Team: Red Bull Racing World Champ Titles: 0 GP wins: 2 Pole positions: 0
September 2013 announcement by Red Bull that the young Aussie from their sister team Toro Rosso would be replacing departing Mark Webber in the second-driver’s seat was a bit of a post-summer-break surprise to the F1 world. The spot with the three-time constructors’ champion had been in high demand ever since Webber’s announcement, with title holders Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso rumoured to have been showing interest in changing colours to blue. Sure, Daniel Ricciardo had by then proven he was quick, but the question the team wanted answered was: would he be able to challenge his four-time champion team-mate on the grid?
Today, mid-way though the Aussie’s maiden season at Red Bull, the answer is clear: he’s better than that.
Natural Born Winner
He has the most recognisable and infectious smile in the paddock and seems to take full joy out of the simple fact of being able to race in one of the best cars on the grid.
When in winter testing his new team-mate struggled to control his frustration with Renault engines and overall package reliability, the boy from Perth looked out in hope to the first race of the season – his home grand prix. It was that early into his Red Bull career that Ricciardo sealed the deal on his coveted seat, firstly by qualifying second on the grid and then by crossing the line on Sunday just behind the race winner.
“Two or three weeks ago I would have bet pretty everything I have that we would not be standing up here,” Ricciardo said from the Melbourne podium.
“Full credit to the team for an unbelievable turnaround. I don’t understand how they did it but they did, so thank you guys. No words. I’m trippin’ balls right now.”
The joy of the moment was short lived, as the Aussie was stripped of his trophy several hours later, when an FIA investigation established Red Bull had breached the new 2014 regulations by “consistently” exceeding the fuel flow limit of 100kg/h.
The team appealed the ruling, and lost, but never stopped praising the junior for his efforts.
And that was just the beginning.
The result of the Hungarian GP – the last race before the summer break– has left many astounded and many more convinced that Ricciardo was on his path to join the sport’s league of legends. While everyone’s eyes were focused on Lewis Hamilton, who in superb style progressed from the pitlane to challenge his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg for the lead, the Aussie fought his own battles to take everyone by surprise and storm to the front in the closing stages of the race.
As he stood there on the Hungaroring podium, with two-time champion Alonso (who had given the Aussie a hard time that day and one week earlier in Germany, providing the crowds with top-notch entertainment as the two raced wheel-to-wheel) to his right, and 2008 title holder Lewis Hamilton to his left, Ricciardo looked like one of the champions.
Although the chances for that are slim this season, considering the advantage the two Mercedes boys have racked up over the rest of the grid, Ricciardo has so far been the only driver this year capable of snatching the top podium spot from the Silver Arrows.
Adding to that a fully legitimate win in Canada, plus three podium finishes throughout the season so far, Ricciardo has firmly placed himself behind Rosberg and Hamilton in the championship standings – three places and 43 points ahead of his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel.
“I came into the season knowing what I had around me and if I could use it all, I could challenge Seb,” Ricciardo told the BBC ahead of the British GP.
“Did I think it would be 6-2 in qualifying and I would be leading him in the championship? Probably not.
“It’s been reassuring. I’ve always believed in my ability but to go out and do it does a lot for your confidence.”
Right place, about time
Daniel’s Red Bull breakthrough came at a time when no one was certain what to expect from the new turbo-charged era in Formula 1. So, while getting to grips with a completely new car was going to be the case for Ricciardo regardless of any change in regulations, Vettel struggled with what felt and drove much differently to the machine that has claimed him four most recent titles.
It would be unfair to blame the German for signs of frustration when many of the issues that prevented him from finishing a race in a top spot have been of no fault of his own. Nevertheless, Vettel’s demise has been welcomed by the paddock and the fans, who were glad to see the end of a one-man-show, as demonstrated by the 2013 season – even if the reality changed only slightly with Mercedes domination. So the echos of last year’s Multi-21 affair rang loud and clear during the Chinese GP, when the German was reluctant to let his “faster” team-mate pass, despite being ordered to do so by the team. “Tough luck” he said, before eventually allowing Ricciardo to finish ahead of him, in fourth. Little did he know that from there the only way was up for the Aussie.
Happy to be of service
Racing next to a four-time champion could be nerve-wracking for a young driver, but Daniel’s upbeat personality and pure passion for racing result in confident performance on the grid. But despite sometimes demonstrating a simplistic mentality of “I just want to race,” the Aussie has proved there is much more to him than just agility on the track.
“Daniel has been massively impressive this year,” said Adrian Newey, Red Bull technical boss. “He has certainly exceeded all our expectations.
“What I find amazing about him is how calm he is in the car. When he’s on the radio it’s like he’s sitting down with a cup of tea and driving one-handed. It’s quite remarkable.
“He’s very calm, collected, takes everything in his stride, and he’s really enjoying his job.”
That says a lot about a 25 year old, who just a year earlier was driving a midfield car, not knowing whether it would be himself or his team-mate Jean Eric Vergne who had the upper hand in a potential promotion to the elusive mother-Bull seat in the foreseeable future.
“To be honest, it’s something I hear at the beginning of every season: ‘this season is a big year’ or ‘it’s an important season’. I mean, they all are,” Ricciardo commented on his Red Bull chances during 2013 pre-season testing.
“It’s got to a point now that I’ve gone through enough ‘important seasons’ that no one season is more important than the other.
“I think I’ve approached the last few seasons in the right way to obviously get to F1 and it’s not like you change your approach or anything.
“It’s just go and do what you know and just try to keep improving. Let experience show you the way.”
Ricciardo’s transition could not have gone without comparisons being drawn to his predecessor and fellow countryman, Mark Webber. When Red Bull swapped one Aussie for another, the team was looking for a strong performer who would continue to challenge their star driver. But while the cracks in the works between Vettel and Webber became all too evident last year, the new Aussie is so far winning the German’s support.
It seems, however, that Ricciardo can do without it. Judging by that ear-to-ear smile, arms flexed in a victor’s gesture, crowds cheering him on as he clenches a trophy on one of the podium steps – the Aussie looks motivated enough to keep those top points coming – no further encouragement required.