Stuart Smith has played a big role in Daniel Ricciardo’s rise as an F1 force.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
Formula One may be a team sport, but it’s the individuals competing in it who are subject to the most scrutiny, who accept the plaudits, who hog the headlines. But an F1 driver can’t do it all alone. And in the high-pressure, sometimes artificial and often surreal world of one of the biggest sports on the planet, it’s often a driver’s trainer who fulfils the role of physio, confidante, adviser, sounding board and good mate.
For Daniel Ricciardo, compatriot Stuart Smith ticks all of those boxes, and several more besides. The 32-year-old Queenslander became a new father earlier this year and won’t be at Ricciardo’s side at every Grand Prix in 2016, but the working and personal relationship this pair of Aussies abroad have cultivated over five years remains rock-solid. So much so that Smith and Ricciardo have found a way to keep their partnership going despite Smith scaling back to five Grands Prix this year, the first of them coming in Spain last weekend.
When Ricciardo first joined the F1 grid midway through the 2011 season on loan to Spanish team HRT, Smith was assigned to be his performance coach. When Ricciardo moved to Toro Rosso the next season, Smith initially worked elsewhere in Switzerland before linking back with Ricciardo from the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix, and it’s a partnership that has endured ever since.
Smith and Ricciardo worked together at every race until the end of 2015, when Smith stepped aside to prepare for the arrival of his first newborn son. While fellow Hintsa Performance employee and Max Chilton’s former trainer Sam Village has taken the Ricciardo reins on a day-to-day basis at races this year, Smith continues to advise on all aspects of Ricciardo’s preparation including training with him between races at his Monaco base, and having a weekly Skype chat if he’s not on the ground at a race weekend.
Smith had never worked in Formula One before fate led him to be thrown together with his fellow Australian five years ago; somewhat sheepishly, he laughs that he had “absolutely zero interest in the sport” until he worked in it, his background as a trainer coming in rowing and swimming, among other sports. But from his earliest days in F1, Smith quickly realised that there’s no one-size-fits-all job description that comes with being a drivers’ right-hand man.
“What a Formula One driver wants from his trainer is very different and a very personal thing,” he explains.
“Some drivers employ physios and they want the physio there to work with them to make sure they’re ready physically for every session, and that might be the extent of it. There’s not much else to the working relationship, because that’s all they want.
“But by virtue of the fact we spend so much time together, you tend to pick up on signs on when the athlete is performing well and when they’re not, and you understand why that is so you can come up with a solution to fix it if that’s what is needed. You get to know someone’s signs so well that you develop a really close relationship, and that helps with being honest with one another. Honesty and trust – from both sides – is the biggest thing, and Daniel and I have always had that.
“From my experience, the honesty and trust you gain from working with someone so closely for so long is unique, and so different to working in a team sport environment because that time is being divided by multiple people. You can still develop strong relationships and understanding in that team sport environment, but it’s not like F1 where you spend so much time with the driver.”
Smith is right about that – drivers spend arguably more time with their trainers at a race weekend than family, their race engineers and significant others. Ricciardo’s days are meticulously planned to have him at his physical and mental peak for those two hours every second Sunday when the world’s best drivers set off in sight of victory. And Smith says the work the pair did as Ricciardo was finding his feet back in 2012 was perhaps the most crucial in discovering what keeps the Red Bull driver in the best place to succeed.
“That was the year when we really began to understand when he drove best, why he drove best and where his strengths and weaknesses were. That was where his personal development really kicked on,” he says.
“After 2012, we could take time to step back and look at what worked and what didn’t for him, and we understood a lot more. Daniel was always very open and keen to want to know how and why he performed best, and that year fast-tracked the process. 2012 was a good learning year.”
Ricciardo’s star really rose in 2014 when, up against four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in the sister car in his first year at Red Bull Racing, did what no other teammate to Vettel has done in a decade – out-perform him over the course of a season while taking three stunning victories in a year dominated by Mercedes. Smith’s memorable in-garage celebration when Ricciardo took a lead he wouldn’t relinquish in Montreal for his maiden win that year saw the Aussie become an inadvertent 24-hour internet sensation thanks to a widely-circulated gif; all of the hard work, the attention to detail and commitment had reaped the ultimate reward for the first time, and Smith was just as emotionally invested as the man behind the wheel. It’s memories of days like that – and Ricciardo’s successes since – that meant Smith was always going to stay on board with Ricciardo this year, even with life changing around him.
“There’s a lot of F1 trainers who can go and work with other guys, but because I’ve spent so long with him, there’s no way I could work with another F1 driver that wasn’t Daniel if Daniel was still on the grid,” Smith says.
“I’m so invested in his performance, not only professionally but as a mate, that I could never go and work with someone else.”