Daniel in the deep end

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE OFFICIAL PROGRAM FOR THE 2014 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, AVAILABLE AT THE ALBERT PARK CIRCUIT AND AT ALL GOOD NEWSAGENTS.

AGPOP14_DanielRicciardoFeature-page-0Joe Ricciardo’s brow is unusually furrowed. Standing in the garage of the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs that doubles as a shrine to Formula One – Ferrari paintings on the walls jostle for space with Gilles Villeneuve posters and other assorted collectables – the father of the sole Australian on the 2014 grid admits he’s a little concerned. Amongst all of the memorabilia motorsport-mad Joe has collected over the years is a photo of his son Daniel driving a Red Bull showcar at a promotional event, the same Red Bull team the 24-year-old West Australian will drive for in this year’s Australian Grand Prix – and the same team that’s home to a certain four-time world champion.

“I’m more worried about (Sebastian) Vettel than Daniel is,” Joe eventually laughs. “He’s pretty sure he’ll be alright. He just takes it all in his stride; I could never do that.”

Combined with flashes of searing speed in mid-grid machinery over his two full seasons in the sport, Ricciardo’s unruffled and pragmatic approach has won him many admirers, but the stakes have been raised enormously this season. It’s one thing to earn a place at one of the sport’s biggest teams, which Ricciardo did last season after a series of eye-catching performances soon after compatriot Mark Webber announced his retirement from F1, but capitalising on it is another entirely. After four straight constructors’ titles, Red Bull is the sport’s benchmark, while Ricciardo will be in the sister car to the unstoppable force of his generation, Vettel coming to Melbourne chasing a record 10th Grand Prix win in succession. Daniel in the lions’ den, indeed.

Tasks don’t get much more imposing, but it’s not an assignment Ricciardo fears. As he multi-tasks – making lunch, answering multiple phones and organising quad bikes for a precious weekend away with some of his closest mates at home – Ricciardo exudes a combination of confidence and impatience that’s as refreshing as it is honest.

“The team has told me that there’s not much pressure on me because if the car is quick, Seb is the guy expected to win,” he mumbles between mouthfuls of homemade pizza.

“No-one is expecting me to come out and win in Melbourne, but I’m not allowing time for myself – I definitely have plans. I’d love to give it to Seb and start the season hopefully in front but, being realistic, close to him. And I want to keep improving – I feel like I’m still improving as a driver and I haven’t hit my ceiling yet.

“I look at (MotoGP world champion) Marc Marquez – he didn’t just switch teams, he switched categories – and he came out and won. All I’m doing is switching teams, so nothing’s impossible.”

Ricciardo’s relationship with his teammate is likely to attract as much attention as what he’s able to achieve on track given the dynamic between Webber and Vettel, which fluctuated between thinly-disguised tension at times and downright acrimony at others. It was the race after last year’s Australian Grand Prix in Malaysia – and the ‘Multi-21’ controversy where the German brazenly defied a team instruction to pass Webber and steal victory – that was the very public low point in Webber and Vettel’s five years together in the Red Bull stable, but Ricciardo makes it clear that he intends to take a “fresh approach” into this season, offering an insight into what he feels makes Vettel the driver he is.

“I’m expecting him to be very quick, but I don’t think you can get spooked or freaked out by a fast teammate if you know why they’re fast,” Ricciardo reasons.

“I think his head is the strongest on the grid – I think that’s where he’s been able to pull everyone apart and dominate. I think he lives and breathes Formula One every day of the year; he’s a very intense person when it comes to racing. He doesn’t have a massive entourage or people hanging around, and that I respect. Obviously for the fans that may not be the best thing, but he’s winning world championships. That’s what we’re all racing for, so you can’t argue with his approach.”

That Ricciardo’s first race with a front-running team comes at home this March is both a privilege and a circumstance that needs managing. With Webber moving to sports cars with Porsche, Ricciardo will inherit the undivided attention of the Albert Park fans and locally-based media, and he acknowledges that the scrutiny can become a distraction if you let it. Armed with the lessons learned from the past two years – “I got to too many races last year on the Monday before the race to get over the jet lag, which was probably too early” – Ricciardo plans to adopt as low-key an approach as possible before the season-opener.

“It’s awesome to have a home race – lots of the other guys don’t – and come Sunday when you’re in the race, you’re still going to get the most out of it like you would anywhere else,” he says.

“But if you don’t manage all of the outside stuff, you can feel a bit depleted. The first year, 2012, I had quite a lot of family and friends there, and even though they say ‘you don’t have to come out and meet us at dinner’, you feel obliged to as you’re the reason why they’re there in the first place. I understand that a bit better now, so I’m going to try to play it as cool as possible. It’s home and it’s nice to know everyone is excited to see you, but you do need to take some control over that.”

Fame is something that’s taking some time to get used to for Ricciardo, whose precious time home in the off-season included attending a wedding in Margaret River and an intimate family gathering – “well, there’s about 70 of us!” – over Christmas. Last August, Ricciardo swapped the English “summers” of Milton Keynes for Monaco, but has barely been at his new abode in the playground of the world’s rich and famous for long enough to form much of an opinion about it.

“There’s enough other stuff for people to look at in Monaco than an Aussie Formula One driver,” he grins.

“But I’m not sure what the whole ‘fame’ thing means anyway. What I do for a job isn’t normal, I know that. Some people genuinely love the fame, all the cameras and the attention, but I’d be very happy to race F1 but be completely anonymous. I do this because I enjoy racing, not because I want to be on the TV, but that’s something that comes with it.”

As he unpacks fold-up chairs from the back of Joe’s ute like any typical Australian kid helping his dad out after a hot summer’s day at work, it’s hard to imagine Ricciardo developing an ego to match his outsize talent.

“I definitely try to be myself so the outside world looks at me as a normal person,” he says.

“If I can just be me, then people aren’t going to see me in the street and be ‘whoa, that’s a Formula One driver’. It’s just me, Daniel.”

FULL CIRCLE
For drivers from different generations, Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo shared plenty of common ground over the years, not just nationalities.

When Webber made a memorable F1 debut by finishing fifth at Albert Park in a Minardi in 2002, a 12-year-old Ricciardo cheered him on with his family in the grandstands. When Ricciardo prepared for his first F1 test in late 2009, Webber tracked down his compatriot’s mobile number and called to calm Ricciardo’s nerves and dispense some advice. And at the last race of 2013 in Brazil, the 215th and final Grand Prix of Webber’s career, one Australian departed the Red Bull Racing garage for the final time – and the other took his place.

Ricciardo will undoubtedly be hoping that Webber’s home hoodoo – Albert Park was the only circuit that featured for the entirety of Webber’s 12-year career where he never finished on the podium – doesn’t accompany him to his new team. Rather than seeing the sole attention of the Australian fans as additional stress, Ricciardo says racing at home – and the Sunday pre-race drivers’ parade – is one of the highlights of his season.

“That 2002 day with Mark was awesome … everyone was just so pumped,” Ricciardo says.

“It was nice to have another Aussie in the paddock with me when I started, and also because it was Mark and he’s a good bloke, but it doesn’t change much for me behind the wheel now he’s not there.

“When I see Australian flags in the crowd, I look at it like they’re supporting me, but also that they’re supporting Formula One, and they’ve come all this way to watch the sport. I guess this year there’ll be a lot of people expecting me to do well. But I won’t look at that as extra pressure – I’ll do what I can like I always do, and hopefully that’ll be enough.

“I try not the have the weight on my shoulders, it’s more a motivation. I’d be happy to win anywhere obviously, but I’d love to step on the podium in Melbourne – that would be an amazing thing.”

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