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