The caller ID was unfamiliar, but the voice wasn’t. “G’day mate, how are ya?” asked the voice at the other end of the phone. Daniel Ricciardo had been back home for all of 24 hours and Christmas was but a week away, but there was still time to talk about the season that was and the season that would be. The next day, over pizza and beer around the kitchen table at the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs, we chatted about anything and everything – Michael Jordan, what Lewis Hamilton is really like in interviews, the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament. And then conversation drifted, inevitably, to the coming season and his new role with Red Bull Racing. And the obvious question: what was he hoping to achieve from 2014?
“I’ve come to not really like the word ‘expectations’ because it can be a bit of a let-down sometimes …,” Ricciardo started, briefly switching back into on-message with the media mode before grinning as he changed tack.
“Let’s say I definitely have plans … Hopefully the car is competitive, but even if it isn’t, for me I’d love to give it to Seb (Sebastian Vettel), start the season hopefully in front but, being realistic, close to him.
“I’m not allowing time for myself.”
The last sentence was a throwaway line in an afternoon of talking, but as it turns out, he was right on the mark. Just seven races into his tenure at Red Bull Racing, Ricciardo is already a Grand Prix winner. It’s strange to type, stranger for him to say. Given how far back Red Bull started the year after pre-season testing could be best described as character-building, Ricciardo has exceeded every expectation, including his own. Yes, he was quietly confident that he could fight with the best if his machinery allowed him to, but that was the big question-mark. Seven races in and three podiums (well, four) later, most questions have been answered except for two: just how good is this guy, and how good could he be?
The talent has always been there. You could see it – sixth on the grid in Bahrain for Toro Rosso in 2012, holding off Michael Schumacher at Suzuka for the final points the same year, numerous top-10 qualifying efforts in a car that had no business being there the following season. But two other factors – timing and temperament – needed to align with that talent. They’ve both been on his side, and go some way towards explaining his season to date.
Joining Red Bull in a year where F1 has undergone its most significant regulatory revolution in decades has been ideal for Ricciardo. The sport went through a complete reset, meaning (amongst other things) no blown diffusers and no momentum Vettel could carry into the new season from the one that preceded it. It’s not a situation a world champion – let alone a four-time reigning one – would be used to in transitioning from one year to the next.
Red Bull’s awful pre-season (remember, they hadn’t completed a single run of more than 20 consecutive laps before the Australian Grand Prix) arguably helped Ricciardo’s cause further, as the team needed all hands on deck to get the car to work full stop, not tweak a blisteringly fast machine to the needs of its number one driver first and foremost. As the RB10 became first reliable and then quicker, Ricciardo made the most of a unique chance to get comfortable with the machinery he was in while stealing a march on his teammate. Vettel has had to unlearn a driving style that he used to devastating effect to win the final nine races of last year; his teammate was happy to have a chance to drive a car that wasn’t last year’s Toro Rosso. The timing couldn’t have been better.
What of Ricciardo’s temperament? While he shares a nationality with the man he replaced as Vettel’s teammate, Ricciardo and Mark Webber couldn’t be more different in the way they approach their racing. Assuming it stays intact, Ricciardo’s approach – that of quiet confidence, a smile in almost every situation and staying on an even keel emotionally – is better suited to negotiate the choppy political waters that can arise in the British-run, Austrian-owned team.
Webber’s tenacity, bloody-mindedness and sheer ‘Aussie Grit’ got him to F1 in the first place when all looked lost after his sports car experiences in the late 90s, and it was undoubtedly pivotal to him achieving the success he did, often manifesting itself in a (sometimes justifiable) rage against the factions within the team he felt wanted to hold him back. Has there been a more anger-fuelled win in recent F1 history than Webber’s British GP victory of 2010? Australian fans (and this Australian writer) loved and lauded Webber for his approach. But there’s no denying that it sometimes worked against him: his rant against the team in the penultimate round of 2010 in Brazil, as honest and heartfelt as it was, seemed to be ill-timed, slightly desperate and did him no favours internally, no matter what was being said publicly. By 2011, when Webber was still struggling mentally with losing the previous year’s title and Vettel had taken off, he was never the same. Yes, there were some wins in 2012, his final victory at Silverstone where he hunted down and passed Fernando Alonso one from the absolute top shelf. But by the end of his career, maintaining the intensity that had propelled him the top of the sport seemed to have worn him out. There was a certain world-weariness that partly came with age, and partly came with the mental miles he’d racked up furiously fighting his way out of corners, actual or perceived.
