Australian Grand Prix

F1 2018: Who was best in class?

Who stood up and shone? Who stumbled backwards or stuttered? It’s time for our top 10 drivers of the F1 season.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’re making a list, checking it twice … no, not that one, even if it is December. The final month of the year finally hears Formula One engines fall silent after the equal-longest season in the sport’s 69-year history, and for some drivers (Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, for example), more Grands Prix (to extend his run of five straight podiums to end the year) would probably be welcomed. But the off-season does give us cause for pause and a chance to reflect on who and what was good in 2018 – and who underwhelmed or went missing when it mattered. Which is where we came in.

In this space this time last year, we ran the rule over the grid to come up with our top five drivers of 2017. Halfway through this one; a report card that handed out the mid-season grades (and who needed to do their homework or stay back after school for extra detention). This time, we’re changing tack.

From the 20 drivers who lined up for the start of season school photo in Australia in March, we had a statistical anomaly this year – those same 20 drivers also posed for the end-of-year shot in Abu Dhabi last month, the first time in F1 history the same grid that started the season also finished it. But forget 20 – it’s a top 10 list for the season that’s of interest, and begs questions of how to arrive at one.

What were the expectations for each driver (and their teams) heading into 2018, and did they exceed those relative to their teammates, and the opposition? Who had outsize results in cars not worthy of them, or who squandered points and podiums in machinery that was superior? And do the final standings for 2018 tell the complete truth, or is context more important than counting points?

Before we reveal the top 10, two honourable mentions to those who just missed. Kevin Magnussen was comfortably the best Haas driver of the season for a fledgling team that finished a heady fifth in the constructors’ championship, and the Dane had his best season yet, scoring 56 points to finish ninth overall. A better year than teammate Romain Grosjean, but not one that slid him into our top 10. And Carlos Sainz, who finished right behind Magnussen in 10th after a strong sixth-place showing to wrap up his Renault tenure in Abu Dhabi, missed out by a whisker as he prepares to head to McLaren for 2019. Both tough, tough omissions … but if 10 make it, 10 have to miss.

So who made the cut? From 10 to 1, let’s count them down – the best F1 drivers of the class of 2018, and why.

10. Fernando Alonso

2018 summary
11th in world championship (50 points), best result 5th (Australia), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Was Abu Dhabi, where Alonso performed a series of celebratory donuts on the start-finish straight after the race with fellow multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, really the last time we’ll see the Spaniard in F1? We don’t know that for certain, but what 2018 taught us was that Alonso got everything he could out of a McLaren that, by season’s end, was the second-slowest car. He scored 50 of the team’s 62 points, and outqualified teammate Stoffel Vandoorne 21-0, the first driver to whitewash his teammate since … Alonso himself (Nelson Piquet Jr in 2008). Of those 50 points, 32 came in the first five races as he preyed on the customary early-season unreliability of rivals, taking a yard when an inch was on offer. Fifth in race one of 2018 in Australia was the best he could do all season. Let’s hope we see him again; how much better would F1 be if Alonso was sharing the same piece of track with Hamilton and Vettel on merit, not for nostalgic purposes?

9. Sergio Perez

2018 summary
8th in world championship (62 points), best result 3rd (Azerbaijan), 1 podium, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Perez is the answer to what will eventually become a trivia question from 2018; by taking third in Baku, the Mexican was the only driver not from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull to stand on the podium all season (Azerbaijan 2017, where Lance Stroll finished third for Williams, is the only other race in the past two seasons to end likewise, a stat fact F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn calls “unacceptable”). Nearly one-quarter of Perez’s points came on that one crazy afternoon in Azerbaijan, and while he’s a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to pick up the crumbs thanks to his tyre-conserving style, his qualifying deficit to Racing Point Force India teammate Esteban Ocon (16-5) costs him a spot in our rankings from where he finished.

8. Charles Leclerc

2018 summary
13th in world championship (39 points), best result 6th (Azerbaijan), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
How good was Leclerc’s rookie season? Not since Verstappen (49 points for Toro Rosso in 2015) have we seen a newcomer this polished, and what made his maiden campaign all the more impressive was that he was driving for Sauber, which finished dead last in the constructors’ championship the year prior. The Swiss squad’s jump to eighth can be primarily pinned on the composed 21-year-old, who ended the year with a trio of seventh-place finishes on the bounce in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the best realistic results on offer behind the sport’s ‘big three’ teams. A brighter spotlight awaits as Vettel’s teammate at Ferrari, but nothing we’ve seen so far suggests it should bother him. Put your hard-earned on him becoming F1’s 108th race winner sometime next season.

7. Nico Hulkenberg

2018 summary
7th in world championship (69 points), best result 5th (Germany), 14 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Seventh overall, seventh on our list, seven races started from seventh place on the grid … there’s a consistent theme here for Hulkenberg, who was largely in control of F1’s ‘class B’ in 2018 despite not finishing seven of the 21 races, the second-worst in that category on the grid (we’ll get to number one on that list later, Australian fans). It took until round 12 in Hungary, where he finished 12th, for the Renault driver not to finish in the points in a race where he saw the chequered flag. Finished eight races in (you guessed it) seventh place or better in his best F1 season yet.

