Daniel Ricciardo: At the Wheel

 
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Daniel Ricciardo is well aware of the huge responsibility thrust upon him this month, as Australia’s only representative in the world sports arena of Formula 1 motor racing and the country’s next big hope of winning the title.

But despite the weight of such great expectations, the 25-year-old hasn’t lost the inbuilt effervescent personality that sets him apart from his competitors. Already, he has established a reputation as a driver who never gives up, never stops trying and never stops smiling.

Even when he recorded a front-row start and an impressive second-place podium finish after driving a near faultless race at Melbourne’s Australian Grand Prix last year, and then was sensationally disqualified (his team, Infiniti Red Bull Racing, had made a mistake and broke the new fuel-flow rule), Ricciardo bounced back smiling. He didn’t dwell on the cruel blow or his misfortune, but simply said, “I just want to get back on that podium.”

Competitive, but fair

Ricciardo is an extremely competitive individual. Don’t be fooled by his cheerful external demeanour, which masks an inner strength. Here is a man with steely determination and a fierce focus on winning races, but not at all costs. His reputation for being hard, but fair, is already firmly established!

Ricciardo has proved that he can safely race with the best in the sport, earning their respect, along with their praise. Last year, after a particularly intense battle with two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso at the German Grand Prix, the Spaniard declared that the promising young Aussie talent’s driving was “unbelievable” and observed that Ricciardo was “very, very smart, very respectful with the rules.”

With his inevitable smile, Ricciardo responded, “I think when there is a good fight that has been clean but fair, it’s fun for both drivers. Even if you win or lose, you still have a sense of satisfaction, but it’s nice to gain respect from someone like [Alonso].

Lewis Hamilton, another double world champion, backed up this tribute, hailing Ricciardo as one of the nicest guys in the sport, noting that he has gone from strength to strength as a driver.

Former teammate, Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion, also has a healthy respect for the rising young star, who managed to outshine him during 2014, despite Vettel’s vast experience.

He has done a very good job so far. I’m happy to race him on track, and I’m sure we will have many more great battles,” says Vettel. “I’m surprised! Daniel doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, can qualify and race in difficult conditions, and is easy to get along with off track.”

New recruit

In 2014, after fellow Australian racer Mark Webber announced his retirement from Formula 1, Ricciardo was confirmed as his replacement on the Infiniti Red Bull Racing Team. Right from the start, Ricciardo gave notice that he would quickly match (or even better) the results and performances of his boyhood hero.

I had a bit to do with Mark in my junior years and more recently he offered some advice. It was very comforting, and helped with my confidence,” says the appreciative young gun.

“He called before my first F1 test with Red Bull in December 2009, telling me to enjoy it; to relax and not be overwhelmed by all the people. That helped considerably, but I still remember feeling absolutely exhausted afterwards. I was in awe of Mark for what he had achieved in the sport, so I listened to anything he had to say.”

Team principal, Christian Horner, also had complimentary words about his new recruit. “We knew he would be good when he came into the team, but in all honesty, we didn’t expect him to be so good. I knew Daniel could drive. He’s confident and very fast, but he’s also very economical with tyres and easy on the car. He’s obviously going to be a strong championship contender in the future.

Ricciardo exceeded all expectations last year with a fighting third in the championship, even soundly beating his highly credentialed teammate, Vettel, as an added bonus.

Early beginnings

Ricciardo’s love of motorsport began early, standing with his mother, Grace, watching Dad, Joe, whizzing down the local track at Wanneroo, near Perth in Western Australia. Not surprisingly, given his father’s involvement, by the age of nine, Ricciardo was racing his own kart, before graduating to Formula Ford (an entry-level class of single seater, open-wheel formula racing).

According to all who knew him, even at that young age, he was passionate about racing, naturally talented, level-headed behind the wheel and always dreamed of one day becoming a Formula 1 driver, “not that I initially expected it to become a reality,” he says.

After his encouraging Formula Ford days, having won a scholarship to compete in Formula BMW Asia and the Italian Formula Renault Championships, he ventured overseas, racing in Asia and Europe. It wasn’t easy leaving his parents, family and friends behind. Only 17 years old, Ricciardo knew it would be a long journey before he stood on the top rung of the ladder but that was his motivation.

Despite his Italian ancestry (his father was born in Sicily), Ricciardo can’t speak the language. So when he found himself living in a small village he’d never heard of north of Milan, Italy, the teenager suddenly had some catching up to do. His
parents initially accompanied him, helping set up a small apartment, but soon he was on his own and had to fast forward the growing up process.

The move overseas was a make-or-break undertaking. Luckily for me, it was successful,” he says. “There were hurdles. I had to learn to cook, do my own washing, buy my own food and look after myself. It wasn’t easy. I became homesick and missed my friends, but realised this was a means to an end, something I just had to do, [and so] I never considered moving back home. When I drove the car, I got more satisfaction than anything else and that was enough to overcome the sad days.”

Ricciardo eventually caught the attention of the Red Bull Junior team selectors and after a successful test was drafted into the program in November 2007.

That was when he realised, “This is real. The rest is up to me. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. If I get good results, F1 could become a reality.”

Set apart

Ricciardo’s next step was the prestigious British Formula 3 Championship and from a star-studded cast of young enthusiastic racers, he emerged champion in 2009. Not since David Brabham’s success in 1989 had an Australian clinched the title.

“David was actually present at some of those races, so that was a nice touch,” says Ricciardo. “That title opened the door for me. I was offered a test drive with Scuderia Toro Rosso [the sister squad of, and stepping stone to, the benchmark Red Bull team].”

His skilful performance at the wheel set him apart from the other participants. One thing led to another and he was promoted to be the official Toro Rosso test driver, then later, reserve driver. This outstanding new talent soon graduated (on loan) to F1 team, Hispania Racing. While this was a struggling, back-marker outfit, with absolutely no prospect of winning races, Ricciardo grabbed the opportunity to gain valuable experience before officially joining Toro Rosso in 2012.

While it all sounds like a meteoric rise to fame, it was a difficult learning curve for a young lad. However, his dedication, toughness and determination to succeed and fulfil his Formula 1 dream kept him motivated. He continued to show maturity beyond his years, especially when it came to race ethics.

Finally, in 2014, after proving conclusively that he had the necessary personality and ability, he stepped into the top Formula 1 team of that year.

It was one of my proudest moments, to be given the chance to show the talent I believed I had,” Ricciardo says. “What an awesome feeling to be part of F1, to finally have my own [Red Bull] driving suit and to be racing alongside someone like Seb [Vettel].

When asked if he’d changed in any way, Ricciardo affably responds, “I’ve grown as a man and driver. I have more self-belief and confidence than I once had, but I’d like to think I’ll never become arrogant. I also believe that if I always do my best, good results will follow. Red Bull showed faith in me as a young driver, now I want to repay them.”

And as the only Aussie representative in this month’s Formula 1 (and the first from Western Australia), Ricciardo can rest assured the whole country will be behind him as he drives on to the track.