Ricciardo’s personality is at the complete opposite end of the scale to Webber. Yes, he can do angry – his brief expletive-laden tirade after he retired from last year’s Korean Grand Prix jars with his usual demeanour – but his way of working out that frustration – wrestling with trainer Stuart Smith back at the hotel after the race until they both collapsed with laughter – was something few other drivers would come up with. As we’ve seen, Ricciardo’s game-face tends to be one made up of a giant smile. Earlier this year on the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, David Coulthard told me that he feels Ricciardo’s approach may have to change as the stakes are raised and things get more serious at the front, but I’m not so sure it will. For starters, he’d need to be something or someone that he’s not, and he’s adamant that won’t happen. After the leftover pizza had cooled in our December chat, the conversation drifted to fame, what it means, how real it is, and how much of a motivating factor it is for some drivers.
“I’d be very happy to race F1 but be completely anonymous,” came Ricciardo’s revealing response.
“I do this because I enjoy racing, not because I want to be on the TV, but that’s something that comes with this. Some people get to F1 because they want to drive, but when they get there they like the cameras, telling all their friends what they do, the girls … I know what I’m here for. I definitely try to be myself because I don’t plan on being anyone else, plus just so the outside world looks at me as a normal person. 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.”
Ricciardo appears not the least bit surprised at his success so far this season. A little lost for words sometimes, perhaps – as he was in the immediate aftermath of Canada, which was probably understandable. Your first F1 win isn’t supposed to come with a pass for the lead two laps from the end and then finishing under safety car conditions with the well-being of two of your workmates unknown after a nasty shunt. How he’d achieved what he’d achieved was a surprise, sure. But shocked at what he’s doing? Not a chance. In his understated way, Ricciardo feels he belongs at the top – he’s always felt that – and now he’s proving it. But he doesn’t feel the need to gloat, talk himself up, whip himself into a frenzy or get too ahead of himself. Outwardly, this is a man who’s very much in control and comfortable with who he is and the situation he now finds himself in.
Reality will ensue, and soon. Short-term, it’s hard not to see Canada as anything but a one-off. If Mercedes don’t encounter any reliability gremlins, there’s a very strong chance they won’t lose a race for the rest of the year. Even with a crippled car, Nico Rosberg still nearly won in Canada in a clever display of adaptable driving that didn’t receive anywhere near the credit it should have afterwards. If the W05 works as it should, each Grand Prix will still be a race for third place. One of the two Mercedes drivers will win this year’s title. But what of the future? Longer-term, can Ricciardo be considered as a championship-calibre driver? To answer two questions with another: why not?
Before long, Red Bull could really become his team. With Adrian Newey effectively turning his back on F1 after being involved in next year’s RB11, you wonder if Vettel would consider a move elsewhere, perhaps to Ferrari as has been long rumoured. Vettel’s friend and mentor Michael Schumacher went to Maranello in the mid-90s when the Prancing Horse was desperate and he could name his price, and his legacy was only enhanced by what he did in red. Might a similar challenge appeal in a couple of years as Vettel approaches his 30s and the second half of his career?
It’s not hard to imagine Ricciardo as a genuine, bona fide team leader. He’s a product of Red Bull’s own driver nursery, they’re invested in him financially and emotionally in a way they never were with Webber, and the English and Austrian factions of the team would both help him push in the same direction. If he plays his cards right, by 2017 Ricciardo could become the leader at a cashed-up team with a (recent) history of success, a squad loaded with resources, and have the experience, continuity and ability to maximise the prime of his career at 28. If that’s not a recipe to become a world champion, it’s hard to know what is.
There’s no guarantees, but it’s a possibility that’s now in play, which didn’t seem likely when Ricciardo was confirmed as Webber’s successor last September, seemed less likely when Red Bull could barely put half a race distance together in 2014 pre-season testing, and seemed still a touch improbable even when he was stepping onto the podium for the first time (officially) in Spain in May. That Montreal win – however it came – has changed everything. Except Ricciardo’s willingness to work and his ambition.
As I left our late lunch last summer, he had time for a final thought, a rare moment of earnestness, and admitting he’d gained some inspiration from a young gun who was making his mark ahead of everyone’s schedule other than his own.
“I want to keep improving – I feel like I’m still improving as a driver and I haven’t hit my ceiling yet,” he said.
“I look at (2013 MotoGP world champion) Marc Marquez, and he switched categories – he didn’t just switch teams, he switched categories! – and he came out and won. Nothing’s impossible.”