Month: February 2015

Our Dan, the man

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE OFFICIAL PROGRAM FOR THE 2015 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, AVAILABLE AT THE ALBERT PARK CIRCUIT AND AT ALL GOOD NEWSAGENTS.

RicciardoOP15openingDPSDaniel Ricciardo was doing his best to blend into the background, but it was no use. Away from work, out of Red Bull team gear and shuffling through Nice airport, Ricciardo could have been any 20-something male going from point A to B on an autumn morning last year, but his cover was blown.

“Daniel,” said the voice in heavily-accented English. “Daniel?” Ricciardo looked down, but the inquisitor moved in front of him and offered an extended right hand. “Daniel?” Ricciardo looked up, and there stood Jorge Lorenzo, two-time MotoGP world champion and one of the biggest stars in his global sport. As Ricciardo and Lorenzo chatted, the moment wasn’t lost on the Australian, who could have breezed through most airports – and anywhere else for that matter – without anyone batting an eyelid three years ago. It was yet another reminder of how far he’d come, and how fast. “I love my MotoGP and he’s a, well, a bit of a legend,” Ricciardo laughs. “I’ve got a fair way to go to be as big as him. And I was the one trying not to be noticed …”.

After last season, Ricciardo’s days of anonymity are over. Twelve months after arriving in Australia as Mark Webber’s successor at Red Bull Racing and having never finished better than seventh in a Formula One race, the 25-year-old returns to Melbourne for this year’s season-opener as the brightest new star in the sport after a spectacular 2014. In a season where Mercedes dominated like no other team in Formula One’s 65-year history, Ricciardo was the only other driver to get a look-in, winning three races, finishing on the podium eight times and placing third in the world championship. Those results – against the tidal wave that was Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and the terrifyingly fast W05 – saw the West Australian become one of world sport’s hottest properties.

While the record books show what Ricciardo did in 2014, the way he did it was a breath of fresh air. Ricciardo’s easy-going nature and ever-present grin had some F1 insiders questioning whether he was tough enough to fight at the business end of the grid; David Coulthard openly wondered if he’d have to tone down his personality as the harsh reality of competing alongside Sebastian Vettel took hold. But Ricciardo was determined to do his thing, and do it his way. Yes, the demands on his time meant that his off-season, such as it was, featured a quick trip home to Perth to spend Christmas with family and friends before scurrying back to his Monaco base and preparing for 2015. Yes, some more sleep after a whirlwind of post-season PR activities that saw him in six countries within three weeks of the Abu Dhabi finale in late November would have been welcomed. But through it all, Ricciardo’s enthusiasm for his work shone through. As he sees it, being busy and in demand off-track because of his results on it certainly beats the alternative.

“I’m having fun, and that’s what it comes down to,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of attention, but for the most part the attention I’ve had has been positive. If it was people saying I was no good, maybe I’d be more grumpy.”

‘No good’ would be a diplomatic description of Red Bull 12 months ago, which arrived in Melbourne after a pre-season testing campaign that was little short of disastrous. The advent of the new hybrid V6 turbo era hit the sport’s defending champions hard, with neither Ricciardo nor Vettel managing more than 20 consecutive laps in pre-season testing thanks to an unreliable Renault engine and an RB10 chassis prone to overheating. That Red Bull recovered sufficiently to win three races and finish second in the constructors’ standings was, in Ricciardo’s eyes, one of the most under-rated stories of last year.

“We couldn’t put laps together, the car kept setting itself on fire, the driveability … it was a bucket of crap,” he admits.

“The turnaround was pretty impressive. Even just to win a few races with Mercedes’ dominance, let alone how poor we were to start, to steal a few from them was pretty amazing.”

Once Red Bull’s car began to run more reliably, Ricciardo’s ability to drive it more effectively than his four-time world champion teammate quickly became one of the stories of the year. In Bahrain and China, Vettel was told to move aside to let a faster Ricciardo through, which raised eyebrows. The Australian’s pace was one thing; how quickly he adapted to driving the tricky 2014 cars, for a driver of so little pedigree coming into the season, was a revelation. Ricciardo’s style was akin to a velvet sledgehammer, carrying huge speed into the turns without upsetting the car, smooth, supple and crisp steering inputs making the car dance corner after corner, lap after relentless lap. Mistakes, a practice shunt in Japan aside, were few. He may not have looked as spectacular as some of his rivals, but the stopwatch doesn’t lie – and eclipsing renowned one-lap specialist Vettel 12-7 in qualifying over the season could arguably have been his most impressive feat of all.

