Ricciardo keeps upbeat amid Red Bull struggles

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER ON MAY 3

It was Daniel Ricciardo’s Formula One season in a nutshell. On the final corner of the final lap of last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix, a race where the Australian toiled in anonymity in an unremarkable sixth place, Ricciardo planted his right foot on the throttle of his Red Bull-Renault for the run to the finish line. The pedal went flat to the floor; the car didn’t respond. He tried it again. Nothing. And then came the realisation of why.

A thick plume of smoke spewed from the back of the car, Ricciardo’s Renault engine blowing itself to smithereens within jogging distance of the chequered flag. Bits of discarded engine shrapnel littered the track as Ricciardo’s momentum slowly carried him past the finish line in an eerie silence. Sixth place was still his; as the car rolled to a halt, Ricciardo could only shake his head. It was an apt snapshot of a season that has, quite literally, gone up in smoke.

“I was racing by myself on the last lap and I thought I might cruise to the line and save fuel, but I was lucky I didn’t go much slower than I did because I wouldn’t have made it,” Ricciardo tells The Sunday Age.

“Even when the engine blew, it didn’t make a big noise; it was more a big puff of smoke, and then it went silent. There were no signs beforehand. When I crossed the line, I had to laugh a little bit …”

However rueful that smile was, it was a rare chance for Ricciardo’s signature grin to break through in what has, to date, been a wretched season for Red Bull. After three breakthrough victories and finishing third in last year’s world championship, 2015 was supposed to be the year the 25-year-old West Australian made the leap from multiple race-winner to title contender. But the unreliable Renault engine in Ricciardo’s Red Bull has left him fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

In the first four races of the season, Ricciardo has finished no better than seventh; twice, in Australia and Malaysia, he’s suffered the ignominy of being lapped. And while Ricciardo was able to minimise the damage from his Bahrain blow-up, he’s already used three of the four engines allocated to each driver for the season, meaning he’ll use his final power plant for the year at next week’s Spanish Grand Prix, one of 15 remaining races. Any subsequent engine changes will incur a 10-place grid penalty for the following race. It’s not a prospect the Australian is relishing.

“It’s not too, um, riveting at the moment,” Ricciardo says, searching for a diplomatic summation of his season.

“Bahrain was our best weekend so far, but even when things are running well, we seem to be quick enough to keep the guys behind us pretty easily, but not quick enough to catch the others. I’m racing by myself mostly; it’s been pretty lonely out there.”

Unlike the front-running Mercedes and Ferrari outfits, which produce their cars and engines in-house under one roof, Red Bull is a customer of Renault, meaning they’re effectively buying power plants off the shelf. When F1 switched to 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid engines for 2014, Renault was clearly the weakest of the three engine manufacturers in the sport, its lack of grunt regularly seeing Ricciardo 20km/h slower than the Mercedes and Ferrari-powered cars on the straights.

In an attempt to fix that horsepower deficit, Renault made significant changes to its engine in the off-season, but they’ve backfired spectacularly. Ricciardo’s first engine detonated itself after just nine laps in opening practice at Albert Park, and when the power plants have managed to hold together, Red Bull’s drivers have complained of its lack of driveability, the engine providing little response on an initial application of the throttle before applying all the power in seemingly one hit, akin to an on-off switch. The result is a vicious circle: coming out of slow-speed corners, the brutal power input spins the rear wheels, which causes excessive tyre degradation, which makes the car slower while stressing the engine to breaking point.

“Last year we came in with less expectations, so this year we expected more after 12 months’ running with the car,” Ricciardo admits.

“We’re much worse off than where we were this time last year, which is what’s made it hard to take.”

While Mercedes and Ferrari fight among themselves for victories and Williams has been a constant podium threat, Red Bull has been little more than an afterthought this season. In Bahrain, Ricciardo finished 19 seconds behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in sixth, but 23 seconds clear of seventh-placed Lotus driver Romain Grosjean. He could do little more.

“It’s not how I want to go racing, but it’s what I’ve got at the moment,” he says.

“I’m not kidding myself in that I know I won’t be fighting for a win, but it doesn’t change the approach. If you see a car in front of you, you try to pass or stay with him and create an opportunity. Even if they’re quicker, maybe something happens in their pit stop, or his tyres degrade faster than yours. It’s more difficult when you’re not fighting right up the front, but you need to keep a bit of hope.”

It’s a pragmatic and mature mindset, arguably one Ricciardo wouldn’t have been capable of adopting even 12 months ago when he joined Red Bull as a driver big on potential, but short on proof that he could actually mix it with the best. While his results from 2014 changed all of that, it’s the wisdom he’s gained since moving his European base to Monaco a year earlier that has been his greatest area of growth. And for that, in part at least, he has an unlikely mentor to thank.

