Australian Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo is exactly as you’d expect him to be – friendly, big smile, likes a laugh and generally gives straight answers. He’s your typical Aussie dude.
But get him behind the wheel of an F1 car, with upwards of 950bhp available at his right foot, and he becomes razor-sharp, ready to go wheel-to-wheel with the best in the world at upwards of 320km/h.
And that contrast between man and racer is reflected well beyond the cockpit.
“I can’t multitask to save my life, like if I’m on my phone messaging someone you could be talking to me saying ‘the house next door is on fire’, and I wouldn’t even know what you’re saying,” the Red Bull Racing driver says.
“But when it comes to the F1 car, maybe it’s because I love doing it, but I can do things on the steering wheel, think about the balance [of the car], talk [over the radio] to my engineer – I am like multi-multi-tasking at high speed.”
Regardless, the 27-year-old from Duncraig, in the suburbs of Perth, has made a big name for himself at the pinnacle of international motorsport.
Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull
And for good reason, he’s an all-rounder – able to pull out an aggressive, all-or-nothing lap in qualifying, and then push to the limit in the race with no quarter asked, none given. It’s exactly why McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, a double world champion, recently ranked him the sport’s best current driver…
That reputation has not been built overnight. It’s been earned time and again with standout drives – like Japan 2012, when Ricciardo held back seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher for the final point, despite then racing a Toro Rosso (Red Bull’s junior team).
His first win in Canada 2014, when he passed Force India’s Sergio Pérez, and Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg (2016’s world champion, who retired from racing just five days after winning) in quick succession – for his first of three wins, after joining top team Red Bull Racing that year.
That said, last year was a roller coaster for Ricciardo. He came into the season with low expectations, following a winless 2015.
“I didn’t expect to finish top five,” he says.
“You do the best you can, and if the car is good enough [then] obviously you can do better – just because you say I don’t think I can get fifth doesn’t mean you’re not going get fifth if you can.”
But, as Renault brought extra grunt to its power unit (F1’s fancy word for state-of-the-art turbo-hybrid engines) and Red Bull Racing brought updates to the car – the Australian, and new teammate Max Verstappen, were able to go toe-to-toe with benchmark squad Mercedes on occasion.
But it didn’t always go in Ricciardo’s favour – with Spain, where Hamilton and Rosberg clashed on the first lap retiring on the spot, won by Verstappen.
There’s pressure on both of us i guess, but to make sure i keep delivering and not get out qualified by half a second
The next race in Monaco was a disaster. Ricciardo was leading the race, but had the pit stop from hell – a last-minute decision to switch from the ultrasoft tyres to supersofts resulting in the Australian left up on the jacks for 13.6 seconds as his team struggled to find and fit the right rubber. It cost him the win.
Ricciardo, though, is still able to look on the bright side.
“It wasn’t my personal worst moment, I think it was the worst moment probably for us as a team,” he says.
“It was tough. It was the first time I’ve ever not attended a post race debrief. I’m normally very good with that but I just felt it was best to, and because my house was only like 500 metres away. I was like ‘I’m just going to go home and not talk to anyone for a little while’.”
Singapore, F1’s stunning night race, was meant to be the team’s next big chance for victory – but Rosberg dominated from lights to flag, while Ricciardo finished a sweaty second after 61-laps of the spectacular Marina Bay Street Circuit
“A street circuit already requires a high level of concentration and doing that with the humidity of Singapore is fun but challenging,” he says.
That win came at the next round in Malaysia, when Hamilton’s power unit blew up while he was in the lead – a gremlin that would ultimately cost him the world title. Ricciardo, though, had his teammate breathing down his neck all the way to the chequered flag.
For Ricciardo, victory number four felt like a delicious slice of payback.
Photo: Daniel Ricciardo / Courtesy of Red Bull
“Part of me thought about Monaco – and I thought, ok, this is a bit of redemption, and I wasn’t going to let the win get away from me when I saw [Hamilton retire like] that.
“Max was close and I don’t think he ever got within the DRS zone but he was like 1.1 seconds or something. So, he was just outside of it…
“He had really good pace all weekend, so I knew he would be strong and he’d be there until the end.”
Both Ricciardo and Verstappen had to lift their games last year, the Dutchman delivering as the ‘once-in-a-generation’ talent – and only 19-years-old. But it’s not something that worries Ricciardo.
“There’s pressure on both of us I guess, but to make sure I keep delivering and not get out qualified by half a second,” he says, laughing.
Importantly, season 2017 could see Ricciardo in the hot seat– with the sport’s technical regulations shaken-up, and the cars set to be between 3-6-seconds a lap faster with aggressive styling and wider tyres; the season starting with the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix on March 26.
The regulation revamp is expected to favour Red Bull, its chief technical officer Adrian Newey the most successful designer in F1 history.
“I think it’s cool that [people are] thinking about this because they believe that we will be fighting for a title. I would love to be in that position.”
If Red Bull Racing delivers a rocket this year, Ricciardo won’t have any issues – he’s a capable racer, ready for his moment of glory. Expect him to shift up into top gear, and fly at the front.