The driver is much more than just the guy who presses the pedals and turns the wheel, trying to do it better than all the others doing the same. He’s also the embodiment of the team’s hopes and ambitions, the guy that can spark a whole different vibe to the factory and garage. Not all of them get this, don’t grasp what this extra dimension to their power can be. Some bring that inspiration simply through their on-track performances. But Daniel Ricciardo understands the full spectrum – and works it beautifully, but naturally. To see him stand in front of the Renault Enstone workforce at the launch of the new car was to understand this. Behind the clowning, grinning and silly quips, the ‘I’m just one of you guys’ informality of his interactions with absolutely anyone, he carries the innate certainty of his own special ability. All those fabricators, machinists, rapid prototyping operators and model makers know this guy is going to represent them in battle and they are going to want to help him.

Nico Hülkenberg, here two years already, and thus lacking any exciting novelty, followed him up on stage and said all the right things. He’s well liked and a formidably fast driver. But as a naturally less exuberant character than Ricciardo, and without the authenticating sequence of grand prix victories behind him, the difference in response from the gathered crowd was noticeable; still respectful and supportive, but less wowed.

“The dream is getting the team back to winning”

Ricciardo has had the same effect wherever he’s been. But the arrival in his Red Bull patch of that force of nature Max Verstappen played its part in Daniel’s switch to an ostensibly less competitive team. Yet there was absolutely nothing of surrender about him as he chatted pre-season.

Among the kaleidoscope of factors in his mind as he wrestled with the choice between Red Bull and Renault, had the aftermath of last year’s Baku collision with Verstappen played a part? “That was part of it,” he admits. “I didn’t want to hold a grudge and move for that reason and I couldn’t tell you how many pieces made up the puzzle but I guess that was one of them. We both got a talking to, putting it politely. In my eyes, the incident itself I felt like I was not really in the wrong. I think most people saw the double move [by Verstappen] and even before that there was a lot of contact and it went on too long. I guess the way it was handled at the time didn’t sit too well with me. It was a little thing that bothered me, but wasn’t the deal breaker. I understand handling the media – and I get that Red Bull is a big brand, too. But I felt that there was equal blame for what I felt wasn’t an equal-blame incident.” As a 29-year-old professional, maybe part of him felt belittled by that aftermath. Maybe that gave the whole idea of establishing his own environment, dictating his own terms, added appeal.

In the process, it’s given Renault an inspirational superstar at perhaps an earlier stage in the team’s evolution than it expected. “Once it was clear he might be available, what was I to do?” says team principal Cyril Abiteboul. “If I said ‘oh we’re not ready, so thank you, no,’ how could I ask the people in the race bays to work harder, do the extra hours? It would suggest I didn’t have faith in myself or in Renault.”

“The dream is getting the team back to winning,” says Ricciardo, the grin disappearing. “That’s the big dream and definitely part of what inspired me. I’m trying to use Lewis as an example – what he did when he left McLaren for Mercedes. I’m well aware that Red Bull is probably going to be in front of us when we get to Melbourne. But we’re on a different journey. The gap to the top three is pretty big and I don’t want to settle for fourth forever, but since 2016 their trajectory has been awesome. Ideally we will close that gap, make inroads. That would be a successful year.

“I feel like I’m happy. I feel motivated, a new fresh motivation. Everyone I’ve talked to here feels the same. I’m excited to be here, to create something, and they’re excited to have me.”

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