LONG READ: How Olympian race engineer Tom Stallard helped coach Daniel Ricciardo to Monza victory
Daniel Ricciardo and the ever-improving McLaren team were seen as a match made in Heaven ahead of the start of the 2021 season. But while it all came good at the Italian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s win at Monza was a product of hours and hours of unseen work, and some confidence-shaking moments along the way. F1 Staff Writer Greg Stuart sat down with Tom Stallard, the man who’s race engineered Ricciardo throughout 2021, to trace the arc of that breakthrough Monza win.
You could make a strong case that Lap 52 of the Monaco Grand Prix marked the nadir in Daniel Ricciardo’s first season with McLaren. As the Australian exited Sainte Devote and accelerated up the hill, he dutifully jinked left to allow team mate Lando Norris to lap him, Norris acknowledging the gesture with a wave from his cockpit. Norris would go on to finish third. Ricciardo, who’d brilliantly won in Monaco just three years earlier for Red Bull, finished out of the points in 12th.
That was May – and yet just four months later, Ricciardo had taken McLaren back to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2012, capping off a superb Italian Grand Prix weekend with an emotional victory at Monza, and leading Norris home in a McLaren one-two.
How did that happen? Ricciardo’s race engineer Tom Stallard has been the man F1 fans have heard soothing and chivvying Ricciardo over team radio this year, a year in which success has been harder to come by than many had anticipated – and he was naturally delighted when Ricciardo combined all his learnings to take the assured win in Monza, his first victory since that 2018 Monaco triumph.
“I was super proud,” Stallard tells me as we chat in the paddock in Sochi, “because we've worked really hard this year to be honest, and it was nice to see him executing everything that we'd talked about and worked on.
“Obviously he did a fantastic job, but he actually did the job that we'd been talking about and working on together. He's a top driver, obviously, joined our team as a top driver, but we’ve actually had to work at it quite hard and in Monza, he really executed that.”
Why didn’t Ricciardo and McLaren gel immediately?
Ricciardo’s stellar second half of 2020 with Renault – during which he took two podiums and finished every race in the points – combined with McLaren’s sharp upward trajectory and the arrival of Mercedes power units at the team for 2021, meant that many earmarked the Ricciardo/McLaren combination as a potential surprise package this season.
But despite claiming points in his first four races for the team – including convincingly leading Norris home in Barcelona – right from the off, Stallard says, there were issues.
“I think the Bahrain race [where Ricciardo finished P7 to Norris’ P4 on his McLaren debut] he did quite well, but that was with a lot of time in the car in the [Bahrain] test – I mean, not a lot of time but a bit of time at the test, and a circuit that suits him well,” says Stallard.
“And then at Imola [where Ricciardo finished P6 as Norris claimed a podium in P3] we kind of exposed the problems, if you like, that he was having with the car, and we understood the struggle that we would have.”
As you might expect from an engineer of Stallard’s experience (he joined McLaren back in 2008) his first reaction to the situation wasn’t to panic, but to put in place processes to help bring Ricciardo on.
“We put in place a plan of what we needed to do differently and how we needed to react. And since then actually, we've been on an upward trajectory from that point, but you don't always necessarily see that from the outside.
“There have been a number of races where after the race, he's been frustrated and I've been reassuring him that actually we are seeing progress, and we don't have the good results yet but they're coming.”
So what was it about the MCL35M that wasn’t suiting Ricciardo and his driving style?
“Ultimately,” says Stallard, “all the drivers would choose the same thing, which is very good rear stability, and front end that increases as you add steer. That is totally universal, but the truth is that having a car that does that is the Holy Grail of Formula 1 design; every team up and down this paddock is trying to do that, and succeeding to a greater or lesser extent.
“We have a car that understeers and that's been something that he's had to adapt to and modify his natural approach to get the best out of.”
The changes that led to the Monza victory
One thing Stallard is at pains to point out is that, for all of Ricciardo’s famously insouciant manner, beneath the gigawatt smile there lurks one of the world’s top racing drivers, with a work ethic to match.
“Obviously Daniel seems like the most laidback guy in the world,” says Stallard, “but behind the scenes, under the water, the duck feet are going quite quickly.
“Because we were in lockdown and he was in Los Angeles [over the winter break], we did most of his initial integration virtually, and during that phase, he learnt all the switches, what all the toys do, how to use the steering wheel.
