Iron fist, velvet glove

A happy-go-lucky approach to life might seem incompatible with a relentless will to win, but Daniel Ricciardo blends both to good effect. His recent victory in Azerbaijan owed much to racecraft and opportunism, but he believes Red Bull will soon be challenging its rivals on equal terms

And up popped his grinning face again, top step of the podium. From nowhere. Daniel Ricciardo somehow always manages to be the one who prevails when the races get crazy, when circumstances allow an opportunity to steal a win out of thin air. For Baku a few weeks ago, read Montréal, Budapest or Spa 2014. He has a way of weaving together the thread that will wrap up his drive and seal it, as sure and finely judged as his differentiation of prayer, possibility or probability of a pass on track…

He is a winning machine, one who because of his equipment has been presented with relatively few opportunities for victory but who has an uncanny ability to deliver them from mere vapours. There’s a fierce fire within him but a self-control that is arguably better than anyone else’s on the grid, the fire deployed as a weapon but without ever breaching an iron discipline. In repose, out of the car, he’s the laid-back Perth guy with the perma-smile, sunny disposition; friendly and outgoing, what you see is absolutely what you get. The Latin is only visible when the fire flares – out of nowhere, like his passing manoeuvres. As Helmut Marko said: “He isn’t scared of anything. Just this little smiley guy… but if it matters… bang. Senna was never as relaxed as Ricciardo and that for me – to be so competitive but enjoy life – is amazing.”

How are those two things compatible? Let’s ask him. “I was just born easy-going and happy. I had a good upbringing and when you’re in Australia in a warm climate, with a beach around you, it’s kind of hard not to be happy and outgoing as a kid.” He’s from a great family, raised by dad Joe and mum Grace. “Dad’s actually super-placid and easy-going but if he’s got a case he’s not afraid to tell someone what he thinks. He’ll stand his ground. But I would say his fuse is shorter than mine.”  

These days, perhaps. It wasn’t always so. “I was a terrible loser as a kid. I just couldn’t deal with losing. That competitive side was just so intense. I’ve got better control of it now but it’s just as well otherwise I’d be having fist fights all the time! When I was a kid one of my best friends came around to the house for a game of PlayStation. He took me off on the last corner and won – and I lost my shit. Basically, I dropped him right there in the kitchen, tiles and plates crashing around everywhere. Another time I was playing tennis with my cousin and I lost a point. I went right up to the net and smashed the ball into him from about two metres away as hard as I could. I was pretty vicious as a kid; kind, friendly and happy most of the time, but I certainly had a switch. I was such a bad loser.”

A bouncily irrepressible kid with some inner but undirected force. He was unusual – at least his teacher thought so. “I just couldn’t sit down for long. To a point where a teacher called my mum in one day and said, ‘I just what to know if your son has a problem, an attention deficit disorder or something, because he just can’t sit still, can’t focus.’ My hand to eye co-ordination was always good,
I could pick up sports really quickly. I was playing a lot of sports but didn’t dedicate enough time to one to get really good at something, but if you gave me a ball I could kick it, I could catch. The basics were there and I just loved being outdoors. I always knew I was going to do something active as opposed to sitting behind a desk – I knew from an early age that wasn’t me. I dreamed of F1 but did I actually think at 10 that I’d get to F1? No. The realisation came quite late, actually.”

The 10-year-old just treated it like any other sport at first, the impetus having come from dad Joe, a club racer himself when he wasn’t running his engineering company. “Yeah at first and for quite a while I was probably a bit too soft in karts. I think I was too young and a bit scared of the speed and the potential risk. But
I got to a point where I got comfortable with everything and then I became pretty aggressive on track, had some good verbals after the races with other drivers.” With the inner demon released, and Joe footing the bill, progress thereafter came fast – and a remarkable driver began to take form. 

“Dad was good. I was pretty fortunate; he wasn’t a typical racing dad. He knew that once I got to a certain level he couldn’t help me, knew he couldn’t teach me anything more. He knew race lines and the basics, but once I was getting coached by higher-credential people he was happy to sit in the back, just making sure
I was focused and still wanting to do it.
Other than that, he was happy to see me have the same passion he had. I think he was happy I could actually do something with it after he supported it in the early days with the business he’d built up.”