Ricciardo feels the more technical nature of the modern-day F1 machinery suits him down to the ground.

“It was a lot more of a feeling process; you couldn’t smash the brake pedal to stop the car, then turn it and get on the power again,” he explains.

“Most times that gave me a bit of an edge over Seb. I generally prefer a car with less grip, and as the races went on and the cars got lighter with fuel, I felt like that’s where I had my advantage. My last stint of races was generally my best one.”

The last stint of the Canadian Grand Prix last June isn’t one Ricciardo is about to forget in a hurry. In the early hours of a public holiday Monday back home in Australia, Ricciardo broke through for his first F1 win in just his seventh race for Red Bull, joining Sir Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Mark Webber as Grand Prix winners from this country. The victory could barely have come in more dramatic circumstances, Ricciardo taking the lead from an ailing Rosberg with two laps remaining after dispatching the Force India of Sergio Perez with one of the moves of the year around the outside of Montreal’s notoriously difficult Turn 1.

Winning his first Grand Prix, being showered in champagne and hearing his national anthem was a moment Ricciardo had been dreaming of all his racing life, but when it came, he was almost too numb to take it all in.

“It wasn’t until Stu (trainer Stuart Smith) and I left the track in the hire car hours after the race that it actually hit me,” Ricciardo grins.

“It was the first time I’d had to actually contemplate what I’d done and be alone with my thoughts. Red Bull put on a party in Montreal, but my main feeling wasn’t excitement, more exhaustion. I had a couple of drinks, but once the adrenaline wore off, I wasn’t full of energy. Mentally I was shattered. I realised I needed to do better next time!”

He didn’t have to wait long: win number two came four races later in Hungary, and he added another in Belgium after the mid-season break. But it was the race before those wins in Budapest and Spa where Ricciardo had an experience to remember. His furious late-race dice with Fernando Alonso at Hockenheim was a watershed moment, and one where the two-time world champion Spaniard was effusive in his praise of Ricciardo afterwards.

Even after that very public endorsement from F1’s foremost fighter, Ricciardo was taken aback when Alonso approached him on the drivers’ parade in Abu Dhabi several months later with an offer too good to refuse.

“Fernando came up and asked if I’d swap helmets with him after his last Ferrari race, which I thought was incredibly cool,” Ricciardo says.

“Helmets have always been a real ‘thing’ for me. I’ve had many of them over the time, but there’s something about them that excites me. It’s how personal they are – you sweat in it, you breathe in it, it’s part of you. So for someone like him to come to me and offer that – that was a pretty big moment for me. It’s the first helmet swap I’ve done – not a bad way to start a collection …”

From Grand Prix wins to the stamp of approval from some of F1’s biggest names, 2014 will always be remembered as the year Daniel Ricciardo truly arrived. What he does for an encore, starting at Albert Park in March, will be can’t-miss viewing. The attention and the white-hot glare of the spotlight will only intensify. But if last year is any guide, Red Bull’s new team leader will take it all in his stride.

Keeping Track #39: Vettel making his mark at Ferrari, says Webber

TEST PRE-CAMPIONATO F1/2015Retired Formula One driver Mark Webber believes Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari has the potential to revitalise a career that stalled last season.

Webber and Vettel spent five years as teammates at Red Bull Racing between 2009-13, a period where the team won four constructors’ titles and Vettel won four straight drivers’ championships in a sometimes acrimonious partnership with the veteran Australian.

Webber’s retirement at the end of 2013 opened the door for compatriot Daniel Ricciardo to partner Vettel at Red Bull last season, with Ricciardo stunning Vettel by winning three Grands Prix to finish ahead of his vastly more experienced teammate in the championship.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Webber said he could already see Vettel’s impact at Ferrari, which comes into the season-opening Australian Grand Prix next month off its first winless year since 1993.

“I think his Ferrari move was inevitable; he’s not going to do his whole career in one team, and there’s no better team for him to go to than Ferrari,” Webber said.

“I’ve seen snapshots of how the team is operating in testing and what they’re doing, and I can see he’s already having an influence. He’s now underway there and I think it will be a good move for him long-term.”

Webber said Vettel, who took 13 race wins in Webber’s final F1 campaign in 2013, was almost impossible to beat in the final year of the sport’s former regulatory guise.

“There was a particular window where he (Vettel) was super-comfortable with the regulations where he looked virtually unbeatable,” he said.

“He was very strong with the blown diffuser cars and there was a very unique driving style, and he adapted to that exceptionally well and was extremely successful with it.”