"We spent a lot of time talking through the strategy with Daren [Stanley], our strategist. And actually all the communication side, all of the switches, all the controls, he had completely down by the time he went to winter testing.
“He's been in the factory loads, doing the simulator, partly working on his driving with that, but also giving feedback to the team about what he wants from the car,” adds Stallard.
“And at no point during the phase where he was getting up to speed with our package did he question that there was any kind of, the team backing the other driver, or the engineers didn't know what they were doing, or the car was set-up wrong. He just knuckled down, got on with the work, and I think that the whole team has a lot of respect for him for that.”
Ricciardo endured an up-and-down run of form leading up to the summer break, the lows including a tough Styrian Grand Prix where he finished 13th to Norris’ fifth and a Hungarian Grand Prix where first lap contact with Charles Leclerc hobbled his McLaren, leaving him 11th at the flag.
But Ricciardo appeared rejuvenated after the summer break, nailing his best qualifying of the year at that point with P4 on the grid in Belgium – while after a race to forget for the whole McLaren team in Zandvoort, Ricciardo then put together what would ultimately be his winning weekend in Monza, qualifying P5 on Friday, racing to P3 in Saturday’s F1 Sprint before claiming that sensational victory in the race.
Indeed, it was Ricciardo’s anger at qualifying P5 on Friday at Monza (and just 0.006s off his team mate) that seemed to indicate that a change had come in the Australian’s expectations of the level he should be performing at – with Stallard noting the key difference in Ricciardo since the summer…
“I think the ‘frustration at being P5’ thing was there all along,” says Stallard. “For me, the difference with the break is that it helped him not overthink it, so he's adapted better to the way you have to drive our car without it being completely conscious every corner, what you need to do.
“Daniel's easy to work with, because if you give him a problem to solve, he goes away and works at it, so the work ethic's always been good, which makes life easy,” adds Stallard. “He doesn't defer responsibility away from himself; he takes a lot on the chin, which means some of what I've had to do is keeping him, let's say, up, because he's taken a lot of responsibility for things himself.
“But from my side, that means he's great to work with, and that collaboration is very strong. And when we got to Monza, we both had a lot of confidence in each other, so that made the result in Monza feel very natural.”
Ricciardo leading McLaren to their first victory since Jenson Button’s 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix triumph, and their first one-two since the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix, was a fantastic moment for all at McLaren, and one that was warmly welcomed by most in the F1 paddock.
But Stallard was under no illusions during our chat in Sochi that Ricciardo is still on a journey to being fully comfortable in McLaren’s MCL35M car this season – a point Ricciardo would then back up himself a few days later when, despite finishing P4 in the Russian Grand Prix, he admitted that “there is still some stuff missing”.
“In Monza, the circuit and our technical package aligned well,” says Stallard, “and actually last year we came second there, so it's a circuit that suits our car and obviously Daniel did a very good job putting it all together, and the strategy was correct.
“He now understands how to drive the car; I think he's felt that himself rather than it just being explained to him, which means we have made another step. But it's a much more linear process than it appears from the outside.”
What Ricciardo does have in his corner, meanwhile – apart from the work ethic and talent that have made him an eight-time Grand Prix winner – is a race engineer in Stallard who has been an elite athlete himself, forming part of Great Britain’s silver medal-winning men’s eight rowing crew at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And Stallard believes that his own experience as an athlete can help get the best out of Ricciardo, who signed to McLaren on a three-year deal that will take him into Formula 1’s bold new era of regulations with the team.
“In this sport, 20 years ago, the race engineers were very much engineers,” says Stallard. “But now we are coaches, and so we're using the data to guide the drivers in how to get the best out of the car.
“So I see myself now as a coach and I have a lot of experience of being coached, whereas a lot of the other race engineers… don't necessarily have the same experience of being coached. And I think that does give me an insight in terms of the struggles that people have when being coached, especially in a sport where on the way up, drivers often aren't coached that much and it gives me a good ability to manage the pressure and stay calm in what would be a pressured situation as well.
“And I also think that on any journey, although I describe it as a linear process, there's still ups and downs, and there'll be events in the future that are more difficult and that we'll have to respond to and react to. It would be naive to think it's plain sailing from here – but I think that it's a good next step.”