6. Valtteri Bottas

2018 summary
5th in world championship (247 points), best result 2nd (Bahrain, China, Spain, Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan), 2 poles, 7 fastest laps, 8 podiums, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Finn finished fifth overall, but we’re docking him a spot here based on what he did the year prior in the sport’s best team, and what his teammate did in equal equipment in 2018. Rewind 12 months, and Bottas took three wins and scored 305 points to finish third overall; this season, he went winless while teammate Hamilton won 11 times, the first time a world champion’s running mate failed to win a race since Mark Webber in 2013. Azerbaijan, where he suffered an untimely puncture within sight of the flag, was one that got away, but Russia, where he was ordered by Mercedes to gift the win to Hamilton to aid a championship quest the Briton eventually won by a mile, might have hurt his head as much as Baku hurt his heart.

5. Daniel Ricciardo

2018 summary
6th in world championship (170 points), 2 wins (China, Monaco), 2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 2 podiums, 13 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Two wins in the first six races had Ricciardo considering a championship charge, but as the year unfolded, it seemed the affable Aussie had spent the off-season that preceded 2018 walking under ladders while crossing paths with a black cat and breaking a mirror on Friday the 13th. In 21 races, he had eight non-finishes, all but one of them from reliability gremlins that could have broken someone of lesser character (for context, the Mercedes and Ferrari pairings, plus teammate Verstappen, had 12 DNF’s combined). When the car was fast, Ricciardo was often too far back with penalties to do anything with it, and when he started where he should have, the car regularly broke. In the final nine races of 2018, there were just two – Singapore and his Red Bull swansong in Abu Dhabi – where Ricciardo didn’t come into the race weekend carrying a penalty, or the car cried ‘enough’. His swashbuckling win in Shanghai and his defensive masterclass while nursing a crippled car in Monaco were top-shelf memories from a season he’ll be glad is over.

4. Kimi Raikkonen

2018 summary
3rd in world championship (251 points), 1 win (USA), 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 12 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Raikkonen of 2018 is more Steady Eddie than one who drives with the searing speed that characterised the early part of his career, but in his final season with Ferrari before heading back to where it all began with Sauber, the 39-year-old was the perfect beta to Vettel’s alpha at Ferrari. He finished races (17 of them), didn’t get in the way (most of the time; many of the sport’s insiders were surprised he qualified on pole ahead of title-contending teammate Vettel at Monza, particularly after Vettel spun on the first lap fighting with Hamilton), and bagged a long-overdue win in Austin on merit, snapping a 113-race skid that stretched all the way back to Australia 2013 for Lotus.

3. Max Verstappen

2018 summary
4th in world championship (249 points), 2 wins (Austria, Mexico), 2 fastest laps, 11 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
If this list was being compiled from the second half of the year only, Verstappen would be a clear second; after scoring 105 points in the first 12 races, he gobbled up 144 from the last nine. Winning on Red Bull’s home patch in Austria made him more popular than ever, while for the second straight year, he made the rest look ridiculous in Mexico, winning that race by over 17 seconds while driving in cruise control for the final stint. The error-prone ways of the first half of Verstappen’s season seem like a lifetime ago already. Can Honda power lift the Dutchman higher in the standings (and this list) 12 months from now?

2. Sebastian Vettel

2018 summary
2nd in world championship (320 points), 5 wins (Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium), 5 poles, 3 fastest laps, 12 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Freeze season 2018 on lap 51 of the German Grand Prix, and this list – and Vettel’s standing in Ferrari’s history books – looks a lot different. A lap later, Vettel crashed out of his home Grand Prix while leading in the rain, allowing Hamilton to take an unlikely victory after starting 14th, and stealing the championship lead from his rival to boot. From there, things went south for the German – spins while fighting for position in Italy, Japan and Austin were costly, and by Mexico, Vettel was runner-up in the championship for a third time, Ferrari’s wait for its first drivers’ title since 2007 extending another year. Hockenheim was Vettel’s only non-finish of the season, but it was the beginning of the end.

1. Lewis Hamilton

2018 summary
World champion (408 points), 11 wins (Azerbaijan, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Abu Dhabi), 11 poles, 3 fastest laps, 17 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
It’s amazing to think, given how Hamilton’s season ended, that he didn’t win a race until round four in Azerbaijan, and he lucked into that one to such a degree after Bottas’ late puncture that he delayed the podium proceedings to console his Mercedes teammate before accepting the winners’ trophy with a sheepish face. The afore-mentioned win in Germany, and another the following weekend in Hungary where he produced a mesmerising qualifying lap in atrocious conditions, gave Hamilton the advantage, and he pressed that home to such an extent that he wound up winning 10 of the final 16 races, becoming the first driver ever to score more than 400 points in a single season. For lap of the year, look no further than his pole position in Singapore, where he dazzled as bright as the night lights that illuminate the sport’s most unforgiving track, and showed the gap he has over the rest when he’s at the top of his game.