Webber also spoke about Ricciardo’s chances at Red Bull this season, the new regulations that came into F1 last season, and his 2015 campaign for Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #89: Back to the business end

TILI Logo PrintThere’s a lot to look forward to this Formula One season – can Lewis Hamilton make it back-to-back titles, can Daniel Ricciardo consolidate on his stunning 2014 season, how long will Fernando Alonso grow his beard to annoy Ron Dennis [1] – but one of the narratives I can’t wait to follow is how Sebastian Vettel gets on at Ferrari. And whether last year’s meek title defence – the first time a reigning champion hadn’t won a single race the following year since Jacques Villeneuve in 1998 – was an anomaly or a sign of things to come.

The common and somewhat lazy view being peddled by some of the sport’s ‘experts’ [2] in Australia was that Vettel was a spoiled brat who, not having a car to his liking, sulked his way through the season and was shown up by Ricciardo, which diluted what he’d done in the previous four years. Never mind that Vettel had won the last nine – yes, the last nine – races of 2013; by the middle of ’14, he was apparently a downhill skier, nothing unless he has the best car in the field, and no match for an Aussie who hadn’t done anything before last year. What that said about Mark Webber’s career alongside Vettel was the question intimated but never answered, but I digress … [3]

Vettel’s move to Ferrari and the negotiating of his own contract at the Scuderia was for reasons as much personal as professional; in a year where he became a father not long after his team boss did [4] and saw the life of his friend and mentor Michael Schumacher take a tragic turn, Vettel looked like a person with a lot on his mind for much of last year. A new colour, a new team, a chance to dust off the Italian he’d largely disregarded after leaving Toro Rosso in 2008 and the opportunity to carve out his own legacy at another team seems to have invigorated him this year if pre-season testing is any guide, but he’s combining that enthusiasm with the pragmatism that comes with being 27 and someone who has been in and around the sport for, incredibly, nine seasons.

The bar has been set pretty low for Ferrari this year – new team boss Maurizio Arrivabene says two wins this season would be acceptable, which is smart given how bad 2014 was – but I rather fancy Vettel for more than that. If Ferrari’s pre-season pace is legitimate – Ricciardo and Felipe Massa think it is – then Vettel will be right there. OK, maybe not to challenge the Mercedes’ works team unless they drop the ball on occasion, but as Ricciardo showed last year, being there to strike when the opportunity arises can lead to a year that looks good on paper and can enhance a reputation. Or for Vettel, to restore it to where it deserves to be for a driver with such a glittering CV of success.

A look at Vettel’s early days at Maranello features on Episode 89 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at how Mercedes plans to tackle its title defences (plural) in 2015, and review the second pre-season test from Barcelona. After the test wrapped up on Sunday, there’s now just four days of running before it all gets very real in FP1 in Melbourne in two weekends’ time. The clock is ticking, faster for some teams than others … [5]

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] As long as he can, I hope.

[2] There’s quite a few of them that will leave breathlessly-written AFL training updates to the wires for a week in March to write and talk complete F1 nonsense. Not sure whether it’s more sad or funny.

[3] That’s a tough one to answer in one footnote. A subject for another time. Rightly or wrongly, it’s amazing how someone can fade so quickly from the consciousness of the general sports fan though, isn’t it?

[4] I provide the dots, you can connect them.

[5] It’s never a great sign when one team that makes up the smallest grid to start a season since (gulp) 1967 hasn’t even tested its new car, is it?

The Brit is back

HamiltonFeatureOpener jpgTHIS STORY APPEARS IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE. FOR MORE ON INSIDE SPORT, CLICK HERE.

It was the moment that was supposed to be the breaking of Lewis Hamilton. On the second lap of last year’s Belgian Formula One Grand Prix at the venerable Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg committed one of motorsport’s cardinal sins – thy shall not crash into thy teammate – when he ran into the back of Hamilton as the pair squabbled over the lead. Rosberg’s front wing damage was minimal; Hamilton’s left rear tyre was shredded. As he limped back to the pits for new rubber, Hamilton’s championship quest looked done. By the end of the race, where Rosberg recovered to finish second behind Daniel Ricciardo while Hamilton sulked into retirement, Rosberg’s championship advantage over Hamilton had blown out to a season-high 29 points, more than a race win. And then Rosberg went for the jugular.

