The news Sebastian Vettel would not be renewing his Ferrari deal beyond 2020 appeared to be manna from heaven for Daniel Ricciardo, who seemed the most logical alternative to the outgoing four-time world champion.
A proven race winner, popular and with Italian heritage, Ricciardo ticked all the boxes that Ferrari would be looking for in Charles Leclerc's next teammate.
So why has he taken what appears to be another sideways step at a crucial stage of his career?
Why it makes sense for Ricciardo
When Ricciardo decided to leave Red Bull in 2018 and sign a two-year Renault deal, the call he made for his next contract was always going to be the one which decided whether he had a shot of winning a title this decade. Joining Renault allowed him to take a lucrative contract at a midfield team and wait for either Lewis Hamilton or Vettel to leave their respective Mercedes and Ferrari deals, which ran until the same end date, and steal a top drive.
So, with Vettel leaving, what changed?
Reading the statement in the news release confirming Vettel's refusal to sign a new deal, two things are clear. The first is that the coronavirus pandemic has given Vettel a chance to reassess his priorities in life and contemplate spending time at home with his young family. With that new mindset and entering negotiations with a team clearly building around Leclerc, something evidenced by the Monaco native's new five-year contract, staying beyond 2020 probably didn't seem worth it.
Leclerc's role at the team cannot be understated. Ricciardo has experienced this dynamic before -- the way he saw Red Bull mobilising around Max Verstappen in the early months of 2018 was one of the factors he considered before leaving, multiple sources close to the Australian have told ESPN.
While outwardly the Vettel news might have appeared to be his big moment, Ricciardo has frequently ignored the common consensus -- his patchwork 2019 race helmet carried the message "Stop being them." In truth, Ferrari seemed less likely on this occasion than it might have in 2016, or even a spell in early 2018. There was always a fear his role at Ferrari would likely be more akin to the one fellow Australian Mark Webber had at Red Bull alongside Vettel at the start of the 2010s.
Like Hamilton, Ricciardo does not demand preferential treatment when signing his contracts, but not having equality is a deal breaker. At McLaren, not only will he get that, but he can be the one that team builds around.
Ricciardo wasn't convinced McLaren was on the right path in 2018, opting to sign with Renault instead, but McLaren showed last season that it very much is on the right trajectory. New team boss Andreas Seidl has breathed life into the team and appears to be the perfect person to lead it back to the front. It can look forward to using Mercedes engines from 2021 onward and a huge rule change in 2022. McLaren has also committed to building a new state-of-the-art wind tunnel, and it is hoped the imminent introduction of a $145 million budget cap helps squeeze F1's 10 teams closer together in terms of outright competitiveness.
By contrast, Ricciardo quickly grew frustrated with Renault in 2019, with a string of reliability issues throughout the year and no sign of a big improvement. The delay to the 2020 season also muddied things even further, with Renault's long-term commitment to F1 looking doubtful even before the world changed so drastically this year.
While McLaren is still coming out of its rut, it's also worth remembering Ferrari has not won a championship since the constructors' in 2008 and seems unlikely to do so in the next two years against Mercedes, with development rules effectively frozen until the regulations change. Ferrari's announcement of Sainz's signing included the acknowledgement that it faces a long journey back to a championship.
Why it makes sense for McLaren
This one is easier to wrap your head around. Ricciardo is a huge statement of intent by a McLaren team that is on an upward trajectory but still a long way from its former glories. Clearly, the laid-back Aussie will be a dream for the marketing department, having been a focal point of F1's Netflix series "Drive to Survive." It also gives them the calibre of driver lost when Fernando Alonso retired in 2018.
Lando Norris, who will partner with Ricciardo in 2021, is a superb long-term prospect for McLaren; the Englishman is prodigiously talented and is arguably the biggest name in racing esports, an industry that appears to be growing in marketability and visibility by the day during the current pandemic. However, the 20-year-old is still a young and raw talent without a podium or race win to his name. His impressive rookie season measured well at times against Sainz, but the question of how good that benchmark really was will remain until the Spaniard has competed against a race winner in race-winning machinery.
Sainz and Norris together was a popular lineup within the team but that doubt, however small, was there. Ricciardo eliminated any doubts of his readiness to win a championship during his five years with Red Bull. He has won races and cemented a reputation as the best overtaker on the F1 grid.
His late-braking approach, one he famously referred to as "just lick the stamp and send it," was the foundation behind several of his most memorable victories, including Canada and Hungary in 2014 and his sensational late fight through the field to win the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix. That trait suits McLaren perfectly, given where it is at right now.
Ricciardo's laid-back demeanour often masks his determination to become Australia's first world champion since Alan Jones in 1980. His racing ability makes him the perfect man to lead the next stage of McLaren's resurgence and should give that team all the more reason to feel optimistic about adding some new championship laurels to the company's Woking headquarters in this decade.