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The Dan Diaries: Over and out

In his final F1 driver column for redbull.com, Daniel Ricciardo is in a reflective mood as five years with Red Bull Racing comes to a close in Abu Dhabi.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

So, this is it, the last race for the team (and my last Diary). It’s not like the news I’m moving on is new news, it’s been out there for months, but we’re in Abu Dhabi, and Sunday night is the end of a chapter for me and the team. Funny how the timing works too; one of my mechanics told me after Brazil that Abu Dhabi would be my 100th race with the team, so good to bring up the century on a big milestone for me.

I spent the week between Brazil and Abu Dhabi on the road, so it wasn’t until I headed to the last race that I started to look back and began reminiscing about the journey with the team. There’ll be some emotion with the team and all of that, that’s natural, but the way I’m looking at it, I’m hardly retiring, I’m still racing. But there’ll be time to be nostalgic and reason to as well. It’ll be good, in a way.

Doing 100 races, it’s gone quick. Australia 2014 doesn’t even seem that long ago. The ones I’ll remember most … you always gravitate towards the seven wins, but there’s been others as well. Of the wins, Hungary in 2014 is certainly one that was significant for me, as it marked my confidence and my hunger to win. Having to hunt people down, passing Lewis (Hamilton) and Fernando (Alonso) in the last few laps … that race marked the point where I felt like, yes, I belonged up the front and I had supreme confidence and zero intimidation from anyone. It kind of set up the label of who I’ve become now, what my reputation is in F1.

Melbourne 2014 – number one of the 100 – is one of the races I’ll always remember, there were lots of little things about that which are very vivid in my memory. Qualifying there, where it was raining and I was second … maybe it was because it was the first race for the new cars and they were quieter, but when I crossed the line in qualifying, it was the first time I’d ever heard a crowd from inside the car. I heard this roar and I thought ‘holy shit, maybe I’m on pole!’ … it was crazy. I was on inters in the rain, first race with the new team, home race … I was the brave kid who made the ballsy call, and I look back at that now and think that it was a really important race in my time at Red Bull. I went two feet in that day, was decisive, and that set the tone for the driver I was to become, especially in that first year up against Seb (Sebastian Vettel). That year, it just clicked. I always knew I had that in me, but I was able to put it all together that year, and that confidence from that year has carried on since. That style of racing was always there. It was the same in karting when I was younger, I didn’t start off being that aggressive or being that good at overtaking, it just took time.

I won three of my seven races with Red Bull in that ’14 season, so that’s the year I look back at being the most fun for me and the most important for my career since. The wins were big, and I had a massive battle with Fernando in Germany where we raced really hard but fair, and he had some praise for me afterwards which was big at the time.

I feel ’14 didn’t just shape me and my approach from then on, it changed the level of overtaking from other guys in the sport as well. I really believe that. Not many people were doing that, coming from a long way back and trying big passing moves. Maybe they learned from me and the way I was racing, so perhaps I set a new level and showed people what was possible, and the drivers that were willing to try it were trying it. I realise that sounds a bit cocky, but I really do believe that. Not saying all of them can do it … but at least more of them are trying!

It was something that I always wanted because I was always perceived by others as the nice guy, a soft touch and that sort of thing. For me to develop the reputation that was the polar opposite to what people maybe thought I was, that was even better. It takes a while to shake off something like Bahrain 2012 when I was at Toro Rosso when I got pushed around on the first lap, that was a setback to my reputation for sure. I didn’t want that feeling, and it took time to shake off.

When you do five years and 100 races with a team, there’s so many people you come across and you work with, and it’s almost unfair to bring up individual names. I feel like I’ve had good relationships with every mechanic that’s ever worked on my car, for example. But Simon (Rennie), my race engineer, is someone I need to single out. Simon and I couldn’t be more different out of the car, our personalities are really as contrasting as you could get, but we’ve had this fantastic relationship where he understands me and we never second-guess one another. I always felt he knew what I wanted or what I meant, and I always trusted him to make the right calls. I never questioned him. He feeds off the battles with me, if I say something on the radio that’s hungry, he’s right with me. He’s someone I’m going to miss going into battle with on Sundays.

The mechanics … the amount of times they’ve rallied between an FP3 and a qualifying session and got me out there … I wouldn’t have won China this year without them, and that was probably the most satisfying ‘team’ moment of the times I’ve had here.

Come Sunday night in Abu Dhabi, that’s when it will all hit me. I’m not driving the test after the race, so I’ll head back to Europe and close everything off, say my goodbyes, go to the team’s Christmas party and that sort of thing. I’m sure some drivers would be like ‘Christmas party? I’ve left the team now, who cares?’, but I feel being there is right, for the people who work in the factory and the whole team, to show the gratitude I have for the last five years of work everyone has done. And then it’s off to see my new team, and then on one final flight to get some downtime back in Oz. I’m keen to be in one time zone for a sustained period, get my body to reset and switch off the brain. It’s been a long year.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride with me for the past five years, and the three years we’ve been doing these diaries. It’s been fun and I always notice the support, so thanks. Guess I’ll see you on the other side …

The Dan Diaries: My five high-fives

In his latest driver column, Daniel Ricciardo is in a list-making mood with five F1 races left this season …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Alrighty … so it’s been a while since I did one of these. A long while. There’s been a bit going on as you’re probably quite aware of, so we don’t need to go over a lot of old ground. But as I said the other week, it’s been a weird year. Probably my best start to a season ever with China and Monaco; actually, definitely my best start. And then things dried up. And now I’m into my last five Grands Prix at Aston Martin Red Bull Racing before I head off to my new adventure.

