F1 frontline: December 2017

The whole of Formula 1 benefits from Daniel Ricciardo’s friendly persona, but critics and rivals should beware of underestimating the Australian

The toothy smiles and the jokes, the overwhelming sense of fun, the silly stunts, are rarely more than a look away when Daniel Ricciardo is around. An eternal 13-year-old in a grown man’s body. It’s refreshing in an F1 scene that has rarely projected the idea that the participants are actually having fun. But for Ricciardo it’s not a show, it’s his natural way; the only him he is capable of being. But, it’s also his shield from the world. When his default face is silly wide grin it’s impossible to know what’s really going on inside, which is a valuable piece of armoury in a sport that is incredibly mentally demanding. Pressure is a constant in F1 and you’re either on your way up and dishing it out or you’ve peaked – temporarily or otherwise – and are trying to withstand it. The talent and ambition help create the opportunities and, if you’re of the right stuff and get the good breaks, you might end up in a title-contending car. The trick is not to let the momentum stall as you’re on your way to that position – which isn’t always in your hands.

Everything in Ricciardo’s F1 career to date has been on this upward trajectory – HRT to Toro Rosso to Red Bull, to seeing off Sebastian Vettel and winning races with a wonderful blend of racecraft, smarts, audacity and speed – though it’s happened a little slower than he’d have liked. It was unfortunate that his Red Bull chance coincided with the advent of turbo hybrids and Red Bull’s consequent loss of title-winning momentum. But outperforming an incumbent quadruple champion surely answered any questions about his ultimate level.

This was the first time any significant check had been applied to Vettel’s ever-upward career trajectory – and that pressure definitely told on Seb. Competitive with an intensity unusual even by F1 standards, Vettel was driving out of his skin to overturn things in 2014 – and still there would be the new guy from the other side of the garage going faster and taking less from his tyres. This couldn’t be happening to him. But it was. What was surely making it worse was the new guy was making it all look so easy, big stupid grins, jokes with everyone – even Seb couldn’t help liking him, damn him!

After hastening Vettel’s departure to fresh pastures, Ricciardo dominated his young-gun replacement Daniil Kvyat to such an extent and so relentlessly that the gifted, brave Russian suffered something close to a mental breakdown after being stood down from the main team after just a season and a bit. Pressure. In came 18-year-old Max Verstappen alongside Ricciardo instead, the Dutch whirlwind with a huge reputation, a Gilles Villeneuve-like ability instantly to find the limits and an attacking style that blended supreme racecraft with ambush-style overtaking that matched even Ricciardo’s. How would this play out? Daniel raised an inner eyebrow at the hype and fuss surrounding the youngster’s arrival in the main team in time for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix. Suddenly Ricciardo got a glimpse of how it might have felt for Vettel when he’d arrived there. But he was looking forward to it – to challenging the implicit assumption that the new kid would do to him what he’d done to Vettel. This was positive pressure – and he played it beautifully. Keeping his powder dry in the first two sessions made it appear as if Verstappen had instantly outpaced him – before then producing a single Q3 lap that left the youngster gasping more than 0.3sec behind. The screaming celebration in the cockpit on Ricciardo’s in-lap told everything of the competitive reality behind the jokey exterior.

Verstappen went on to win the race, of course. But not really on merit. Caught between a strategic rock and hard place, Red Bull threw the dice – and it fell Max’s way rather than Ricciardo’s. He was unimpressed, but perhaps even more motivated. Which was the perfect state of mind coming into the Monaco weekend when he was in scintillating form, taking his first pole with a dazzling display of virtuosity between the walls. It made Verstappen look just like a talented but inexperienced kid. So when Ricciardo lost the race to his team not having his tyres ready at his pit stop, we finally saw the grin stop. He looked ready to punch someone on the rostrum, but kept it all together.

For 2019 he’s a free agent for the first time in his F1 career and already there is talk of a bidding war building between Mercedes and Ferrari for his services. So it’s a bad time to be getting outshaded by Verstappen, as he has been for the last few races. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the jokey demeanour hasn’t clouded over in the slightest – in the Malaysia press conference there he was throwing water over the guy who had just soundly beaten him, then further joking in Japan after suffering another defeat to him. But actually, it’s deflection of pressure.

If that grin suddenly soured up or the manner became in the least tetchy, there’d be an oncoming assault of questions about his form, and the more he either answered or didn’t answer, the more it would be taken that the pressure had got to him.

He’s an extremely clever operator – and there are many tricks in his book, not all of them jokes. While many talked of how Verstappen had definitively established the upper hand now, they should recall that it’s very dangerous to write off ‘the honey badger’.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation