Why McLaren doesn’t want Ricciardo debut to be like his first day

McLaren has one target in mind for Daniel Ricciardo’s first Formula 1 grand prix on board: that team and driver feel like they have been together for years.

With F1’s pre-season testing schedule the most compact it has ever been, and strict limits on who could join the Abu Dhabi young driver run last year, there has been precious little time for the new combination to get ready for 2021’s challenges.

But for a team like McLaren, that is no excuse for any early cautiousness or a grace period for Ricciardo and his crew to get up to speed with each other. It knows that in the harsh world of F1, it has to hit the ground running in Bahrain.

That’s why McLaren is embarking on an intensive preparation programme for Ricciardo both at its Woking factory and with some homework that the Australian will have to take away with him.

As McLaren racing director Andrea Stella said: “Having a new driver on board is always a very interesting challenge. And the approach is that it has to start from qualifying [at the first race]. Where do we want to be on that Saturday?

“Then, you work your way back in terms of what you need to do to make sure that you are as prepared as possible. And it’s a combination of competence and being methodical. Because I’m sure everyone, such as the engineers, will be eager to share with the driver tons and tons of information and solutions. But actually, you need to do the right things because there won’t be a lot of time to test on track.

“The objective is to be at the first race, in qualifying, and it be like Daniel has driven the McLaren and has worked with these engineers, and the team, for a long time.”

Stella says that the process of integration begins well before there is any thought about testing plans or even considerations of the approach to the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

The early phase of their new relationship will be about driver and engineers getting to know each other; and especially learning about each other’s demands and quirks.

“There will be in January, first of all, plenty of conversations,” explained Stella. “They will have to be personal, individual, and relationship building.

“These will touch the technical elements, and these will touch the racing element. It will be like: do you remember that race when you were very competitive, what made you so competitive in that race? Then you develop a conversation.

“Then he can say, ‘guys, when you were so good with the tyre degradation in Bahrain, what did you do to be so competitive?’ These will be long, long conversations.

“You need to be generous from this point of view, because this is one of the elements to say that when we are at race one on Saturday, it is like we’ve known each other for a long time, personally, technically, and operationally.”

There will be some specific tasks set as part of this process: including work on the simulator and some jobs that Ricciardo will be asked to do in his own time.

“We will, for example, give him quite a lot of homework,” added Stella. “We will give him a recording of the radio communications of, for example, [last] season.

“We will say, ‘Daniel, now listen to that, and come back to us and tell us what you hear. What you would improve, what you liked, what you didn’t like, how you want to be spoken to and so on?’

“And then there is the simulator. The simulator is a good way to see how a driver is driving. It is not the same, obviously as being in a real car, but it helps a lot in getting all the changes that the drivers have to do right now, in a very natural way. So from this point of view, it is actually very useful.”

While Ricciardo showed at Renault that it can take more than a year to get fully integrated and delivering your best for a team, that is not to say a great deal can be unleashed from the start.

McLaren technical director James Key thinks that the example of Carlos Sainz, who he worked with at both Toro Rosso and McLaren, shows exactly what is possible when it comes to integrating new drivers.

“I did exactly the same process for Carlos at Toro Rosso,” said Key about the challenges of bringing a new driver into a team.

“Having seen how he’s progressed as a driver, from those kind of tentative, early days, where actually I think he got through to Q3 in his first race, you know, so he was on it already.

“But still, I would say he has had a lot to learn. He was eager to learn. He knew that he needed to gather more experience in how to manage tyres. And you see him now as this confident, very knowledgeable, and, very highly regarded driver.

“I think Daniel has been through the same process, but earlier. And inbetween times, has gone and won races as well and put himself amongst that category of drivers. So I think what he will bring to us is this really good reference point.

“He was great to work with at Toro Rosso because he was already technically very savvy, and had exactly the same approach that you kind of see now. But since then, he has experienced an awful lot.

“I think as a reference point for us, it’s going to be really interesting. He’s coming from a competitor and a good team in Red Bull before then, which will give him some ideas and reference points that will be a good input for us as well. So I’m looking forward to working with him on that basis.”

The F1 season opener may still be more than two months ago, but Ricciardo and McLaren are already flat out making sure the season has a flying start.

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