Both drivers were summoned to a post-race meeting with furious Mercedes’ management, Rosberg putting his hand up to take blame for the clash, but using his admission to twist the knife further. Sensing his teammate being sucked into an emotional maelstrom, Rosberg chose to play Hamilton like a puppet. As soon as the meeting finished, Hamilton hurriedly left the Mercedes motorhome, running headlong into a heaving press pack expectant for answers. “He basically said he did it on purpose,” an agitated Hamilton blurted. “He said he could have avoided it, but he didn’t want to. He basically said ‘I did it to prove a point’.”

Long-time Hamilton-watchers braced themselves for the fallout. Emotional and reactionary at the best of times, Rosberg’s words – true or not – had the potential to send Hamilton off the deep end. But a funny thing happened on the way to Hamilton’s implosion. First he got mad – “I’m going to have to turn this up; this means war,” was his comment afterwards. Then he got away, decamping to Sardinia with friends while shutting the world out. And then he got even, winning six of the final seven races of the year after Belgium to leave Rosberg – and the rest of the field – choking on his exhaust fumes as he became Formula One world champion. It was a turn of events that was as impressive as it was unlikely.

FOR MORE OF THIS FEATURE, SEE THE MARCH ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT.

The Inside Line #88: A magic bullet, or more of the same?

TILI Logo PrintIf there’s someone who had a worse year than Pastor Maldonado did in 2014, I’d like to meet them – and perhaps buy them a beer to cry into. The facts, for those of you keeping score at home: he left a team that scored five points in 2013 in Williams to move to Lotus, which managed 315 points the same season. In 2014, Lotus scored 10 points – and Williams managed 320. In those two seasons, Maldonado scored three points, finished in the top 10 twice in 38 attempts and caused $233,376,291 worth of damage to his machinery [1]. Yet hope may be just around the corner, or more specifically, underneath his right foot.

It would be simplistic and inaccurate to pin Williams’ resurgence in 2014 solely to its move from Renault engines to Mercedes powerplants as the new V6 turbo hybrid era kicked off, but it was a significant advantage for the team from Grove last year – just as having a Renault engine was a significant impediment to success in 2014. Sure, Red Bull won three races last season, but all three of Daniel Ricciardo’s victories owed something to a Mercedes’ misfortune, and that Red Bull finished second in the constructors’ championship had plenty to do with the aerodynamic brilliance of the RB10 and not a whole lot to the engine powering it. Mercedes – as the works team, Williams and even Force India showed on occasion last year – was clearly the three-pointed star of the season [2].

So what does this all mean for 2015? Will a switch to Mercedes engines be Lotus’ salvation? Can Romain Grosjean be his old cheery self over the team radio rather than ranting about his car this season? Can Maldonado stop hitting things? [3] The early signs are promising – at least Lotus participated in the first test this year and already look far more ready for Australia than the rabble that turned up at Albert Park last March – but there appears little doubt that it’ll be Grosjean leading any comeback should it happen. Contrary to popular belief, Maldonado isn’t a slow driver – the onboard of the lap that saw him qualify second in Singapore in 2012 was awesomely committed and precise in a Williams that had no business being on the front row – but he remains as erratic as when he came into the sport four years ago.

Sometimes in this business, you read something you wish you’d written yourself, and tip your hat to the person that did. Andrew Benson’s description of Maldonado in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix official program – “Maldonado’s day of days, his victory at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, looks increasingly like some kind of miracle, a day all the stars aligned and the 29-year-old was able to be quick, reliable, consistent and error-free; since then, those characteristics have rarely coincided on the same day” [4] – is an apt description of a driver that, because of his financial backing and a CV littered with one incident after another, makes him perhaps the most derided driver of the current generation.

The chances of Lotus returning to the sharp end of the grid with Mercedes power in the back of the E23 are the main focus of Episode 88 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also hear from Fernando Alonso on how he’ll get along with new teammate Jenson Button, and reflect on Williams’ stunning turnaround in 2014 with the key players inside the team. Probably not something a certain Venezuelan will want to watch.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] I may have made up one of those stats.

[2] See what I did there? Sorry. It won’t be the last time though.

[3] A wild guess? No.

[4] One of the best parts of looking after the editorial in the Australian Grand Prix program – no, not that part – is reading the raw copy of the world’s big-name journos as it’s filed, and wondering how good the sub-editors are at the various outlets they work for. Andrew’s stuff – absolutely top-shelf. One of the best operators in the business.

Keeping Track #38: Ricciardo itching to race in Melbourne

P-20150201-00105_HiRes JPEG 24bit RGBAustralian Formula One ace Daniel Ricciardo can’t wait to kick off his second year with Red Bull Racing at Albert Park, with the 2015 Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix set to open the new season in 32 days’ time.

