Daniel Ricciardo’s announcement that he would leave Red Bull to join Renault next year was a genuine bolt from the blue.
The decision stunned the Australian’s current team as much as it shocked Formula One fans around the world.
As the dust settled on the move, Stewart Bell sat down with Ricciardo’s future team boss Cyril Abiteboul to find out how the deal went down.
Stewart Bell: Signing Daniel Ricciardo to Renault was a massive coup. Was he was your dream choice?
Cyril Abiteboul: “We had basically three options that we were very strongly considering, and massively engaged to secure. We had Daniel (Ricciardo), Esteban Ocon and Carlos Sainz. And frankly, I think it’s fair to say that every single one of those options were good options for the team. But it happens, actually, that Daniel is, in addition to being one of the proven best in terms of skills, was also a fantastic opportunity to send a very strong statement internally and externally regarding our ambition and our capacity to deliver against our ambitions.
“He also was, from the three options I’ve mentioned, the only one to be completely free (of commitments). Carlos was in the hands of Red Bull, Esteban is a Mercedes driver so there is a benefit of Daniel that should not be underestimated was the fact that he was coming free from any other commitment with any other teams, which we hope will be a direct competitor of us in the coming years.”
SB: The announcement was a shock to many in the paddock. How did you manage to lure him?
CA: “Well, frankly, nothing special. We’ve been talking; we’ve been presenting the project in a very honest and humble manner. We’ve not tried to portray a situation that was different from the one that he will find. And I don’t want to see any disappointment or frustration when he first drives for us, whenever that will be. So I think it’s actually our honesty, our simplicity that maybe has paid off. It doesn’t always pay off in the world of Formula One, which can be sometimes full of arrogance. And I think he liked the fact that we are very determined in our ambitions but we are not taking ourselves seriously enough to lie about the situation in which we are.”
SB: Tell us about the moment he said yes. What was that like?
CA: “To be honest, most of the discussion has gone through his managers. But we exchanged, we spoke over the phone, and I think it was a big relief for him to get to a decision even though it was a complex one, just like it was also a difficult decision for us, despite the fact that we are overjoyed from the final outcome.”
SB: Was it the new challenge that swayed him as well?
CA: “I think it’s a new challenge, and a new type of challenge because here he’s not just going to drive, to come here on Friday morning, drive a car and leave on Sunday night. It’s more than a three-day job. It’s a complete job. He’s going to be driving the charge for the next stint of Renault in Formula One, just like Nico (Hulkenberg) has been taking the team from ninth (in the constructors’ champsionship in 2016) where it was to four, where we are today. The next stint will be in Daniel’s hands, and I think he realises that. It’s a big responsibility, but I think he also sees that as an honour and something extremely exciting.”
SB: Does the fact he’s from Red Bull Racing make the deal all the sweeter?
CA: “Not sweeter. It’s a bit of irony, but when you are in Formula One you always challenging, you always compete for given results, whether you’re talking about a sponsor, engineer, or a driver against one of your competitors. I’m fine. It’s not the reason why we’ve targeted Daniel, obviously.”
SB: How does Ricciardo change things for Renault’s plans?
CA: “It doesn’t change our plan. It basically increases the necessity to comply and to deliver against our plan and our target. We already have that obligation towards Renault, towards the legacy of Renault in motorsport, towards our partners, towards the fans. Now we have an extra level of motivation, but also obligation towards one of the most charismatic drivers in the paddock.
“I don’t want to see frustration in his eyes and the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen is to exceed our capability and I’m sure that the extra motivation that will come out of his arrival will increase the chances that we are in line with our ambitions.”
SB: How do you see the match-up with Nico Hulkenberg?
CA: “It’s a good question. Let’s see when we are in Australia (in 2019). What I can say is that from my perspective, we have in the two of them one of the best line-up out there. Daniel, Nico, I think it’s beyond any questions so I’m really looking forward to Melbourne to see that in action.”
SB: Will it (2019) be an initial step back for Ricciardo competitively?
CA: “Yeah, I think so. That’s the way that I see it. We call that a lateral move. Sometimes you need to accept that the move is not directly a move forward, but moving laterally before being able to move forward again. That’s the plan. The plan is to reduce the gap to the top teams first next year, being able to be a very clear best of the rest, which we are not quite yet, even though we are standing fourth in the championship as we speak.
We first need to secure that position until the end of the season, and that’s going to be challenging, due to the shape of the midfield. And then next step is to obviously reduce the gap to the top team and start fighting for podiums and then for wins. We see that as a possibility for 2020. It’s in our hands. We are not lacking of anything in order to do that.”
SB: What are your expectations for the rest of the season, looking beyond this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix?
CA: “We have an intense battle for fourth position against a number of teams: Haas, McLaren, and Force India – in terms of pace, we’ll see, maybe not in terms of points given their situation. We are obviously extremely focused on 2019 development, both from the engine side and the chassis side, but we have a number of upgrades in the pipeline before we would switch to 2019, which should give us the momentum to be able to keep that fourth position. That’s the target, that’s going to be a challenging one pretty much until Abu Dhabi I’m expecting.”
SB: Singapore is the first flyaway race, after Monza, and it’s a fan favourite – with supporting concerts this year from Martin Garrix, The Killers, Liam Gallagher, Jay Chou, Dua Lipa and Simply Red. What do you think of the event, and what can we expect from Renault?
CA: “Singapore is always a nice moment. It’s a grand prix that we like. It’s a spectacular race. It’s a race also where our car should be more competitive. We like that type of track. We’ll have some upgrades coming up to that track so we should be able to, as always, fight for points and hopefully outscore our direct rivals.”