From local Formula Ford to European Formula BMW and then a place on the Red Bull junior driver roster. Once he’d achieved that, he knew he was on his way. That sort of inner confidence is a crucial part of his strength. At Baku, on the grid after the race had been red-flagged with him in fifth place, having completed several spectacular passes, he could be overhead talking to Marko about how he’d be handling the restarts. Marko was warning about engine temperatures and Ricciardo was saying he didn’t need to worry as he’d be immediately passing the two Williams at the restart. He proceeded to do exactly that. It was in essence the race-winning manoeuvre. Ambush is very much part of his game and rivals ignore his presence at their peril. It’s that force inside he talks about.  

Now that he has full control of it, the demon is used as a weapon. “When I was at Toro Rosso I think there was a perception that ‘Ricciardo’s pretty quick but too nice for this sport and not an overtaker.’ From the outside I guess that idea had merit but I just hadn’t been given a chance yet to prove myself. But I knew this fire was still in me, I just knew it and I was like, ‘Okay, just wait until I get my chance at Red Bull.’ When I joined there in 2014 I wanted to make a point: that not only was I quick but there was something inside me I knew I could release. I now had the platform to show it.”

Yet he is still underrated.

Post-rationalising explanations are still sought by many in the paddock to explain why he instantly out-performed Sebastian Vettel in the latter’s own environment in 2014 – but none is needed: he was faster and he worked the tyres better. The arrival in the team of teenage sensation Max Verstappen was widely expected by some to demote Ricciardo’s standing; it’s done nothing of the sort. Verstappen has arrived as a remarkable, push-to-the-edge-at-all-times sort of driver, hugely exciting to watch, a sort of modern-day Gilles Villeneuve in his approach. But it’s easy for the brilliance of Verstappen to overshadow the very different, but equally remarkable, skills of Ricciardo. There are many more colours to his picture. Time without number he’s been circulating apparently out of the leading picture in the early stages of a race then, like a switch, the pace is turned on and a few dizzying moves later he’s a factor, having marshalled his resources with perfect judgment. “He’s like Muhammad Ali in that George Foreman fight,” says his friend, Getty photographer Mark Thompson. “He takes his punishment, you think he’s finished and then there’s a moment – and it switches. He strikes out and suddenly it’s all happening and he’s unstoppable.” It’s a good analogy.  

“He’s amazing,” says the difficult-to-impress Fernando Alonso. “He’s so smart on track. You do not see any mistakes when you are wheel to wheel with him. With overtaking manoeuvres probably he is the best out there. When he commits to one movement, 99 per cent he will achieve the result that he wanted.”

“It’s pretty cool that Fernando has said that stuff,” smiles Ricciardo. “Even before F1 I respected Alonso for his talent and strength so to have such a compliment is nice. I’d like to think because we’ve raced wheel to wheel that it’s a good evaluation from someone who knows. It’s nice but at same time I can’t rest on that – Alonso said I was really cool so give me your best contract! People forget quickly. To get to the top is hard but to stay there is just as hard.”

When Verstappen arrived in the team at Barcelona last year, he went quicker than Ricciardo in both Q1 and Q2 before then delivering a super-quick Q3 lap. Ricciardo sat in his car, helmet off, relaxed, joking with his crew and looking anything but under pressure. With just one Q3 run he went out and knocked a full 0.3sec off his new team-mate’s time. It was difficult not to feel he’d deliberately played it to take the wind out of Verstappen’s sails. The screams of delight from Ricciardo’s radio on the in-lap emphasised the competitive intensity behind the smiles. So he was devastated that a team strategy call lost him the race – and won
it for Verstappen. When he lost Monaco two weeks later to a team pit lane blunder, after a scintillating performance from pole, the grin finally disappeared. He looked utterly desolate on the second-place podium post-race and admits he had to cut himself off from the team for a few days immediately afterwards to prevent himself saying things he knew he shouldn’t. Is there any scar tissue left from that? The question triggers a nervous laugh. “No. Look, I still… my motivation against that is I still believe I’ve got years left in F1 and I’ll get another opportunity to win Monaco. If I get to my last race in F1 and I still haven’t won Monaco maybe I’ll be pissed off again. But for now I’m looking at the positives.”

Sometimes it feels like there might be a subtle undercurrent of this team gravitating towards the mercurial Verstappen, despite its best intentions, leading one to speculate whether Ricciardo, who turned 28 in July, may look outside the team for the ultimate success. “Part of me hopes that it happens here,” he counters. “This year’s pretty much done for the world title but next year I hope we can really turn it around and fight for it. But beyond ’1
 I don’t know where I’ll be, what I’ll do. The real nice story would be to do it here; Seb’s the only guy so far – though he did it four times! That’s a tall order. For now, I’ll happily take one with Red Bull.”