David Coulthard won 13 Grands Prix in a lengthy career that wrapped up at Red Bull in 2008, and as a long-time resident of Monaco, helped Ricciardo settle into the principality of the rich and famous when he shifted from the British town of Milton Keynes. Their ties with Red Bull Racing gave them a common background, but Ricciardo was struck by Coulthard’s willingness to share the wisdom he’d acquired in 15 years as an F1 driver. In a sport where seeking external assistance is often done on the quiet lest it be interpreted as a sign of weakness, Ricciardo has been a sponge, absorbing the 44-year-old’s advice and taking heed of lessons learned. For a bravado-fuelled F1 driver to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers is rare; finding someone with Coulthard’s respect and relevance rarer still. It’s a developing friendship that has been invaluable.

“‘DC’ is a wise guy, and since I’ve been in Monaco, he’s been there for me for a bit of advice,” Ricciardo says.

“At the end of last year, I’d finish on the podium and I’d be thinking ‘it’s just a podium’. Now, I’d kill for a podium. The biggest thing he’s taught me is that after a season like last year, you’re inevitably going to get frustrated at a time like now. You’ve got to be able to turn that around, and he’s told me how important it is to think long-term.

“I plan on having a long career, so I’ve got to perform at a high level no matter whether the car is good enough to win or good enough for fifth. Whatever its limit is, I have to make sure I get to that and make sure I still get recognised as a top driver. There’s not as much excitement over a fifth compared to a victory, but you have to play the long game.

“I’ve always enjoyed talking to people like ‘DC’ who have been around the sport because you can learn so much. You can’t think you know everything. You don’t have to take on every little thing they say, but you’re only going to increase your experience faster by learning from theirs.”

Part of acquiring experience is assuming more responsibility, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has praised Ricciardo for “not letting his head drop” in difficult circumstances. With Coulthard’s words perhaps ringing in his ears, Ricciardo has made a concerted effort to keep morale high within the team as it labours through its worst season in eight years.

“I feel as though I have a bit more of a role this year in trying to keep the guys together,” he says.

“I can have more influence on everyone’s mood, and reiterate that ‘you guys are four-time champions, we’ll get back to the top’. It’s a fine line, because at times you want to have a bit of a tantrum. But I’m aware what that would look like, and it wouldn’t help. Everyone knows the situation we’re in, so there’s no point me putting fuel on that fire.”

In years to come, Ricciardo will undoubtedly look back at 2015 as the character-building campaign he had to have, one he skipped last season as he went from a prospect with promise to a potential world champion in one fell swoop. While he’s unlikely to be sitting pretty in the championship standings by the end of it, 2015 shapes as the year that rounds out Ricciardo off the track, a season that will only make him more formidable on it when he again has a car commensurate with his talent.

Ricciardo on Red Bull’s future
Would Red Bull really call off a stampede that has seen it set the standard in Formula One for much of the past five years? From its early days as a team seemingly more concerned with partying than performing in the mid-2000s, Red Bull became the sport’s benchmark in the early part of this decade. But could the energy drinks company turn its back on the sport as quickly as it ascended to its summit?

In early April, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz made it clear that he wouldn’t hesitate to pull Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso out of F1 unless Renault produced an engine that would allow the squads to be competitive, while at the Australian Grand Prix, Mateschitz’s motorsport advisor and right-hand man Dr Helmut Marko claimed the current engine regulations would “kill the sport”. Red Bull has a signed commitment to the sport until 2020, but at the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone conceded “if they decide to leave, there is nothing we could do”.

While the Red Bull quit threats have been dismissed by many of the sport’s insiders as posturing by a team struggling to accept a downturn in results, Daniel Ricciardo admits he’s been following the story with interest.

Any Red Bull withdrawal would see the Australian become the hottest property on the driver market, with high-profile teams like Ferrari – which employs the oldest driver in the sport in 35-year-old Kimi Raikkonen, who is out of contract at the end of 2015 – just one potential destination.

Ricciardo says he’s “not blind” to the tension behind the scenes at Red Bull.

“When I hear about it and the frustrations with Mateschitz, I completely understand as he’s not in this sport to make up the numbers,” he says.

“If we as drivers are frustrated, I’m sure he’s just as if not more frustrated, because it’s his brand, his money and his image. Whether these exit threats are real or directly coming from him, I don’t know. But I do hear them; it’s hard not to.

“For me, what he chooses to do in the future is not in my control. What is in my control is to make sure I do all I can to keep this team successful and give it the best chance to have it return to the top.”

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