Ricciardo, 25, finished second in Melbourne 12 months ago before being disqualified after the race for a technical infringement, but used the standout showing in his home race as a springboard to a superb year that featured three victories and a third-place finish in the world championship.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Ricciardo is itching to get back behind the wheel to make amends for last year’s disappointment at home.

“I’m hanging out to race – four weeks can’t come soon enough,” he said.

“Last year, coming into it, there was less expectation after our pre-season; this year it’s a bit more exciting knowing that if we’ve got the car on Sunday, then I believe I can get it far up the grid.”

Ricciardo and Red Bull began their pre-season preparations last week with a four-day test at Jerez in the south of Spain, where his former teammate Sebastian Vettel caught the eye with a strong showing for Ferrari, and Mercedes showed ominous pace after dominating the sport last year.

The Australian says Mercedes’ form came as no surprise, but was less certain of Ferrari’s potential off the back of its worst season in two decades last year.

“At the first test you worry about yourself, but of course we’re aware of the laps Mercedes did and the lap time Ferrari put down,” he said.

“We expect nothing less of Mercedes to be honest, but Ferrari look like they came out pretty strong. For now they look good, but it’s still early, and are they going to be the same once we’re racing in race conditions?

“For us, it was a lot better than last year, but we’re still trying to find our feet. But we know we have time on our side, and we’re pretty quick at turning it around.”

Ricciardo also spoke about Red Bull’s striking camouflage livery at Jerez, his respect for two-time world champion and new McLaren signing Fernando Alonso, and his recent appearance on TV show Top Gear in the UK.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #87: February champions

TILI Logo PrintLow-fuel attention-seeking glory runs, or the beginning of a legitimate resurgence? That was the question being posed after the first pre-season test at Jerez last week, when Ferrari duo Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel ended the four days in Spain atop the timesheets. The size of the margin Raikkonen had over the next non-Ferrari – more than seven-tenths of a second – did raise eyebrows. Have Ferrari got it right after a year of not being able to see the top of anything without a telescope? Is there anything to be gleaned from forensically examining the timesheets at a fiddly circuit with very particular asphalt that’s unlike anywhere on the F1 calendar? Probably not, but there’s clearly enough there at Ferrari to motivate Vettel, who went straight from his two days of pounding around Jerez back to Ferrari HQ to spend some more time in the simulator. Doesn’t sound like someone who apparently wanted to walk away from F1 last year, does it? [1]

We probably should have expected a strong presence at the top of the timesheet from Sauber – as one eagle-eyed wag noticed, there are more sponsor logos on Ferrari’s rear wing than the entirety of the new blue and yellow Sauber, meaning some headline times might prompt an injection of funds from a new backer. Red Bull showed flashes without setting the world on fire [2], McLaren had predictable teething problems as it begins its association with Honda, and then there was Mercedes.

The number of the week for me was 157 – as in the number of laps Nico Rosberg managed in the W06 straight out of the box on day one, more than double the tally anyone else amassed. By the end of the test, Mercedes had racked up more than 500 laps, had a few troubles that weren’t easily solved, and might be further in front of the field than they were last year. Toto Wolff tried and failed to be convincing when he said that the first day “didn’t mean a lot” [3], and early indications suggest that anything other than a Silver Arrow on the top step of the podium in Melbourne would be a surprise. We can only hope that someone – anyone – gives them more of a fight this year than 12 months ago.

A wrap of the Jerez test is the headline act on Episode 87 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also take a look back at the fabulous resurgence from Williams last year through the eyes of the key players at Grove, and check in with Esteban Gutierrez at Ferrari. Seeing the Mexican in red doesn’t jar quite as much as seeing Vettel in Ferrari overalls, but if you can’t be on the grid, being at Ferrari surely must be the next-best thing, even if it’s almost wholly to do with the depths of your pockets than any driving ability. Raikkonen, remember, turns 36 this year, and openly suggested last year that 2015 might be his last go-round – the list of potential replacements will be long [4], but Gutierrez will be hoping that incumbency counts for something.

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] Vettel’s dignified – in public at least – silence as Christian Horner continues to take pot-shots at him has been admirable. One day, the real story behind why he left Horner’s team will come out. It just won’t come from Vettel himself.

[2] The camouflage livery was a belter. Would be nice if more teams did something interesting before the season started. How much publicity would, say, McLaren have got if they ran an orange livery through the pre-season in a nod to its past?

[3] Perhaps Mercedes were taking the piss. Come to think of it …

[4] They should have employed Nico Hulkenberg at the end of 2013. I may have already mentioned that one or 100 times previously …