Come Abu Dhabi, there’s going to be a heap of reminiscing, going down memory lane and all of that, and it’ll be good to look back and remember a lot of things (which I’ll do in this diary, 100 per cent). But shorter-term, we’re in Japan and it’s time to tackle Suzuka, one of the absolute highlights of the year. Japan has really grown on me as a country over the years and being here always puts me in a good mood.

So we’re going to keep things light. Five races to go this year and with Red Bull, and I’m going to answer five random questions I get asked about being in F1, or maybe one or two I’ll make up. And I’ll do five answers for each. With me? Let’s get it.

5 things I’d change about F1 if I was in charge

This is hard, but let’s go with …

(1) Engines, both the noise and the specs.

(2) No winter testing. Turning up in Melbourne with no testing would be a curveball, wouldn’t it?

(3) Change the calendar. I would set it up so we travel the world how the world is mapped out, not doing massive jumps from one continent to the next, one hemisphere to the next, run it in some sort of order. Australia stays first, of course.

(4) Two-day race weekends. I reckon they’d be more intense for the fans, they’d be better for us drivers, and it’s kind of the way the sports-consuming world works these days. Two practice sessions on Saturday, qualify that evening, race the next day.

(5) Two wildcard races per year. You have one weekend in the first half of the year and one in the second where you have two shorter races rather than one normal one. You qualify as normal for the first one, and there’s a lottery for the grid for the second one. Don’t mind that.

5 best tracks to drive on the current F1 calendar

If we’re saying tracks to drive rather than tracks to race at (they’re two different things) … in no specific order, I’m saying (1) Monaco, (2) Montreal, (3) Suzuka, (4) Baku, that one should be in there because it’s intense, and (5) Austin. I’ve probably left out some of the classics or some that people might think are obvious, but everyone has their opinion, me included …

5* races you have to go to as a fan

This isn’t all about the track itself, it’s the experience, the cities, the atmosphere …

(1) Japan. This wouldn’t have made my list if we were doing this when I first started in F1, because it has grown on me big-time since my first visit. Tokyo is one of the world’s great cities. Just so cool.

(2) Monaco, because it’s Monaco.

(3) Monza, because it’s Monza.

(4) Mexico. Just an amazing one to go to because of the fans, the drivers’ parade we do there is the best of the year. Huge energy at that one in a buzzing city. Big tick.

(5) Melbourne. This has to be on most people’s list really. Location, fans, weather, great city, Aussies everywhere … so much to like.

(* – I’m going to sneak a sixth one in here – Austin).

5 famous people I’ve met that have given me a buzz

I haven’t done a Jack Miller and met the Pope yet, so for me it’s entertainers, sports people, actors and people like that. So a recent one is (1) Tom Brady, who we had a sponsor activity with this year at Monaco – that’s a huge sporting name. (2) Kevin Hart, who had so much energy. (3) Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator! (4) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5) Gerard Butler. That was pretty big. He did a shoey with me in Austin a couple of years ago which was very cool of him, considering I put him on the spot …

5 things I wish I was better at

Only five? Let’s run with (1) Singing or playing a musical instrument. Or both, maybe sing and play guitar. That’d be so, so good. (2) Ride a dirt bike better. (3) Dancing, so in a club I can look cooler. I like to dance, but I probably look like an idiot. (4) Not biting my nails – I’m still so bad at that. I’m not sure what that is, anxiety, nerves, habit … it’s got to stop. (5) And it’s a tie between either being better at being on time or decision-making. I procrastinate more than I’d like, which is sometimes why I’m not that good at being on time …

The moment Ricciardo decided to drop a bombshell

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

The plane stopped climbing, the seatbelt sign extinguished, and Daniel Ricciardo exhaled for what felt like the first time in months. The Australian Formula One ace was on his way from London to Los Angeles to meet some mates for a mid-season break, and was finally on his own time. No commitments, no fans, no media, no hangers-on. It was the headspace he’d been craving.

Out of contract at the end of 2018 and set to become an F1 free agent for the first time, Ricciardo had been determined to explore every option, even as the speculation over his future intensified by each passing month, and against the backdrop of teammate Max Verstappen committing to Red Bull Racing on a big-money deal until the end of 2020 last October. But the clock was ticking, and the 10 hours crossing the Atlantic gave him pause for thought. It was time to shake things up.

Earlier this month, Ricciardo dropped the bombshell that he’d be leaving Red Bull, home to all seven of his F1 wins since joining the team as the successor to compatriot Mark Webber in 2014, to join Renault, the French manufacturer ramping up its involvement in the sport as constructor in its own right in addition to being a supplier of engines to multiple teams, including Red Bull. It was a move few, certainly not Ricciardo’s current employers, saw coming.

