From an Australian perspective the story of formula one in 2019 was, ‘Where’s Danny Ricc?’, with the Australian going from a highly visible Red Bull frontrunner to a mid-pack Renault battler.
As one of the nation’s brightest sporting stars, Daniel Ricciardo shocked the motorsport world with his big payday move away from the team that had nurtured him as a young racer and into the top flight.
It was a domino that no one expected to fall in that particular way, but Ricciardo backed himself to emulate Lewis Hamilton by joining an emerging team with the goal of building a championship-winning car around him as the lead driver.
The success may still happen, but there’s little doubt that Renault’s progress in 2019 was glacial slow and not as originally sold to Ricciardo or the formula one world.
Ricciardo’s best result was a stunning fourth at Monza as the team battled to overcome power, downforce and tyre degradation issues.
He ultimately finished ninth in the drivers’ standings, but has maintained that the season was not as frustrating as his final races with Red Bull.
Ricciardo is clearly enjoying the challenge and the midfield scraps that have allowed him to race against some of the field’s young guns in more evenly matched cars.
And the Australian is also seen as king of the kids in the F1 paddock, continuing his reputation as a laid back prankster who takes the edge off the media set-piece tedium by injecting humour and fun to the proceedings.
Together with his burgeoning partner in hilarity crime, McLaren’s rookie of the year Lando Norris, he featured heavily on F1’s Twitter feed as a marketing tool that cuts through all the serious stuff.
Still, it has to be said the fans are not having as much fun.
Used to watching Ricciardo fight for podiums, instead his boosters were left to wonder how well their man would have done alongside former Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, who continued to take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari.
As befits Ricciardo’s honest nature, he is keeping faith with Renault’s bigger picture – within certain limits.
He told The New Daily in September that Renault must deliver a car capable of competing for podiums by the time he considers his next career move later in 2020.
“My desire and my faith in this is still there, but of course come next year and mid-next year we need to be better off then than we are now,” Ricciardo said from the Singapore Grand Prix.
“That was the plan by 2020 to be a podium car. So, I don’t want to say ‘If we haven’t got a podium then it is done’, but at least show signs that we are getting very close or capable of it.”
What has changed towards the end of 2019 is who will be racing alongside the Australian, with Frenchman Esteban Ocon sitting out 2019 as a development driver for Mercedes after losing his seat at Racing Point last season.
Ricciardo had a good relationship with his former teammate Nico Hulkenberg but has high hopes that the 22-year-old Ocon will bring some “technical stuff” from Mercedes to help boost Renault’s chances.
“It could just be, you know, the structure of how they, how they go through a race weekend and … the meetings and the set up,” Ricciardo told The New Daily.
“I obviously pulled a few things from Red Bull, you know, it’s like in terms of technically on the car, it could just be some guidance.”
So that sort of stuff is helpful and maybe maybe Esteban could, [provide] a bit more direction.”
For now though, the gap between Renault and Mercedes remains huge, and six-times world champion Hamilton – despite some lapses and rants in the car this year – shows no sign of easing up in 2020.
The 2019 season played out similarly to recent years – high hopes from Valtteri Bottas that he could challenge his Mercedes teammate, only for the majestic Briton to put the foot down mid-year and seal the title before all the races had been run.
With a year remaining on his contract, 34-year-old Hamilton will soon have to decide if he stays on to see out his career at Mercedes or take the leap to try and lift Mercedes to a title.
He needs just seven wins in 2020 to pass the 91 race win record held by Michael Schumacher and the only real challenger looming in the rear vision mirrors is Bottas and Ferrari’s newly re-signed French gun, Charles Leclerc.
The 22-year-old outshone even the wildest predictions for his debut year in the Ferrari, with wins at the Belgium and Italian Grands Prix – albeit with his breakthrough overshadowed by the death of his friend Anthoine Hubert who was killed earlier in the weekend at Spa in an F2 race.
The question that now looms as formula one approaches a complete revamp of cars, funding and race rules in 2021 is whether Hamilton and Leclerc will ultimately grow their burgeoning rivalry as teammates in red.
Hamilton has long spoken of a desire to race for the Scudiera and the thought of the veteran going head-to-head with the emerging Leclerc will be a distinct possibility when increasingly frustrated Ferrari veteran Sebastian Vettel decides to cash in his chips.
If Hamilton sticks with his winning Mercedes combination don’t be too surprised if it’s our own man, Ricciardo, who is thrown up as a possible veteran teammate for Leclerc in the Italian car.
Despite Ricciardo’s professed commitment to the Renault project, he has the heritage, talent, experience and marketing nous to be a huge hit at Ferrari.
For all the talk of the long haul, his brand new contract with Renault was just a two-year deal that expires at the end of 2020.
It may be wishful thinking, but Australian race fans would delight at Ricciardo in red.