As we gear up for next week’s race in Montreal, this is the inside story of how Daniel Ricciardo first became a Formula One race winner four years ago.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
The Daniel Ricciardo of 2018 is one of Formula One’s shining lights, a multiple race-winner with a style all his own, and with an outsize personality and approach to his craft that endears him to the sport’s fans the world over. That’s the now, but what about the then?
When did Ricciardo’s promise, honed in British Formula 3 and built upon in the best part of three F1 seasons with HRT and Scuderia Toro Rosso from 2011-13, turn into production, and a landmark result that established him as a perennial powerhouse for years to come?
The upcoming Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal marks four years since Ricciardo’s career breakthrough, a maiden win achieved in a remarkable race, and a victory that came in a season where Mercedes adapted best to the new V6 turbo hybrid engine era that F1 had headed headlong into, coming to Canada with six wins from six poles in six races to start the year. It was a win that owed itself to pace, persistence, storming through a door that had been left ajar and not putting a foot wrong when the stakes were at their highest – all of which have become hallmarks of the vast majority of Ricciardo’s six F1 victories since.
As we gear up for the 2018 race around the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve on the Ile-Notre Dame next Sunday, we re-live Ricciardo’s breakthrough in this oral history, through the eyes of Daniel himself, and those who were there or played a part in the Grand Prix that established the wide-smiled hopeful as a genuine F1 star.
THE EARLY DAYS AT RED BULL
With Mark Webber’s retirement at the end of 2013, Red Bull Racing signed off on the normally-aspired V8 engine era in imperious style, Webber’s teammate Sebastian Vettel winning 13 races (including the last nine of the season) to saunter to a fourth world title in a row. But pre-season testing in 2014 was a nightmare for Red Bull, Vettel and new signing Ricciardo, reliability gremlins with Renault’s power plant meaning the team hadn’t completed a single race distance before heading to Ricciardo’s homeland for the opening Grand Prix of the year in Melbourne.
Would the RB10 even make it to the chequered flag in Melbourne? How slowly would Ricciardo and Vettel have to drive if it did, in order to preserve an engine that was, at best, fragile? Expectations were muted in the extreme.
Daniel (to this author in December 2013): I’ve come to not really like the word ‘expectations’ because it can be a bit of a let-down sometimes … but let’s say I definitely have plans. Hopefully the car is competitive, but even if it isn’t, for me I’d love to give it to Seb, start the season hopefully in front but, being realistic, close to him. I’m not allowing time for myself.
While Vettel was an early retiree in Australia, Ricciardo qualified a career-best second in a deluge on Saturday, and then finished a stunning second in the race behind Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg for his first career podium, or so he thought. Hours after the delirious masses had vacated Albert Park, Ricciardo’s RB10 was excluded from the results for breaching the sport’s fuel flow regulations, a bitter blow. But Ricciardo’s pace – not to mention standing on the podium for the first time despite having to relinquish his trophy afterwards – left him in a buoyant mood.
Daniel (to The Age newspaper, October 2014): I didn’t know about being disqualified when I left the circuit, but I feared for it. Driving back to the hotel, I decided I needed to have a beer – do something – to enjoy that memory of standing up on the podium for the first time whether I kept it or not. And then the call came. A few of my mates were staying in the hotel, so I had them come up to my room and we had a few quiet drinks. I didn’t have a lot to say. I wanted to at least remember how the day felt, because I had nothing to show for it. I didn’t leave the track with my trophy – I never actually saw it again. It hurt, but I look back at it now as a great weekend. It did a lot for me; I still stood on the podium and got those jitters out of the system. But knowing it was taken off me, it just made me more hungry to get it back.
It didn’t take long. After a DNF in Malaysia and a podium near-miss in Bahrain when he finished fourth after starting 13th following a 10-place grid penalty for an unsafe pit release at Sepang, Ricciardo was fourth again in China, finishing just behind Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari in third and, more eye-catchingly, 20 seconds ahead of teammate and reigning four-time world champion Vettel in the sister Red Bull.
