Ex-Renault Formula 1 team boss Cyril Abiteboul has criticised Daniel Ricciardo for deciding to depart the side only one year into their partnership, branding him “selfish”.
Ricciardo opted to turn down Red Bull in 2018 and move to Renault, representing a coup for the Enstone squad, which lagged considerably behind the top three teams.
But with Renault slipping a place to fifth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2019, Ricciardo elected to sign with McLaren for the following year ahead of the Covid-19 delayed 2020 campaign getting underway.
Speaking on the Dans La Boîte À Gants podcast, Abiteboul concedes that he is still angered by the Australian’s decision to only invest a solitary year into Renault’s F1 project before choosing to head for pastures new.
“He makes his decision in April or May; the world is at a standstill [Covid], we don’t know how we’re going to get back on track, if we’re going to get back on track,” Abiteboul began.
“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.”
When asked whether he took Ricciardo’s choice to abandon Renault for McLaren personally, Abiteboul replied: “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.”
With Renault unable to escape the midfield upon Ricciardo’s arrival, Abiteboul admits the multiple-time F1 race winner struggled to adapt to the step down in machinery.
The Frenchman, now overseeing Hyundai’s Rally programme, cited the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix as a particular low point for Ricciardo, whose attempts to climb the order were derailed when a failed overtaking move led to him reversing into Daniil Kvyat’s car.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
However, Abiteboul acknowledges that Renault’s marked improvement in 2020, which saw Ricciardo scoop two podiums, even ended up surprising the entire team.
He added: “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, Fernando Alonso [signed 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 [he] 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, who departed his position as Renault team boss at the end of 2020, believes Ricciardo’s addition came too early on the Anglo-French marque’s trajectory.
Expanding on his successful pursuit of Ricciardo’s signature in 2018, Abiteboul explained: “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.”