Leaving a race-winning team to move to a midfield outfit with aspirations of reprising its most recent glory days of 2005-06 with Fernando Alonso is, Ricciardo admits, “ballsy”. But the 29-year-old feels it’s a move that’s necessary, both personally and professionally.

“I think a lot of people expected me to take the soft option and stay because they see me as a soft guy,” Ricciardo tells The Age in an exclusive interview.

“I’m maybe perceived as someone who is a friendly guy who wouldn’t push back and make a big decision. It’s good for everyone to see that I have the balls to make a call like this.”

For most of 2018, much of the speculation over Ricciardo’s future focused on Mercedes and Ferrari if he was to leave the only F1 family he’s ever known, his five seasons at Red Bull Racing following a two-year apprenticeship at its sister team, Toro Rosso. Mercedes has been the sport’s dominant team since F1 switched to V6 turbo hybrid engines in 2014, while Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel leading its charge, seemed the squad most likely to knock Mercedes from its perch. But doors that could have flapped open never quite came ajar.

As Ferrari dithered over whether to retain Vettel’s 38-year-old teammate Kimi Raikkonen or promote promising young Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc, Mercedes elected to re-sign Valtteri Bottas to play support act to world champion Lewis Hamilton for a third season in 2019.

With a bottleneck at the top two teams, most expected Ricciardo to stay with Red Bull, where he’s demonstrated an ability to win multiple races in machinery that, in his tenure, has never been capable of a championship push. But a surprise player came onto the scene in the immediate aftermath of Ricciardo’s second win this season, around the streets of Monaco.

“Renault first expressed some interest around then, with Cyril (Abiteboul, Renault F1 managing director) contacting Glenn (Beavis, Ricciardo’s manager),” he says.

“There were several options. I spoke to Renault, I had a couple of meetings with McLaren, and I got to speak with (Red Bull company founder) Dietrich (Mateschitz) in Barcelona and again in Austria.

“Initially, I had it in my mind that I’d be staying (at Red Bull). But the more I thought about starting something different and taking on a new challenge, I got excited. I met with Renault and got a sense for their long-term plan. Obviously I want to win tomorrow, but the strength of Ferrari and Mercedes at the moment means it’s very hard for anyone to take them on in the short-term.”

Ricciardo says Renault didn’t promise him the earth – in fact, the French team did quite the opposite.

“The thing that struck me about Renault was that they were prepared to be honest,” he says.

“Straight away, they said ‘we’re not going to be quicker than Red Bull next year’, but what they told me about their plans for 2020 and for when the next rule changes come in for ’21 … they had some good structure in place, they’re recruiting a lot of good key people, and they’re preparing to win. They have a winning mentality and a realistic way of going about it, which I liked.”

As Renault’s approach became more serious, Ricciardo still had a two-year deal from Red Bull on the table, but something about the thought of standing pat didn’t feel quite right.

“There’s been times this year that I’ve felt exhausted, maybe a bit jaded, and for the first time in my career, not completely enjoying F1,” Ricciardo admits.

“There’s been times when I’ve thought ‘this is why (2016 world champion Nico) Rosberg retired’, and he had it a lot more intense than me. Or why Casey Stoner retired from MotoGP very young. I can see how you could feel burnt out or a bit over it.

“I pushed for a one-year deal which Red Bull agreed to, but still in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure. What if I was in the same position, had the same feeling a year from now? Would there still be other options available? I didn’t want to snooker myself.”

Renault set a deadline for Ricciardo to accept its two-year deal over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in late July, but he needed more time to ponder his options.

“Renault wanted an answer in Budapest, and the Red Bull offer was still there,” he says.

“There was too much going on, so I managed to buy a few more days. But I had to make a call.”

Three days after that race weekend, Ricciardo was in London, bound for LA, and with a decision to make. He’d been on the phone to his manager right up until his flight boarded.

“For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I had 10 hours to myself, didn’t need to be at a race weekend, didn’t need to be at an event, and I was on my own time,” Ricciardo says.

“There was something about being alone on that flight that gave me the clarity I needed. The one thing I kept coming back to was being energised again, wanting a new challenge, and that the chance to change excited me. So as we got phone signal as I was coming into LA, I called Glenn and told him it was Renault.”

Ricciardo met his three friends in LA, and as the quartet headed to Las Vegas for the weekend, spent most of the four-hour drive on the phone.

“The others all went out when we got to Vegas, but I stayed in the hotel because of how exhausted I was,” he says.

“The next morning, I called (Red Bull motorsport adviser) Helmut (Marko) and then (team principal) Christian (Horner). Helmut said he wasn’t too surprised, that he expected it in a way. He said he had a feeling that I wanted to move on. Christian, at first anyway, thought I was taking the piss.

“After I’d made those calls, I felt like a big weight had come off my shoulders straight away. They weren’t easy calls to make. But my instinct was telling me it was right. My gut feel was telling me it was right. I was waiting to have that feeling the whole way through the process as it went for months, and I got it for the first time on that flight to LA. When I finished that last phone call and it was done, I knew. I turned my phone off and left it in the hotel safe for three days …”.