After coming close twice, Ricciardo finally took his maiden podium at the following race in Spain, qualifying third and finishing in the same position as Mercedes ran away with it at the front, finishing 49secs behind Lewis Hamilton but inside the top three for the first time. The next race in Monaco saw him qualify and finish third again, finishing right in Hamilton’s wheeltracks as Rosberg won.
As the teams went to Canada for round seven of 2014, it was Mercedes first and daylight second, Hamilton’s retirement in Australia the only reason the Silver Arrows hadn’t finished 1-2 in every race. Ricciardo was fourth in the championship with 54 points, seven points behind Alonso in third and nine points ahead of teammate Vettel, but Canada wasn’t exactly his happiest of hunting grounds. In three previous visits, he’d never qualified inside the top 10, never finished better than 14th (and had never therefore scored a single world championship point), and just 12 months previously, had endured what he later described as one of the toughest race weekends of his time in F1.
Daniel (to redbull.com, July 2016): Canada 2013 … might have been the turning point in my career. We knew Mark was leaving Red Bull, and Canada that year was honestly one of the worst races of my life. (Teammate) Jean-Eric (Vergne) was sixth which was almost like a victory in a Toro Rosso, and I was 15th and absolutely nowhere. Sometimes you’re slow and you can rationalise that because you know why, but that weekend I was bad and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe knowing there was a Red Bull seat available made it worse. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t really like race cars much after that weekend. I had to try something different because it just didn’t make sense. I went to New York for a week after Montreal and tried not to think about racing at all and stop beating myself up about it …
PRACTICE: BACK IN THE PACK
The long back straight of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve couldn’t have suited the Red Bull package less, the gains shown on Monaco’s twisting city streets likely to be wiped out by the long blast from the hairpin to the final chicane of the circuit in Canada. The team’s mood ahead of the weekend was cautious at best, and that middling confidence proved correct when Ricciardo finished just 12th in Friday practice in Montreal, 1.5secs behind the pace-setting Mercedes of Hamilton.
Daniel (after practice): I guess (12th) was a bit of a surprise. We obviously hoped to be a bit further up there. I don’t feel at home with the car, but at the same time we don’t feel 1.5 seconds off. We have a bit to understand. What is positive is that Seb put in a quick (lap), so we can see what he did there and try to see where we are in comparison, see where I need to work and see if we can get further up.
Christian Horner, Red Bull team principal: I think Montreal is going to be a challenging race for us. Renault is working hard behind the scenes, and we were much, much closer in Monaco. But you go from one extreme to the other: Monaco is all about handling characteristics, this is straight-line performance, so it is going to be very interesting to see how we fare against the Mercedes-powered teams.
Daniel: If we don’t get it right we can be a long way back as we have seen. We have to make sure we nail it.
QUALIFYING: BETTER, BUT WORST
Ricciardo was more buoyant when he was able to finish fifth in final practice, Mercedes unsurprisingly leading the way again, but qualifying was tougher, the Australian slotting into sixth place for what – at the time – was his worst qualifying performance of 2014. Mercedes locked out the front row, Rosberg edging Hamilton by 0.079secs, and while Red Bull claimed the mantle of ‘best of the rest’, that went to Vettel, who led a quartet of cars separated by just 0.041secs, Ricciardo at the rear of that group. It was the first time the German had outqualified his new teammate in four races.
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing (after qualifying): The start of that last lap wasn’t great, I didn’t manage to get the first sector right, but I tried to take more risks and it worked. In terms of fighting with the car, it is still not where we want to be.
Horner: If you’d have offered us third and sixth in qualifying before the weekend, I think we’d have definitely taken it.
Daniel: We were close to third, but not close enough and we paid a bit of a price. We’ve made progress throughout the weekend and we were not too far off, but it’s disappointing to just miss out.
Nico Rosberg, pole position, Mercedes: That was very important as there aren’t many opportunities to overtake here, particularly if you are in the same car. I think it will be a battle between the two of us (Mercedes drivers) out there tomorrow, the gap to the other cars was quite big.
