In his final exclusive driver column of the year, Daniel Ricciardo looks back at his 2017 season – and opens the door on his thoughts about his F1 future.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
It’d been a while since I’d been back home in Monaco, so the main priorities were to check that the lights still worked and that the heater could be cranked up, because it had got bloody cold since I was here last. Tick and tick. And then it was time to exhale for a bit before getting going one last time for 2017. The back-end of the year is always pretty hectic, and I hadn’t been home much since before Singapore, back in mid-September. Saying that, I could probably use some more driving, because I didn’t get to do a lot of it the longer the year went.
Abu Dhabi wasn’t a great way to end the season for all of us, and I’m not just saying that because I had to retire. After I’d fended off Kimi (Raikkonen) early on, I was driving around and just about hanging on to Seb (Sebastian Vettel) in front of me, but probably didn’t have the pace to follow him in his dirty air and pass him. Fourth looked like the best it could have got, and I was genuinely thinking about the viewers, because it was pretty dull. The combination of the track layout there and how hard it is for these cars to run close to each other, it just didn’t work. Definitely wasn’t much of a spectacle. I don’t 100 per cent know why the track doesn’t produce great racing, but I think that when you have a slow corner leading onto a long straight like we do there in a couple of places, and when the DRS zone starts – in my opinion anyway – too late, then you end up with these static races where not a lot happens. The cars this year – wider, bigger tyres, more disturbed air behind – were always going to make this one tough. It was worse than we feared, most probably. Not getting any points didn’t help my mood, to be fair.
Retiring early again was pretty hard to take, especially after I’d qualified well. I pitted earlier than I wanted to because I thought I had a flat tyre, but because it happened pretty quickly and because I was sure I hadn’t run over any debris or something, I feared it was something more than that. Turns out I was right. I got back out there and then after a few corners, I could feel the steering was getting a bit weird and quite heavy, and that’s when I knew we had a hydraulics problem. The gears start to go, and there’s no coming back from there.
It’s pretty normal to start to feel the energy wearing down towards the end of the season, because we do a lot of travel in a short time and some back-to-backs. After the race in Abu Dhabi, and maybe I was a bit flatter because of how it finished for me, I had no interest in doing much. A few people in the team were going out to celebrate the end of the season and all that, but I knew I was testing at Yas Marina on the Tuesday, and just wasn’t up for it at all. With the way the season ended, there wasn’t heaps to celebrate anyway. Since Japan, a lot happened, but not a lot of it was good. Three DNFs in the last four races and only a sixth in Brazil to show for it – you know things are bad when Brazil is the highlight of the last few races, because I’d never had a strong run there in the past.
It was a pretty grisly way to end the season, and when it finishes like that with no decent results from the last few, there’s a tendency to think it was average. But I went back through all the races in my head over the last week, and it was pretty good in parts, really strong at some stages. I won a race, I had runs of five and three podiums in a row, held off Lewis (Hamilton) to get third in Austria … there was some good stuff there. It was very up and down though, and the DNF’s hurt both Max (Verstappen) and me – we had 13 between us, Mercedes had just one with (Valtteri) Bottas in Spain and Ferrari had five, and the crash at the start in Singapore was a big factor there. Too many for us, really.
There was too much inconsistency for me to call it an amazing season or a bad one. The reliability was inconsistent and for me, in qualifying – I put in some of my standard laps, but there were other times where we were left scratching our heads like Mexico, where I was fastest on Friday and then a second off pole on Saturday. Still doesn’t completely make sense now, that one.
For me, it’s geography rather than time that makes me feel in my mind that I can switch off, and that’s coming. I did the last race, tested for a day, went to Baku to do some promo work for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, flew back to Monaco, and by the time you read this, I’ll be back in the UK for a week for Red Bull’s Christmas party, time in the simulator and some other things. And then I’m done.
There’s something about that last flight back to Oz from London and when you cross the equator – then you’re on your time and you can completely breathe again. The plan is to get back to Western Australia, not get on a plane except for when I go to Brendon Hartley’s wedding in January, and get away for a bit. Some mates of mine have rented a place away from the city and hopefully where there’s some bad mobile reception! That’s what I’m hanging out for. I feel I need to relax and go back recharged more than spending a month or so trying to do too much when I’m back in Perth, because next year is a big one for me. They’re all big, but there’s a bit going on other than just the driving.
By the time we all turn up in Barcelona at the end of February, I’ll probably be answering a million questions about what I’ll be doing after 2018 when my contract runs out. Which I’m completely prepared for, I get it. I’m actually a bit surprised how much it has been discussed already – not like it was new news that I’m up at the end of ’18 – but I guess Max re-signing with the team took the focus off him and sent it in my direction. It hasn’t been a distraction yet, but the longer it takes, the more people will ask the same questions 200 different ways – and I’ll need to come up with different ways to answer them the same way!
So where do things stand? The short answer is that there’s absolutely no rush, and things can take as long as they take – I’m not setting a deadline for anyone else’s sake, or just to get it done for me. I’m not just going to settle on something because I want it to be off my mind, because there’s a lot at stake. It’s a big decision for me, so if I need to take time to make it, I will. I’m planning on being in the sport for a long while yet, but in saying that, if I was to sign, say, a three-year deal, that’s a big chunk of the next part of my career. I need to get it right, so it’s a big call – the most important one for me yet, I think. I’ll take as much time as I need to. It’s not going to be a distraction.
I’m 29 next year and the next deal will take me into my 30s, so it’s not like I’m the young unproven kid who’ll sign anything just to get on the grid, or at the other end of my career when I’m hanging on and doing things year by year (I don’t ever want to get to that stage, I can’t see myself being that guy). You look at Lewis and when he did his Mercedes deal, he was the same age as I am now if I remember correctly. He was already doing very well where he was, but his career has really taken off since then. So, there’s a lot to consider.
You can get caught up in too many opinions with this, so I’ll use some people close to me as a sounding board and kick it around with some friends just to have the conversation, but I don’t like to have too many people getting involved. It has to come from me, I’m the one who has to live it. I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box, if you like. Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful – races, championships – that’s the absolute priority. It’s not even close.
Being in the position to make the decision is something cool, something unusual, and something where I feel like I’ll probably learn a lot. No matter what happens, it’ll be a growing experience for me because it’s something I’ve not been through. It’ll be nice to stand on my own two feet and make some grown-up decisions. Maybe even act like an adult! It’s all part of the evolution, I’m told …