Daniel in the lion's den

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Formula 1’s most coveted spare seat has passed from one Australian to another. How is Daniel Ricciardo likely to fare at Red Bull? We asked some of those who know him best

Writer, Simon Arron

Serial Championship winner Trevor Carlin had just flown in to join his team at Albacete, Spain, for a test ahead of the 2009 British Formula 3 season. “Our car had yet to turn a wheel when I arrived,” he says, “but already the engineers were saying, ‘This new bloke’s going to be bloody good’.

He’d taken them around in a road car the previous day, but despite not knowing the circuit had the place sussed straight away. He impressed us from minute one.”

That ‘new bloke’ was Daniel Ricciardo.

Fast-forward to the year’s end and — British F3 title duly clinched — Ricciardo was back in Spain, this time participating in Formula 1’s official young driver test at Jerez, with Red Bull. A couple of days later I bumped into team principal Christian Homer at an awards ceremony in London. Our paths crossed on the steps as he was heading for a cab, me for a soggy stroll to the tube. Conversation was necessarily brief, but there was time for Homer to conjure a few nuggets from Jerez. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “Daniel Ricciardo looks bloody good…”

The 24-year-old’s promotion to a full-time Red Bull seat was confirmed last September, after weeks of fervent speculation in the wake of Mark Webber’s pre-British GP announcement that he was quitting F1 in favour of a long-term World Endurance Championship contract with returnee Porsche. Ricciardo’s name was instantly in the frame, along with those of his Toro Rosso team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne and Lotus metronome Kimi Raikkonen (although Homer briefly implied that Fernando Alonso might be in the mix, too, a timely bit of mischief rather than a serious proposition). Realistically, though, it was a straight fight between Ricciardo and the Finn.

“Having considered all the options,” Homer says, “Adrian Newey, Dietrich Mateschitz, Helmut Marko and I weren’t just looking for someone who’d do the best job for us in Melbourne at the start of 2014 — we wanted to consider the longer term and felt Daniel was the right choice.

“Foremost and utmost he has the speed — and last summer’s Silverstone tyre test reaffirmed that. He put in a very impressive performance. That was enough to sway the pendulum.

“We don’t know how good or bad the 2013 Toro Rosso might be, but we’ve seen Daniel consistently drag his car into the top 10 on the grid when we suspect it probably shouldn’t be there. And at Silverstone we ran him back to back against Sebastian Vettel with the same chassis, same tyres, same fuel load and very similar track conditions. He performed exceptionally well.”

Ricciardo accumulated a strong CV on his path to the top. After a successful karting career, he graduated to cars in 2006 and finished third in the Formula BMW Asia series. He was added to Red Bull’s young driver roster before the 2008 season, when he won the West European Formula Renault title and placed second in the Eurocup. Then came the fruitful switch to British F3, with Carlin, and that impressive F1 outing at the year’s end. He spent the next two seasons in Formula Renault 3.5, finishing second and fifth in the standings, but by the summer of 2011 he was dovetailing his apprenticeship with Grand Prix outings for now-defunct backmarker HRT. Red Bull had more race-ready juniors than it had seats, so placed Ricciardo elsewhere to give him an opportunity to learn about Fl weekends in a low-pressure environment. His team-mate was former Red Bull junior Tonio Liuzzi, a useful benchmark even if his mainstream chance had long since elapsed. Ricciardo soon had his measure and his reward for 2012 was a berth with Toro Rosso, which brings us to the present.

*

“Daniel already had the basis for success when he came into F1,” says Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost. “He proved it in the junior categories and on top of that he has incredible commitment: he’s one of the guys that stays latest in the evening, talking to his engineers, and for me that’s very important. He is willing and motivated to keep studying and learning, especially on the technical side.

“His interest in that has increased during his time in F1. In junior categories you don’t have the same need or possibilities to study data — you might have one engineer working with you, whereas in F1 you have race, data and engine engineers, a technical director, a race strategist… There are so many different ways to develop your knowledge, but I’ve met many youngsters who didn’t recognise as much. They seem to think, ‘That’s it, I’m in F1 — I’ve reached the pinnacle’. They don’t understand that when you arrive in F1 you are right at the bottom of the learning curve and what they’ve done before is a bit like kindergarten. When you reach F1 it’s time to start really working — and Daniel understands very well that he needs to use the technical tools at his disposal.”

He was similarly thorough during his formative years, too.

“He’s a wonderful bloke to work with,” Carlin says. “He’s very capable of delivering a good lap on fresh tyres — he has a very good feel for the available grip and knows exactly how to use it. I think he’s shown that several times in Fl, too. He gives terrific feedback and our engineers really enjoyed their time with him. On top of that he has a fantastic personality. That permanent smile is absolutely genuine, but it conceals a steely determination.”