Lewis Hamilton, second: I just had two laps and I didn’t do good laps. It was nothing to do with the car.
Daniel: Shithouse – but if you want something you can print, say ‘scrappy’. I’m trying to cheer myself up, I was a bit frustrated. Being less than half a tenth from three more positions up the grid, that’s frustrating. I made a few mistakes and paid the price. It sucks for me today, but that is how it should be.
RACE: FROM SIXTH TO THE TOP STEP
With the race looking like an equation of one in two for the victory, Rosberg and Hamilton knew the first corner was critical, and the German robustly defended his position from his teammate at the start, Vettel slicing past Hamilton as the Briton took to the escape road at the second corner after being pushed wide by Rosberg. Hamilton regained second on lap 10 of 70, and the race settled into a familiar pattern, the two Mercedes cars in their own private squabble out front while the rest competed for the other podium spot.
But the stop-go nature of the Montreal street circuit regularly throws up curveballs, and by half-distance, it seemed the Silver Arrows weren’t bulletproof after all. Both Rosberg and Hamilton reported sudden losses of power from their engines, and both drivers dropped their pace by two seconds a lap and made a second pit stop as the team madly searched for a fix. No solution was forthcoming for Hamilton, who retired with brake failure on lap 48, but Rosberg still had enough pace at the front of the field in a compromised car that a third victory of the year looked safe.
Behind him, a monstrously quick in-lap for Ricciardo saw him leapfrog teammate Vettel in his second pit stop, and the Australian set off after Force India’s Sergio Perez, who was attempting to nurse a one-stop tyre strategy to the podium.
Daniel (post-race): I was told about Lewis first and pretty much straight away I was passing him and he was cruising back to the pits. At that time I was trying to count what position I was, and I think I was third then. I was thinking ‘OK, this is a podium, this is good’, and then a few laps later I could see that Rosberg was not far in front. From him being 20 seconds or 30 seconds down the road, all of a sudden he was in my sight. I had to look twice, but then I realised that we’ve got a race on our hands.
Perez had track position and a faster car down the back straight, but the Mexican was battling with his own brake dramas, and Ricciardo spied an opportunity to pounce.
Daniel (August, 2014): When I saw Rosberg having his straight-line speed problems, which is where (Mercedes has) been clearly more dominant, it clearly put it into perspective that yes, we’ve got a shot. So it was just then about getting past Perez. He was the roadblock, in a way.
With five laps left and with no way past at the final chicane after the back straight, Ricciardo launched an audacious attack on Perez at the first corner, and – just – made it stick. Second would have been his best F1 finish to date, but Rosberg was within touching distance. It was time to go for it.
Daniel (August, 2014): I was behind (Sergio) for a quite a few laps, and his tyres … he was doing a good job to hold on, and I was thinking ‘is it ever going to happen?’. I finally got a really good run off the last chicane. I knew we were strong on the brakes, so went around the outside in turn one and just held on. A little bit on the grass, but just held on.
Ricciardo got within DRS range of Rosberg on the back straight with three laps left, went by, and, having never led a Formula One race before, was less than 10 kilometres from winning one. Which is when his mind started to wander.
Daniel (August, 2014): When I took the lead, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I could feel my heart rate creep up a bit. Although I felt all these emotions inside, I was still able to keep a cool head and know what I was doing. It’s not like all of a sudden I forgot how to drive. I was still hitting my marks, but yeah, there was a bit more going on in the tummy. Every gear shift you make, every time you hit the brakes, you’re just hoping that nothing comes off, nothing explodes, you just want the car to pull up. You just hope that mechanically, everything works.
Behind him, as the final lap started, Perez led Williams’ Felipe Massa for the third and final podium spot, Vettel waiting patiently in case something happened ahead of him. And it did, the Mexican and Brazilian coming together at the first corner in a massive accident that promoted Vettel to third, and saw the safety car immediately deployed. With debris strewn all over the circuit, the race was effectively neutralised on the last lap, with no more passing permitted. Ricciardo’s win was assured, but it wasn’t the way he imagined he’d win his first Grand Prix, crawling across the line at little more than walking pace.