Ricciardo says the decision to leave is “one of the toughest” he’s made in life, not just his racing career.

“It’s been a 10-year journey with Red Bull, I was in their junior program in 2008, so amazing memories and things I’ll always be grateful for, and things I’ll never forget,” he says.

“I’m sad to move on, absolutely, but excited by the challenge at Renault. Personally I felt it was good for me to have a fresh start somewhere else, I think it will be healthy.

“I’ve been pretty stressed all year, and now life feels pretty stress-free.”

An unusual chat with Daniel Ricciardo

The first thing that was weird was that he was early. It’s not that Daniel Ricciardo is late, far from it – as sportspeople go, he’s as prompt as it gets. But on this day, it was odd that he wanted to talk, for a while, and preferably, right now. We’d had countless chats in Grand Prix paddocks and the like, but ghost-writing his driver column for his (soon to be past) employer gives you much more of an insight in to what’s going through his head; no filter, no prying eyes peering, no timetable to keep, no line to toe. We’d done loads of these chats, by FaceTime, in cars, by pools, in motorhomes, at the kitchen table … but this one was different. He was ready, I wasn’t, and the phone rang.

Just as weird: he did way more talking than I did, and he did a lot of it. We talked the recent British GP at Silverstone, where the 2018 cars carried such incredible downforce that some of the sport’s most feared corners had become little more than curved straights. “I know some of the other guys are all about the stopwatch, but I couldn’t give a shit about that really, I just want it to be fun,” he mused, wondering aloud if it should look easy-flat to scythe through Maggots, Becketts etc. We then kicked around some ideas for the latest driver diary, some serious, some not-so. Why don’t we touch on contracts while we’re at it? OK, came the response. What followed was 41 minutes and 50 seconds of audio that was compelling, revelatory, surprising in parts and completely understandable in others. And a column that, now, will never see the light of day. Which for two people’s sake, is probably for the best …

Moving to Renault, whose best-placed driver in multiple Grands Prix has been lapped by the race-winner this season, is a ballsy move. A good one? Way too early to say. But all along, Ricciardo was adamant he was going to explore his first chance at Formula One free agency properly, that he wouldn’t be rushed, that he wanted to canvass every option and that he wanted to take his time. After teammate Max Verstappen re-signed with Red Bull until the end of 2020 in October 2017, the questions over whether Ricciardo would stay or go started in earnest. For months and months. In Melbourne this year for a season that hadn’t started yet, he was being asked more about the next one than the one that was about to begin. Verstappen’s early signature ensured the spotlight shone brightly in his direction, but this was being done on nobody’s timetable but his. It was mentally exhausting and he knew that he “needed to get some time back” after feeling the pinch more this year than ever before. He’s now got a chance to do just that before Belgium in a touch over three weeks’ time – and then the questions will really start …

“It’s the first time I’ve had the position of, I guess you’d call it freedom, and leverage,” he said as we wrapped up. “I wanted to see what happened with that.” Something happened, alright. There’s more, much more, to say here … but for now, it’s time to find that French phrasebook while pondering what a grandstand full of yellow will look like at Albert Park next March.

The Dan Diaries: Memories of Monaco

In his latest driver column, Daniel Ricciardo relives his win at the most famous Grand Prix of all, and the celebrations that took a while to begin …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s been a hectic, hectic time since Monaco. Some good celebrating, I won’t lie (once I got to it, I’ll come back to that). And it’s awesome to finally be a Monaco Grand Prix winner. But I’ve needed some downtime afterwards, so that’s why I’m out in Los Angeles between races, seeing some sun, my parents are here and we’re just taking things quietly. It was required, for sure.

But back to why I had something to celebrate. You probably saw the look I had on my face after the race at Monaco, where you pull up on the start-finish straight and head for that podium, which is pretty unique in the royal box. I was obviously stoked to win, but there were parts of me that were relieved, parts that were exhausted, and parts of me that couldn’t help but think back to two years ago when I should have won there. Sort of felt like it should have been a celebration for a second time.

Mentally, I was fried too. Monaco is always a long week, there’s a lot going on outside of the car, and with practice starting on Thursday there instead of Friday like it does everywhere else, it does take a lot out of you. For me, only Melbourne compares because of the commitments we have, and you add that to the fact it’s in your adopted home as well and there’s so many people around, your energy levels start to run empty. Some of that was self-inflicted, to be fair, because I’d put a lot of pressure on myself all week this year to try to win it. Once I did that, I was gassed.

The race itself, you all know what happened when I had a power issue, and at that stage there were 50 laps until the end. I’m not someone who is superstitious, but the first thought that came into my head was ‘what do I have to do to win this thing?’ I felt the power loss, and as soon as you feel something like that, you’re thinking it’s terminal and there’s no way back. Being in a good position in any race and have something go wrong sucks obviously, but the fact it was Monaco, I was in front like 2016, and it looked like ending badly, you’re not really analysing it, you’re just emotionally flat. The whole weekend had gone so well – quickest on Thursday like 2016, pole like 2016 – that I couldn’t get my head around it ending badly again.

