The smiling assassin

In the slipstream of four straight world titles, the past 18 months have been difficult by Red Bull Racing’s customary standards. Amid the fug of political turmoil, however, Daniel Ricciardo has emerged smiling… and with his reputation enhanced

That great wide Ricciardo grin throws people off the scent, can lead the uninitiated to assume he’s a pussy cat. He’s an assassin. The guy who last year arrived in the enclave of a quadruple world champion and instantly outpaced him – surely playing a significant part in Sebastian Vettel’s switch to Ferrari – has always understood how good he is, always known exactly how to direct that talent. 

“If I’m honest,” he says in reply to how he expected to compare with Vettel, “I didn’t go in there expecting to get beat regularly – I knew I’d be close and I expected to give him a run for his money. But did I expect three wins to zero? No. Once I started doing it, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it and I was able to keep that intensity.” 

But if it was pretty easy to appear happy last year as he took those first three Grand Prix victories, outperformed Vettel and made Red Bull his own, this year he’s had less cause to grin – but he’s done so anyway. 

The Red Bull has been less competitive, partly because Renault has fallen further behind but also because the RB11 was initially not as good aerodynamically as the RB10, and so there’s been only a single sniff of a possible win – and that went up in a shower of carbon shards as his front wing was snagged by Nico Rosberg’s rear wheel in Hungary. On top of all that, at the time of writing he didn’t even know if his team was going to be in F1 next year as the Red Bull engine crisis played out. Still the grin. It traverses the whole width of his face and quite a bit of its length. 

Partly it’s to do with total confidence. He knows he’ll be in demand, that his status as one of the top three or four in the world ensures that. But it would be untrue to say the knocks of this season have left him unaffected. “The first few races were probably the hardest because I came into the season thinking I was going to be fighting for wins and the title. Then to be experiencing all the problems we faced while Seb had jumped ship and started winning pretty much straight away – that was hard to take.”

Those smiles are genuine, his default, but they are also his shield. He is a genuine happy-go-lucky spirit, with a natural informality that covers a full-on intensity about his racing and total self-belief. It’s a combination that invites comparison to one of his early heroes Valentino Rossi. This is a guy who, when he left Perth for Europe as an 18-year-old to compete in the 2007 Italian Formula Renault championship, had as his target a place on a funded junior driver programme. If he could just do that, he knew he would be on his way. “At Monza that year I got myself into the F1 paddock and was introduced to Helmut [Marko]. About a month later I got an e-mail from Red Bull Austria saying, ‘Saw your results this year, we’d like you to test in Estoril in November.’ That e-mail was already, like, ‘mission accomplished’. I hadn’t done the test yet and as high a pressure as it was – and it really was make or break for me – it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It just felt like it was supposed to be.” That confidence and belief has continued to carry him. It’s a level of belief that in other great drivers is often perceived as arrogance. If we want to give it that name in Daniel’s case, fine. But it’s difficult to perceive it that way when it’s so sugar-coated by that light persona. 

“Yeah, well I didn’t have a plan to be the kid that makes everyone laugh. My plan was to try and remain as normal as possible. I could see from the outside that F1 can be a very intense and serious environment at times. Serious doesn’t always go well with me and I thought if I can liven it up I will. It’s just me being me. I was always a bit of a kid, even at school with jokes and stuff. If you’re having fun it’s easier to enjoy your job.” It’s not just that he’s always smiling; he will invariably be the one up for a silly prank or a funny video and he has friends in virtually every team in the paddock from catering staff through to senior engineers. In ordinary life he’d be seen as just a fun guy. In the sterile and serious environment of the F1 paddock he’s like a breath of fresh air. 

The competitive ferocity and inner conviction of his level are worn lightly, almost invisibly. But it’s all there and underscored by a lovely, flowing way with a racing car. He’s very much at ease with oversteer, but the inputs are always silky. Watching him from trackside last year, his wouldn’t be the Red Bull that was aggressively pitched into the corner – that would be Seb. But his wouldn’t be the Red Bull with its twitchy rear end being nervously corrected into the slow corners either; instead there would be a much more flowing transition, the slides allowed to play out more. This style was sometimes seen to devastating effect, even through high-speed corners in the wet – and his qualifying lap in such conditions in Shanghai last year, half a second quicker than Vettel, owed much to that. He’s similarly smoother with the car than this year’s team-mate Daniil Kvyat. He hypnotises lap time from it with his silky inputs, but even when it does wake up in alarm and protest, he’s able to go confidently with even very high-speed yaw, dampened down with a sensitive throttle foot.

After a few races of generally being shaded by Ricciardo last year, Vettel was asked about it in Montréal and replied: “When I’d look at the overlays with Mark [Webber], I could see he was often faster than me through the quick corners but I was usually better than him in the others – and there were more slower corners than fast ones. With Daniel he just seems to be a little bit faster everywhere. There’s not one thing I can put my finger on.”

“I could see it affected him,” Daniel says of Vettel’s reaction to being outperformed. “Just in small things like body language. It’s never nice being on the wrong side of a team-mate comparison. It sucks. I expected him to lose his temper a bit or show frustration, but he was pretty composed and he always showed me respect. He was probably a better sportsman than I could’ve been in that situation.” 

So what was it he was doing in the car? “In the junior categories I always liked a car sliding around, oversteering, not using too much steering angle, having the car move around the steering, almost. You could afford to do it because the tyres were so robust, you didn’t have to worry about tyre wear. Now in F1 it’s the opposite and you’re looking for a lot of rear grip. Not only does it save the tyres but you’re using the power efficiently. When it does slide you’ve got to go with it and that finesse is important, but in terms of lap time more rear downforce is always where it’s at with these tyres.”