Daniel (August, 2014): I didn’t know whether to jump up or take a breath. I was quite exhausted, I think mentally I was knackered, and I didn’t really know what to do. It was surreal.
Vettel (post-race): I saw (Perez and Massa) were close to each other, I saw something white coming in the mirror and I opened the car, turned right, and Felipe was in the air coming past … I was quite lucky and saw him just in time.
Felipe Massa, Williams (post-race): I talked to (Perez) at the medical centre, I was so disappointed with him. He needs to learn. I wanted him to put himself in my place, because I had a huge crash and honestly I thought it was going to hurt. It’s not the first time that he turned into somebody under braking. He did this many times. He didn’t say anything, he just turned left. I hope he learns. We are doing around 300km/h there.
Winning was nothing new for a team that had won 13 of 19 races the season prior, but given the size of the deficit Red Bull (and seemingly every other squad) had to Mercedes in the first half of 2014, this was a victory to savour.
Horner (post-race): I didn’t believe that we could win this race, but the way Daniel has driven, the way he has made his passing moves, he just grabbed his opportunity. He has driven faultlessly all season and I am delighted for him that he won his first Grand Prix. It is a wonderful feeling for any driver. It was nice to have Seb on the podium to enjoy it with him and it is a very special day in his life and career. I am sure it will probably take a day or two for it to sink in.
Ricciardo (to The Age newspaper, October 2014): I’ve been impressed by the level of respect Seb has shown me. He’s been gracious in defeat – when I’ve won, he was approaching me and patting me on the back. I don’t like losing either, so I know it’s not easy to do these things. But he’s always shown me a good level of respect, and for that I’ve given him more respect because of the way he’s handled it. There’s been no conflicts.
Fernando Alonso, Ferrari (post-race): Who would’ve thought Red Bull would win a race so soon after winter testing? Mercedes was so dominant, but they had mechanical issues, so you need to be there to take the opportunities and Red Bull was there. That gives us motivation and shows us how things can change during a race weekend … anything can happen.
Daniel (August, 2014): You think you can do it, but until you do it, you never know if you’ll crumble under the pressure or whatever. It was nice to know that I could do it, that made me very happy. Seeing all the people below (the podium) in the team, the fans, there were a few people in the crowd chanting ‘Ricciardo’ … that was a noise or sound I’ll never forget, an image I’ll never forget.
A pre-planned flight back home to Europe later that Sunday evening was quickly cancelled as Ricciardo, his long-time trainer Stuart Smith and the team took the chance to celebrate a success few – not even they – saw coming.
Ricciardo (to the Australian Grand Prix official program, 2015): It wasn’t until Stu and I left the track in the hire car hours after the race that it actually hit me. 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 …
Ricciardo certainly did better next time, and the time after: in the final race before F1’s mid-season break that year in Hungary, he hunted down and passed Alonso’s Ferrari in the last laps of the race – sound familiar? – to take career win number two. “That was messy,” he laughs now of the celebrations in Budapest, with long-time mates from Perth who’d come over to see the race. A third win came in Belgium when Rosberg and Hamilton tripped over one another early in the race, and by the end of 2014, Ricciardo had three victories, five other podiums, finished third in the world championship and beat Vettel by 71 points in the 19 races, the German announcing at that year’s Japanese Grand Prix that he’d be heading to Ferrari after being soundly thrashed by his new teammate.
Since, Ricciardo has won four Grands Prix (Malaysia 2016, Azerbaijan 2017, China 2018 and Monaco last time out), all in dramatic or compelling circumstances, but memories of that Canadian breakthrough still burn brightest. Last year in Canada, he convinced esteemed British actor Sir Patrick Stewart to join him in a post-race shoey on the podium when he finished third – what celebrations might we get in Montreal next Sunday if the affable Aussie is able to reprise his 2014 triumph once again?