When I lost power in the race, it wasn’t some gradual build-up, it was instant. I felt it and I heard it, I put my foot down and the noise that came back to me wasn’t what I was expecting. It sounded sick, basically. I was around Turn 3, Turn 4, around the Casino Square area when it went. Not cool. But as you saw, we managed it. The team gave me the info that they could without telling the whole world and everyone behind me what the drama was (not easy!) and then it was up to me to make the adjustments, drive differently, keep things under control and keep that track position, which around there is so important. It was a long old 50 laps and I didn’t need that virtual safety car near the end when (Charles) Leclerc and Brendon (Hartley) had their accident, that got the heart rate up a bit. But we got it done. Explains why I felt a bit mentally fried, really.

The celebrations I spoke about? You saw some of them. But the reality of the Sunday celebrations was that they were pretty tame. The whole thing was a whirlwind. After the race, I did my media commitments before walking back onto the Red Bull Energy Station. It was like the Queen had arrived, I got this massive ovation, and then it was straight up to the pool and the photos and video up there that you’ve seen. I had to then run down to my drivers’ room to have a shower to get out of my race suit so I didn’t catch pneumonia, the pool water was freezing! Did two TV interviews, and then I had to go off to this gala dinner with Monaco’s royalty. Got a boat back to my apartment, my Mum was already there getting my suit out and ready for me. I stayed at the dinner until 12.30am, then got back home. I was tired, my mates who were in town for the race had already gone out, but I didn’t have the energy to do the same. So – I’m not joking – had a beer in bed and tried to run through the day in my mind and what had happened. Glamourous, huh?

The good news was that Monday in Monaco is always one of the bigger celebrations of the year, so I caught up with my mates that morning and we enjoyed the day, for sure. I had 10 mates in for the weekend, some from Europe and some from Oz, and I always tell anyone who comes to Monaco to make sure they fly out on Tuesday. It was definitely good to be the reason to celebrate properly this time.

Back to the on-track stuff, and more specifically qualifying, which is one of the coolest sessions of the year. When you’re looking for one absolutely nailed-on lap around there, low fuel, you can thrash the tyres, leave nothing on the table – it’s a massive rush. There were parts of it that had more aggression, more oversteer and that sort of thing, but it was just clean. I knew what I had to do, and I felt like I didn’t need to drive at 101 per cent to get the time out. I was really happy with it, and when I crossed the line after the first lap I did in Q3, the one that got pole for me, I actually asked my race engineer Simon (Rennie) how much faster we were than the others, because it felt like a pole lap. I didn’t need to ask him what position we were, I knew.

We had Pirelli’s hypersoft tyre for the first time in Monaco too, the softest one they’ve had, and we’re using it in Canada next weekend as well. It’s exciting to have a softer tyre that feels like a genuine qualifying-style tyre and will drop off in performance in the race, and looking back to Monaco, it makes me really excited for Canada because we managed it well in the race. In Monaco, the team pitted me and I actually felt there was more performance in it, it wasn’t like I was desperate to get rid of them, and generally I reckon we managed those tyres better than the others. So that could be a really good sign for Canada. That circuit will be hard on them for sure, but hopefully we’re in a better place than the others.

Canada means good memories for me of course with my first win back in ’14, seems like a long time ago now. Strangely enough it hasn’t been a track where I’ve done all that well, I had that win and a third last year, and not a whole lot else. But Montreal is a cool city for us to go to and I like the track, it’s a bit old-school and you have to be able to attack those chicanes and use the kerbs. Of all the places we go to, it’s a bit like Melbourne – semi-permanent street circuit in a public park, the city is close, there’s water, the fans are always there in big numbers and early in the day because there’s always other categories on track … feels a bit like my home race.

There’s nothing like going to the next race weekend when you’ve just won, and I know there’s a lot of chat about whether I’m a genuine title contender now I’ve won two out of the first six races. We’ll have to see about that. If I get another one or two before the mid-season break, then maybe that’s the answer …

The Dan Diaries: Keeping calm to carry on

In his latest driver column, Daniel Ricciardo writes about a China win that came from the clouds, and how an early-season victory has restored his belief. 

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s a good job we didn’t have to race last weekend, and that Azerbaijan wasn’t a back-to-back with China. Last weekend? I was knackered, had some stitches in and pretty much cooked as far as energy goes. Not at my best at all. It’d been a full-on week, not that I was complaining after getting a race win at a Grand Prix where it looked like I wasn’t even going to be able to qualify …

It took me five days to get back to Monaco after winning in Shanghai, and it seriously felt like I was on the go for all five. I wish I had some decent stories of crazy three-day parties and that sort of thing to share with you, but it was about as uneventful as celebrations get. I was on multiple flights connecting the night after the race, went straight into the Red Bull Racing factory at Milton Keynes, had time in the simulator, and then I had to get some minor surgery (OK, so that’s overstating it, but you know what blokes are like).

