THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER
Daniel Ricciardo had no intention of talking about it. ‘It’ was an enormous tattoo that took up the entirety of his right thigh, a long-considered piece of personal artwork he’d had done in October 2013. It was something the Australian Formula One racer wanted to keep to himself – which, in a sport where little stays secret for long, he’d miraculously managed for the best part of a year.
A sultry Suzuka evening at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix blew his cover. Long after most of the inhabitants of the F1 paddock had cleared out for the night, a relaxed Ricciardo sat – in shorts – chatting after a run of the track. Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner had stayed late at the circuit for a meeting, saw his driver, and did a double-take. “How long has that been there?” enquired Horner, astonished to learn that Ricciardo had spent 12 months sweltering in long pants in public to keep his artwork private as the F1 circus criss-crossed the globe.
Ricciardo was a three-time Formula One race-winner by then, his brilliant first season at Red Bull overshadowing the results of teammate and reigning four-time champion Sebastian Vettel as the Australian made the leap from promising prospect to bona fide F1 star. But discussing the plotting of his life’s path in permanency on his body was, then, harder than taking on and beating the world’s best drivers.
“Back in 2013, when I got the tattoo done before the Indian Grand Prix that year, I was driving for Toro Rosso and still making a name for myself in F1,” he remembers.
“I just didn’t want people talking about it, ‘he thinks he’s cool now’ and all of that. I wanted to keep it private. It was about me and for me, nobody else.”
The design was complex, elaborate and a reflection of Ricciardo’s state of mind at the time, as he came to terms with what being a top-line F1 driver really meant. A tall ship, signifying the journey the one-time “reluctant traveller” he’d taken to traverse the world after venturing to Europe by himself soon after finishing school. A lighthouse, “so I’m always close to home”. A bird, taking flight to see the world from new horizons. And the two phrases he lived his life by: ‘No Regrets’ because he never wanted his F1 career to have any, ‘Only Memories’ inspired by a favourite song by British hardcore band Heart in Hand.
“I’m a Perth boy, and my heart was still close to home; I didn’t want to forget where I’d come from, but I wanted to make the most of the journey,” he says now.
“I’d left home and sacrificed a bit, so I wanted to do it properly, with no regrets and take away a lot of memories of the travel. That was the time I was starting to see more of the world and actually appreciate what it is, and how I fit into it.”
Now, Ricciardo laughs at the thought of his considered concealment – “even though it was only four years ago, there weren’t many tattoos in our sport back then,” he shrugs. While his ink-adding days are “probably done”, the next steps of the 28-year-old’s journey, short, medium and long-term, will see him in the headlines for much of this year as F1 embarks on a 21-race campaign, the longest season in the sport’s history. It’s a season that shapes as the most crucial of his career to date.
On the immediate horizon is Sunday’s season-opener at Albert Park, a circuit that has been a graveyard for Australians striving for success in their own backyard. Ricciardo’s compatriot and predecessor at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber, never unlocked the secret to conquering his home race; in a 215-race career, Melbourne was the only Grand Prix that featured for Webber’s entire 12-year F1 tenure where he never made the podium.
For Ricciardo, who makes his 130th F1 start on Sunday, Melbourne hasn’t been much better. Only Brazil (just 13 points in seven appearances) has produced a worse record than Australia (22 points in six), while his one moment in the sun, when he crossed the line second on his Red Bull debut back in 2014, was scuppered by his car being excluded for breaching the sport’s fuel flow regulations, a crestfallen Ricciardo having to hand back the second-place trophy he’d hoisted in front of a delirious crowd only hours earlier.
No Australian has ever made their home podium in 33 races between Adelaide and Albert Park. If Ricciardo is to buck that trend this weekend, he’ll likely need to repel the Ferrari of former teammate Vettel, keep pace with the all-conquering Mercedes of four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, and combat the rising tide of Dutch teammate Max Verstappen, the sport’s most exciting youngster at age 20 and the first F1 teammate who has matched – and beaten – Ricciardo on pace in equal equipment.
While Ricciardo has outscored Verstappen in the two seasons they’ve been together at Red Bull, the Dutchman out-qualified Ricciardo 13-7 in the 20 races last year, his searing one-lap speed seeing the Australian regularly sport an atypically furrowed brow on Saturdays, and starting behind him for the Grands Prix on Sundays.
Verstappen is eight years younger than Ricciardo and, last year, re-signed with Red Bull until the end of the 2020 season. It was a long-term commitment to a racer barely out of his teens that put pressure on Ricciardo, out of contract at season’s end, to raise his game to combat a driver seen as a generational talent the likes of which F1 hasn’t seen since Hamilton and Vettel debuted a decade ago.
Employing a longer lens, Verstappen’s ascension and potential, and Ricciardo’s pending free agency, has given rise to talk of a move away from Red Bull, the company that provided a financial pathway to F1 in order to make his world championship dream a reality. Before the cars had turned a wheel at Albert Park this week, Ricciardo’s voice was almost shot, a result of countless interviews answering “5000 questions” about his future, and he was relieved to strap himself into Red Bull’s RB14 machine for practice on Friday, “because it’s hard to ask me too much in there”.
The Australian won’t be lacking for options for 2019 and beyond, but the clock is ticking. On Friday, Horner said Red Bull “want to continue with him”, but added “the door is open, but it won’t stay open forever”.
If not Red Bull, where could Ricciardo go? The potential for him to become the first Australian to drive in F1 for Ferrari is a possibility, with Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen turning 39 in October and not having won a race for five years, his lack of contribution contributing to Ferrari enduring a constructors’ championship drought that stretches a decade. Vettel fuelled the fire in the Albert Park pre-race press conference when asked about a reprisal of his Red Bull partnership of 2014 with Ricciardo, saying “we get along (and) I wouldn’t mind if we get together again in the future, but I don’t know what his plans are.”
At Mercedes, which has won a staggering 63 of the 79 races since F1 dumped normally-aspirated V8 engines for V6 turbo hybrid power plants in 2014, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas has been retained for 2018 after a debut season with the team last year that produced three victories, but a third-place finish in the drivers’ championship behind Vettel in a car that was demonstrably better than the Ferrari.
Bottas, like Ricciardo, is driving to confirm his F1 future in the first half of this season, and while Mercedes has promising junior drivers like Force India’s Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings, the 21-year-old Frenchman doesn’t – yet – look ready for a seat at the sport’s benchmark team after one season in the top flight in 2017.
Ricciardo is relishing his first chance to test the F1 contract waters – “I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box,” he said late last year – but wants to shut down chatter over his future as his 2018 season takes its first fledgling steps this weekend. The early races of the season, from Sunday in Melbourne onwards, will paint a clearer picture.
“I’m going to put all those talks on hold for a while,” he says, acknowledging that will do little to quell the speculation about what’s next.
“Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful – races, championships – that’s the absolute priority.”
Wherever Ricciardo lands – and there are compelling arguments for him to return to Melbourne in 12 months’ time in any one of the sport’s three standout teams – it’ll be much harder to keep a secret this time. From Horner or anyone else.