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Daniel Ricciardo: F1 2018's lost championship challenger?

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On lap 62 of the Mexican GP, Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull let go once again and gave the Australian his eighth retirement of the season. After the highs of pole position on Saturday, this was another blow to Ricciardo's season, which has been plagued with unreliability.

His car also broke down in Austin last weekend, when a podium was on the cards, and again in during qualifying in Suzuka, where Ricciardo's patience appeared to have run out.

The frustration which had built up inside Daniel during the course of 2018 was clear to see on that Saturday afternoon at Suzuka. His howl of anger, broadcast to millions of people, as the Australian trudged up the pit lane, was the first real indication that this season had run away from him.

The uncharacteristic outburst was not surprising though. Ricciardo’s failure to reach Q3 in Suzuka meant it was the fourth time in six races in which he failed to make the final part of qualifying. Compare that to the three other times from the rest of his Red Bull career, and that becomes a pretty shocking statistic.

Many have been quick to view Ricciardo’s downturn in form, since his win in Monaco, as a drop in driver performance, whilst his teammate, Max Verstappen, has managed to turn his season around with some impressive drives. It’s a fact that Ricciardo has been outscored by Verstappen since Monaco. However, it’s telling that the early points advantage Daniel enjoyed over his teammate was mainly due to the latter’s driving errors, but the advantage Verstappen now has over Ricciardo has been caused by Daniel’s incredible run of reliability issues.

After his win in China and Monaco this year, Ricciardo was proving that, with the right tools, he was capable of being a regular challenger at the front. Some were even touting him for a full title tilt. That may have been somewhat ambitious, but there is evidence to argue that without the problems which have blighted Ricciardo since, he could well have been at least a nuisance to the top two, and have a couple more wins under his belt.

Ricciardo’s technical issues this season pre-date Monaco, all the way back to Round 2 in Bahrain, and have affected his season ever since. An energy store failure saw the Australian retire at Sakhir, at a weekend where both Red Bull cars looked strong. Even his Monaco victory was almost robbed away from him by a failed MGU-K, and only a superb drive by Ricciardo saved the day.

"Ricciardo’s technical issues this season pre-date Monaco, all the way back to Round 2 in Bahrain, and have affected his season ever since."

For argument’s sake, let’s say that fourth place would have been achievable for Daniel in the races in which he’s suffered car problems. That would mean he would have picked up 12 points, rather than none, at races in Bahrain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Italy, U.S, and Mexico where he retired during the race, and an extra two points at the British GP, where his DRS failed during qualifying. By my reckoning, that would give Ricciardo 86 more points than he currently has, putting him on 232 points, and just ahead of Valtteri Bottas and just behind Kimi Raikkonen in the standings, in fourth place.

I’m aware that’s a pretty simple calculation, and that there are plenty of other variables to contend with, but the general point stands. Without the long sequence of bad reliability, Ricciardo could well have played at least a minor role in the championship fight. There’s good reason to suggest that a position better than fourth was available at races such as Bahrain, Austria, and Meixco, too, and a potential podium was available in Japan, so his points tally could’ve been even more.

This is all hypothetical, of course, but it’s hard to deny that Ricciardo has been brutally unlucky this year with reliability. Perhaps only Bottas can rival him for title of unluckiest driver of the season, with no wins to his name at all.

Ricciardo must be all too aware that his imminent departure to Renault could see chances of good results dry up whilst the French outfit improves the car. His howl of frustration in Japan, and his body language in the previous two races made it clear that he is desperate to score one more podium (at least) with Red Bull, whilst he knows he still can. He's only got two more races to do it, he just needs the car to work.