I had this weird thing with my lip happen in Bahrain the weekend before where I bit it, and it must have got infected or something because I kept biting it over and over. So I had to get that taken out and stitched back up in London, so that – and a fair bit of talking about China – was basically the week after Shanghai. I got back to Monaco last Friday, where I could finally put my feet up.

My celebrating leaves a lot to be desired, I didn’t go too well after Baku last year either. The last win I properly celebrated was Budapest 2014 just before the summer break that year, and that was … yeah, that was messy. I definitely have to lift my game though, I’m either all-in or not at all when it comes to celebrating.

China and what happened just happened so fast. I mean, let’s be honest, the first half of that race was pretty boring – and I was in it! Not a lot was happening from my side, but then Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly had their little moment (I thanked both of them at the airport afterwards!) and the safety car gave us a chance to try something.

I’ll be honest, when we made the call to pit behind the safety car, I thought I’d be quick on the soft tyres, but I didn’t think the win was on. I passed Kimi (Raikkonen) pretty quickly, then Max (Verstappen) opened the door and I immediately latched on to Lewis (Hamilton). At that point I recognised the car’s speed and knew the win was on. I went dead-silent on the radio from there. I basically didn’t say anything until I got past (Valtteri) Bottas for the lead, and then I probably carried on a bit. But I was really calm, which might be a surprise – you might think I’d be so full of adrenaline or aggression or whatever, and be a bit hyper. I knew what could be done, and just had to get it done. I’m fired up, sure, but Shanghai was just crazy calm for some reason. I knew what I needed to do and didn’t get overly excited about it, and I’d doubt my heart rate got above 120 (beats per minute) for that run from sixth to first. I felt super-chilled in there.

What surprised me in China was how quickly I got to the front. I’d been pretty quiet on the radio until that time as I was passing people, so I asked (race engineer) Simon (Rennie) how far we had to go once I’d taken the lead, and couldn’t believe it was still 11 laps or so. What was I supposed to do with 11 laps? I pushed initially to create a gap, but then started managing it, and that’s when your mind can start to wander. You have all this adrenaline after a carrot like a race win gets dangled in front of you, and then it’s like ‘what now?’ Driving on the limit is easier. You’re much more present. The day before, we’d had the turbo failure, so every time I started on that long back straight in China on those last 11 laps I was thinking ‘I hope I don’t hear any funny noises like yesterday …’. When you start to cruise and manage a gap, you think about that sort of thing. When I was hunting the others down, not once.

I got asked a bit about the Bottas pass for the lead, in that why did I go for it where I did into Turn 6 when I probably could have waited until later in the lap where I had an advantage with DRS, or even on another lap seeing as though we were a fair way from the end. Both fair calls, but there was more at stake than just that one pass. The way I saw it, you need to set your intentions. I’d been asked in the press earlier in China about Valtteri’s race in Bahrain where he’d had a chance to attack Seb (Sebastian Vettel) on the last lap and what I thought about it, and so in my mind I had no choice. I had a chance, so I had to have a go. I’d talked the talk, so I had to walk it …

When I crossed the line, that chilled side changed, and I ran through a lot of emotions for the next hour or so. Went pretty crazy in the car of course, the podium was quite emotional, I had a few lines for Martin (Brundle) in the interview, and then I was a bit reflective for a while. I had not just the 24 hours before that moment on my mind, but the week before when I’d done one lap in Bahrain and had to retire. I was actually really flat after that, and seven days later, here I am winning a race after overtaking both Ferraris, both Mercedes and my teammate in about 10 laps.

I always believe in myself and I believe I can do it, but you have a race like Bahrain and you’re thinking that no matter how hard you work, it can be taken away, and that can be massively frustrating and really get to you. I know it’s not personal and it’s out of my control, but it can still take a toll. Saturday morning in China with the engine, it didn’t look like we were going to get out for qualifying at all, but the boys did an amazing job and we just made it. And then out of nowhere you win, everyone’s going nuts … It was a whole mix of things that left me happy and made me emotional at the same time.

Being able to prove that the belief I still have in myself and what I can do when I’m given the chance means something, so it was all of those things wrapped into one. I was a bit run-down as well with the time zone changes – we’re in Oz, pretty much on the same time as China, and then we go back to Bahrain and basically back on European time for a weekend and then head to China – the calendar makes no sense to me at all. So everything aligned to make me more emotional than I usually am when I win.

Would you be shocked to know that winning a race meant I got asked about 1000 more times about my contract for next year, as if winning made it any more clear about who I’ll be driving for? Nah, me neither. To be honest, since Max re-signed with the team last year, the same question has been coming non-stop. I’ll see if I can answer the same questions another way this weekend too. Wish me luck …

Speaking of the weekend, it’s about time to head to Baku. It’s always good to go back to somewhere where the last time you were there, something good happened. Like Grand Prix-winning good! It doesn’t do anything to your confidence as such, but there is a certain feeling that comes with being somewhere where, in the past, you were the best on one day out of everyone. I’ve never won a race so early in a season before, so being right in the mix with a win under my belt already is pretty good for the fourth race of the season. I’m ready to go. Two in a row isn’t too much to ask for, is it?