That would probably entail beating Verstappen over a season – by no means an easy feat. “I don’t want to take anything away from the others, but I do believe Max is the best guy I’ve had alongside me. He’s proved that. And he’s still young and still has room to improve and to grow. The challenge has been real. It’s a tough one because I want to win all the time but I also want to be challenged. I do welcome that challenge. I feel like we both – though we don’t tell each other – have those moments where I’ll see I’ve done a corner pretty good and I’ll be, ‘Yeah, match that,’ but then somewhere else he’s done something and he’s probably saying the same. Last year there was a lot of that going on and I think we really brought the results forward for the team. I think he’s proven he’s a top-shelf driver and can adapt pretty quickly and just get in and go. I feel we’ve both learnt off each other.”

Just three years on from being the team’s precocious new force, he’s seeing it from the other side now. “It does feel different,” he says. “I felt really young in 2014. Now I feel older, not the young pup. But in terms of the ambience that’s about the only difference.”

Does he ever reflect, looking at Vettel’s blockbusting success at the time, upon how things might’ve been if he’d got in a Red Bull in, say, 2011 rather than 2014? “Yes, of course. But it’s easy to say that. I try not to dwell on that sort of stuff: ‘wrong place, wrong time, maybe it’ll never happen, Red Bull should’ve been good this year and they’re not, is it meant to be?’ I don’t really get involved in that and I try to be… if I just keep being at this level I know it’ll eventually work itself out and the success will come.”

Meanwhile Red Bull strives to rediscover its mojo after the RB13 has proved a curiously low-key car by the team’s standards. Only in the last few races, as Adrian Newey has led a development programme, has it begun to look like a Red Bull. Ricciardo’s Baku victory owed a lot to attrition (Vettel’s penalty, Hamilton’s headrest problem, Verstappen’s engine failure), but a third place in Austria and a brilliant drive from 19th to fifth at Silverstone show the direction of travel. 

“It’s not all in the car yet but we’re understanding it more and back at the factory they are very busy with some new bits. By Budapest we should have aerodynamically a pretty sound race car. We now know what we have to do and just have to get it on the car as fast as possible. It’s more balanced than it was but we can still get it better. The cars are more difficult to drive this year anyway; they snap, you can have a moment without reading it as quickly. Whether that’s this car or all of them this year I don’t know. The wider tyre, more grip, then suddenly no grip, so maybe. This car’s easier than it was in Melbourne but to push the car on the limit… it’s weird; they have more grip and normally with more grip it’s just more planted and easier to drive, but to go quick when you’re on the limit it doesn’t necessarily behave like that, feels more on the knife edge. It’s a challenging car but we’re closing on the sweet spots now, closing in on where we need to be. Mainly it’s lacked rear end grip. Since I joined in ’14 we’ve had a pretty strong rear and could’ve done with a bit more front. I think since 2014 you can see on track the Mercedes can take shallow apexes and just turn from anywhere. We felt that’s where we weren’t as strong as Mercedes in the last few years. But this year with the new packages it feels the rear is where we’re losing out to Ferrari and Mercedes. That’s getting better but it’s what we need to keep working on. 

“There will be circuits in the second half of this year where we can definitely have more than a nibble, I think, hopefully a good bite. Budapest – that circuit always seems to suit us and I like it a lot but also by that stage we should have a pretty good car under us. There, Singapore, Malaysia should be good. Hopefully other ones as well, but I’d like to think we know we can count on those.”

With some support from Renault Sport development of the power unit, he remains convinced that a 2018 title is within his and the team’s grasp. It’s interesting he won’t speculate beyond that, and the Ferrari question inevitably poses itself. He’s batted it away many times before and does so again here. “The rumours seem to float around and from my side there’s no weight behind that at the moment. I can’t see anything changing. But never say never. Even if I’ve got five or eight more years in the sport, anything’s possible. We’ll see what the future holds but at least short-term I can’t see anything happening.”

And then he’s off, talking nonsense and making everyone smile. “Yeah, after F1? I’d like to do NASCAR. I love watching it and I think I could do the talk – think I could add a bit of wedge. Whatever that is!

“Yeah, favourite fish? Sea bream, I’d say. A bit like sea bass but the texture’s a bit more meaty and it kind of slides off the bone. Sea bass is a bit mushier. A bit of lemon, yeah, great. Kangaroo meat? I’ve never tried. I wouldn’t order it, it just doesn’t seem right,” dazzling smile. 

Intensity switched off. But the demon is in there. Just waiting. When the opportunity comes, it will be ambushed.