Lights out for the start of his first Grand Prix for a front-running team. The eyes of his home country – and the Formula One world – watching his every move. Enormous expectation. The sole Australian in a brutally-competitive global sport where just 22 drivers – the same number of participants who turn out for each of our much-feted footy teams – get to play.
While the identity of the driver who’ll spray the victor’s champagne at Albert Park on Sunday afternoon remains an unknown after a chaotic pre-season rendered the sport’s pecking order of recent years irrelevant, one thing that is for certain is that Ricciardo will take the pressure in his stride. It’s always been the West Australian’s way. His gregarious personality, ever-present smile and unflappable nature has underpinned his rise to the best team in Formula One over the past four years, and it isn’t about to change.
Ricciardo has proven time and time again that he’s built for the big moments. Pressure? That’s something found in Pirelli’s tyres.
Spain, 2009. The Jerez circuit is playing host to an end-of-year young drivers’ test, a chance for the sport’s up-and-comers to press their claims for a coveted race seat in the future. There’s much at stake, and even the most promising of drivers can blink when faced when their first chance to impress the sport’s bosses. His nerves assuaged by an out of the blue phone call from Webber, Ricciardo takes the Red Bull RB5 straight to the top of the timesheets and stays there for the three-day test, his best lap more than a second quicker than anyone else could manage. For a first outing an F1 car, it was a performance that marked the 20-year-old as a man to watch – and one that earned him the role as reserve driver at Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso for the following season.
Abu Dhabi, 2010. The smell of champagne had gone slightly stale in the days following Sebastian Vettel’s world championship win at the Yas Marina Circuit, but the media members who stayed for the young drivers’ test the following week began to get an understanding of Ricciardo’s ability to deliver. Driving the same Red Bull Vettel had used to secure his second title the weekend prior, Ricciardo sliced 1.3 seconds off Vettel’s pole position time to again top the timesheets. It was a display that fast-tracked his ascension to an F1 race seat, which he earned midway through the following season for HRT, Red Bull loaning its young gun to the backmarker outfit to give him some immediate practical experience.
Japan, 2012. In just his 25th Formula One race, Ricciardo had edged his way up into 10th place in his Toro Rosso in the closing stages at Suzuka, one of the world’s most revered circuits for its elevation changes and sweeping turns. Within sight of the chequered flag, Ricciardo faced the most intimidating test of all, Michael Schumacher in a faster Mercedes getting ever-bigger in his side mirrors as the seven-time world champion ripped his way through the midfield. Resistance appeared futile, but lap after lap, Ricciardo held his ground, beating the German over the line by eight-tenths of a second after absorbing 15 minutes of the toughest pressure imaginable in inferior machinery. His reward was one measly world championship point, but it was a performance that enhanced his reputation. “He did not offer me one single chance,” was Schumacher’s surprised response afterwards, while Ricciardo post-race comment – “it was definitely nice to get a battle with him in the scrapbook” – told you the Australian understood the importance of what he’d just achieved.
Silverstone, June 2013. Webber had just announced to the world that he was leaving F1 at the end of the season, and in a sport that is hell-bent on moving forwards at a rapid pace, thoughts immediately turned to the future identity of Vettel’s stablemate at the most dominant team in the field. Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso teammate Jean-Eric Vergne held the upper hand in the battle between the Red Bull-backed protégés, coming to the British Grand Prix off a career-best sixth in the previous race in Canada, and ahead of Ricciardo in the championship standings. But with the stakes raised, Ricciardo delivered the knock-out punch.
A season-best fifth on the grid at Silverstone kick-started a run of five top-10 starts in the next six races in a car that had no business being that high in qualifying, and as a mentally spooked Vergne floundered in the back of the midfield pack and failed to score a single point for the rest of the year, Ricciardo was named as Webber’s replacement by September.
Albert Park, this week. Ricciardo could scarcely been busier in the lead-up to the Australian Grand Prix, a wall-to-wall schedule of media and promotional appearances in Sydney last weekend only an entrée to the attention he’s faced since he’s been in Melbourne. Time to exhale, let alone see family and friends who have come across from his hometown of Perth to wish him well, has been all but impossible, but Ricciardo has handled the demands with aplomb, signing autographs for the fans who waited patiently for him to emerge from pre-race engineering meetings late on Thursday evening long after most other drivers had left the circuit. Away from the spotlight and with no publicity, Ricciardo even found time to organise an autographed auction item for a WA-based charity, rifling through his collection of memorabilia at the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs to find something appropriate when his energies could have undoubtedly been directed elsewhere.
It says much for Ricciardo’s unflappable demeanour that he was almost disappointed that Red Bull’s well-documented pre-season testing woes lowered the team’s expectations for this weekend.
“With the testing we’ve had, we’re not as optimistic as we thought we would be. So from that respect, the pressure’s probably dropped a notch or so, not that I would wish for that,” he says.
“If the pressure’s a bit lower, I’m not necessarily happy about it. It’s absolutely awesome to have a home Grand Prix – I think any driver that has a home race is really fortunate. A lot of people wonder if it adds pressure, but it definitely motivates me.”
While Ricciardo may have to wait for his moment in the sun given Red Bull is still in recovery mode after the pre-season, his combination of talent and temperament suggests he could become just the fourth Australian to win a world championship Grand Prix. No less of an authority than Webber believes Ricciardo will “win Grands Prix this year”. If and when that happens remains uncertain, but based on his career to date, we can expect Ricciardo to deliver when the opportunity presents itself.