That was another thing that left Vettel confused in 2014: “How come he goes faster and uses less tyre than me?” 

Ricciardo says, “Actually there’s a skill to getting the best from these Pirellis. I can adapt. If you switched to a tyre that had massive grip with more of a stop/start technique required I think I’d figure it out. But the finesse, that sort of… the Pirelli isn’t the sort of tyre you can just smash into and get on the power. You have to sort of talk to it through the corner and I’d say my sort of feeling probably helps. In the last 18 months tyre wear has been one of my strong points. You talk to it through the corner, you can feel it, subtle little corrections. It’s good fun.”

Last year this all came together with a great, attacking racing style, big confident moves under braking – dummying one side and braking late down the other. It was seen to best effect in the moves he pulled in Austin last year on both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, but everywhere he raced with a visibly uninhibited freewheeling style, his judgment impeccable. It answered the remaining question marks about him from his rookie Toro Rosso spell, when he invariably qualified the car higher up than he finished in it. But early this year, those big moves weren’t happening. “That’s true,” he responds, “and it was all to do with braking. The way last year’s car stopped, you could throw it around under braking and it would stay stable. That had gone at the start of the year. It was China, so many moves I tried I locked up and went wide. From outside it looked like I’d forgotten how to overtake. But I just didn’t have the tools that allowed me to do what I’d been doing last year. We then reverted to something more conventional under braking – in terms of mechanical balance, stiffness of the car – more like what we had last year, and the feeling is back. We’re able to overtake again.”

The Red Bull RB11 in fact was not such a great car for the first half of the season, even aside from an engine that had fallen further behind as Renault Sport struggled to control a piston-destroying resonance. “We weren’t seeing the sort of high-speed downforce advantage that we’d had the year before,” he explained earlier this year. Since Silverstone, with a key change to the front wing philosophy, it’s been behaving more like Red Bulls of old, with devastating high-speed corner grip. 

But with his braking difficulties and the car’s lacklustre performance in the season’s first half, Daniel Ricciardo the sensation of 2014 was much less visible. The low point came in Montréal where he was narrowly outqualified by Kvyat and then beaten in the race by 30sec. “I want to throw myself in the river,” he said afterwards. With a grin, but the pain and confusion were real. He’d bottled up a lot of frustration about the season to date and Montréal’s low ebb brought it all out.  

Actually Montréal was the exception in the Kvyat comparison. The engines were initially so unreliable that one or the other of the pair invariably had a major problem to carry. In Australia, China and Bahrain it was Kvyat with the engine dramas. In Barcelona it was Ricciardo. Of those first five races, only in Malaysia – where Ricciardo was 0.4sec faster – was a comparison possible. In Monaco Ricciardo was 0.1sec ahead. Montréal was the first time he’d been genuinely outqualified by Kvyat (albeit by only 0.02sec). 

“I was hoping in the aftermath of Montréal there’d be something in terms of ‘that was broken on the car’ but there wasn’t. It was a combination of lots of little things that I guess all added up. It wasn’t the one big thing I’d been hoping for. In the end it made sense. After Montréal I got quite a few things off my chest in terms of frustration. It was like a reset-mode approach. I’d come into the season expecting great things. But after Montréal I changed my expectations and since then it’s been a lot better. I’m in a good place now.” Together with the improvements in the car, it’s given him a much stronger second half. Keeping the comparison with Kvyat going, only in Austria (where Ricciardo went with a Monza-style wing, concentrating on raceability) and Monza (where he didn’t make a full-on attack lap in Q2 because he was so loaded down with engine penalties it would have made no difference) was the young Russian ahead. At the time of writing, there had been nine races where a genuine comparison was possible – and Ricciardo was faster in eight of them. By an average of about 0.2sec.  

The best result to this point was a strong second from the front row at Singapore, coming back at leader Vettel but being thwarted by safety car timings. But he reckons his best race was Hungary – where he was challenging for victory, and looking in good shape to achieve it with a late-race restart when he was on faster tyres than the two cars ahead of him, Rosberg and Vettel. The touch with Rosberg meant a trip to the pits for a new nose and a third place finish behind Kvyat. But he was elated regardless. “I don’t count that as a failure. I would have been much more annoyed with myself if I’d left the track having not tried something that was maybe possible than having tried it but it not having come off. Besides, I think the incident was much more down to Nico than me. The background to it was that I could see Seb [in the lead] wasn’t very far ahead. If I could just get past Nico, then I was pretty sure I’d easily get past Seb. The Mercedes was going to be more difficult to pass than the Ferrari because its end-of-straight speeds were a lot higher. So with Nico I had to try something extreme. Time was running out. If I didn’t do it then I was going to run out of time in which to catch Seb.

“There were so many times when I was a kid in karting where I left the track kicking myself thinking ‘what would have happened if I’d tried this move or that instead of concentrating on finishing’. I don’t ever want to leave a track thinking that. You saw last year every opportunity I got I took and it worked out. Sometimes you’ve just got to try it. And yes you need the confidence in the car to do it. But the way I’ve raced in the last 18 months is the way I enjoy races and it’s given me success, so I’m happy to keep doing that.”

But which team will he be doing it for in 2016? “I’m pretty confident I’ll be racing a Red Bull,” he says. “I’m not worried so much as curious about how it’s going to be resolved. But I’ll be racing, I’m sure.”