to him: ‘Come back next year.’
“That evening, I went to my favourite restaurant in Marseille with my partner and I said to her: ‘Tonight, we toast two things. One, to the fact that we’ve signed Ricciardo, who’s a great driver. Two, to the fact that in two years’ time, I’ll be sacked’
“Because you sign a two-year contract and I knew that this would ultimately highlight the fact that the team wasn’t yet at the required level and that this could potentially be interpreted as a bad decision.
“Once again, today I have mixed feelings, but on the other hand I didn’t screw up my forecasts.”
In his current role, Cyril Abiteboul serves as the team principal of Hyundai’s World Rally Championship operation, a world away from the world of Formula 1 but still showcasing his expertise in motorsport management.