On the surface his F1 results don’t differ greatly from those of recent team-mate Vergne, so — as with everything in modern F1 — Red Bull’s logic has been dissected to the tiniest degree and generated much more speculation than was strictly necessary. The team maintains a veil of discretion about its youngsters, and in public references them only in glowing terms, but privately insiders will admit that — for now, at least — Ricciardo has an edge over Vergne in like versus like comparisons.

“Even when I watched him in F3,” Homer says, “the thing that always stood out was Daniel’s incredible natural pace. Coming into F1, there’s an incredibly steep learning curve because drivers have so few opportunities to test. Daniel’s had his opportunities with HRT and Toro Rosso and now I think he’s ready to step up. Regardless of talent, it takes any driver a period of time to adapt — especially in the recent era, with limited test mileage and complicated tyres.

“When he first ran with us at Jerez in 2009, he adapted with effortless ease. He has an undramatic driving style but finds it very simple to extract a good time. He repeated that 12 months later, when we tested him again in Abu Dhabi. He gets the most from the car without hustling it. He has a great natural ability to feel the limit and we’ve seen that many times on our simulator — he was always impressive on that. He belongs to a generation of computer gamers, but even so his understanding and feedback were exceptional and served as our benchmark for quite some time.”

It’s not simply the speed element that has impressed Tost these past two seasons. “Daniel is also very disciplined,” he says. “Take the last Korean GP, for instance. We called him in for the last pitstop and sent him out on option tyres with about 25 laps to go. Felipe Massa was running one second behind and we told Daniel to keep the gap like that without destroying his tyres — and he did it brilliantly. He controlled Massa while at the same time looking after his car — he wasn’t locking wheels or anything like that, but kept things smooth and maintained exactly the right pace to hold position and keep his tyres alive. Unfortunately he developed a brake problem just before the end, so didn’t finish, but prior to that it had been a really good drive.

“We saw something similar at Suzuka in 2012. He had Michael Schumacher behind him and drove very intelligently for a number of laps to stay ahead. He never offered Michael the slightest chance.”

And, like Carlin, he believes appearances are deceptive. “I know Daniel is always smiling,” he says, “but you shouldn’t be fooled. I think he was probably born that way, but a friendly face doesn’t mean he’s not a ferocious racer — he’s hard, but fair.”

Does the Austrian think Ricciardo is now the complete package, and thus ripe for the next big step?

“Is any F1 driver truly complete?” he replies.

“You can always develop and improve. Perhaps Daniel needs to be tougher on the first lap, but that will come. And in any case, Red Bull will help make his opening laps easier because he’ll be qualifying and racing towards the front.

“He’s more mature now than he was when he first joined us. He knew he had a lot to learn, but he embraced that and now has a proper Fl mindset. Is he ready to take a big step? Absolutely. I think Red Bull made the correct decision and don’t foresee any problems. Daniel lives and breathes Fl. He’s very committed and I expect him to do a good job.”

*

Ricciardo is only the second Red Bull junior — after Vettel — to graduate to the senior team. The sport’s nursery slopes are littered with cast-offs from a scheme that promises much, but whose guiding light Helmut Marko expects even more. Dropped to make way for Ricciardo and Vergne, previous Toro Rosso drivers Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari did a perfectly adequate job during their stint with the team, but in this domain mere adequacy is insufficient. Neither is likely to race in F1 again, but by the time they’d been pensioned off — in their early 20s — they’d accumulated more than 100 GP starts between them, the kind of opportunity that will remain beyond most youngsters’ reach.

Red Bull’s no-nonsense approach was visible again towards the end of the 2013 season. Russian Daniil Kvyat was promoted from GP3 to replace Ricciardo… while his main rival for the drive, Antonio Felix da Costa, was packed off to Snetterton to compete in a club-level F3 event that would make him eligible to participate in the approaching Macau GP. One moment you’re touching F1’s hem, the next you’re sitting in a Norfolk paddock cafe savouring the musk of egg and chips.

Ricciardo has bypassed such pitfalls and Homer insists he’ll be given time.

“There are no particular targets,” he says. “We need to give Daniel space to grow. He knows the environment, the work ethic and what the team expects of its drivers. He’s participated in our briefings, he’s worked with the engineers on the track and during simulation tests. He knows the team and that means the bedding-in period should be fast and smooth, but it’s still a massive step in terms of the pressure that’s coming.

“He’ll be under the spotlight and is coming up against somebody who, in my opinion, is the best driver in the world. It’s a very tough marker, so it’s important that he doesn’t put himself under too much pressure and allows himself to settle into the role.”

Carlin wasn’t in the slightest surprised when news broke of his former charge’s elevation. “During our season together,” he says, “I developed the impression that it was absolutely inevitable he would make it to the top. In fact I’d have been amazed if he hadn’t.”

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