Daniel Ricciardo was amused. It’s a December afternoon in Melbourne, and the Red Bull Racing star has just done an on-stage appearance at a busy city shopping mall with a huge crowd in attendance. Free from his work commitments for the day, some Christmas shopping was in order. But how to avoid any attention? A hat and t-shirt change later, and he looked – if you didn’t look hard enough – like a typical 25-year-old Aussie male after a festive season bargain. One shop visit later – as the cashier remarked that “it’s been really busy, there’s been some F1 driver in here or something …” as Ricciardo paid for his purchases – his mission was complete. It was a rare moment of anonymity on a whirlwind two days in Melbourne, and thoroughly enjoyable as a result .
Ricciardo’s star rose higher and faster than anyone in F1 – himself included – could have imagined last year, and while he’s more time-poor as a result, he’s embracing it. “Like anyone else I have my rough days,” he mused, trying to appear convincing as his ever-present smile briefly faded, “and some days can drag on a bit. But generally speaking it’s all about looking at the big picture and always being grateful for everything. I know all my mates would love to be doing what I’m doing, so that’s a good way to put it into perspective on the few days I feel sorry for myself. All the attention I’ve had has been positive. If it was more people saying I was crap or a dickhead, I’d be more grumpy!”
There wasn’t much chance of being accused of either of those last season, and it’s a very different Ricciardo who returns to Melbourne this week to open the 2015 season. Sure, the same attitude and smile that underpinned his rise last year hasn’t gone anywhere, but where results of note were considered a bonus last year, they’re expected this time. Plenty of armchair experts and some of the local media will be expecting that it’s a short stroll to the title after last year’s campaign of over-achievement , but he’s smart enough to know that’s not necessarily the case. Pre-season testing has Red Bull as perhaps the fourth-strongest team at best, and a repeat of his podium that wasn’t last year will be a mighty tall order. But it’ll be fun to finally get a read on who has what in reserve in qualifying at Albert Park at 5pm this Saturday afternoon. Few would be surprised if Mercedes locked out the front row , but behind them? Something of a mystery. Which is why having the season-opening race is a privilege that Melbourne should never take for granted, nor be complacent about.
That Australia season-opener is previewed through the eyes of Ricciardo on Episode 91 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we discover why Kimi Raikkonen might fire a shot this year .
You can see ‘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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 On a scale of 1 to 10, his smile after that was at 11.
 Had a really, really interesting chat with David Coulthard off the record about this. He’s a wise man to be in Daniel’s corner, a real asset who tells it as it is.
 How far will the first non-works Mercedes be from pole. 1.5 seconds? Absolutely in play.
 Like him or not (and I’m clearly in the latter category as regular readers of this blog might have realised), Raikkonen can be very, very good when the car is decent and he has his motivation in order. I’m anticipating a strong season, and not only because he might get another big pay day next year …