For the second year in a row, Red Bull Racing head to Japan on the back of a double podium finish at the Malaysian Grand Prix. And though Max Verstappen is the one taking the headlines after his second career win, his teammate Daniel Ricciardo quietly added to his now impressive tally of 8 podiums for 2017. Jennie Gow sat down with the Australian to find a man full of sweets and brimming with confidence.
I walk into the Red Bull hospitality unit and am immediately comforted by the cool air that hits me. Malaysia is a hot and sticky race where the sweat pours from you like some sort of comedy sketch. It’s not been a good 24 hours so far – a flight delay and an eternity spent waiting at the baggage carousel means I arrive for my sit-down interview with Daniel Ricciardo wearing the same clothes I put on yesterday morning. I haven’t showered. I haven’t even done my hair!
Thank Goodness it’s Daniel I’m interviewing and not one of the other drivers, because Dan is the most easy-going of guys. I excuse my slightly dishevelled state and he laughs and says, “no worries”, running his hands through his hair and making it a total mess in the process. He is the antithesis to some in the paddock who are preened and polished to within an inch of their lives.
I’m about to start my interview when, all of a sudden, he jumps up and bounds over to a large bowl of sweets and comes back with three packs of M&M’s – one for himself and one for his press officer, as well as one for me. He rips open the little triangular packet and wolfs down the whole pack in about 10 seconds. The man is fast.
In what is now his 8th year in Formula One, the Australian has become one of the most liked and admired drivers in the paddock. Many former racers believe he is the best all-rounder on the grid: A serious compliment when you consider how many champions are on the grid. His affable personality and mega-watts smile has won him fans, not just from his home country, but from around the world. The fact that his personality can change so comprehensively when he gets into his Red Bull Racing car and pulls his visor down is a great fascination to many. He calls himself the Honey Badger for good reason – he may look cute and cuddly, but there’s a ruthless and competitive streak beneath the bubbly exterior.
He is confident in his ability to compete with the best, something which came across in his interview with Mobil 1 The Grid earlier this Autumn. “I look at Lewis [Hamilton] and Seb [Vettel] and these other guys as being also at the top, but I don’t see them being better than me or than Max [Verstappen],” he said. “I think we could run with them, absolutely.”
So what is the plan for Dan? His Italian roots may have done little to supress rumours that a move to Ferrari could one day be on the cards. But for now, he seems very happy where he is, at Red Bull.
As he walks around the paddock with his team, it is clear that they love working with him. There is a respect for the 28 year old that sees people gravitate towards him. He treats his team and the people he works with as something of a home away from home.
Indeed, Daniel has come to Malaysia straight off the back of a visit back home to Australia. His mother, who is joining him at the race, has been spoiling him, as any mother would do when her kids come back for a visit. Daniel describes the cutlet his Mum makes for him as her specialty – “It’s an Italian classic!”, he says.
It’s a rare treat for Ricciardo, who has cut down on the meat in his diet. When I ask him about veganism – in light of Lewis Hamilton’s comments that he was going to try it – he says he doesn’t want to watch the wealth of videos doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, which paint eating meat in a bad light, but explains that he has nonetheless cut down on his intake of meat. “I like figuring it out for myself, but I have minimised. Like, I love Austin so much, but Austin without the meat just wouldn’t be Austin. I can cut it out a bit, but I can’t completely get rid of it!”
Laughter is an important part of Riccardo’s make up. He jokes to deflect difficult questions, and there have only been two occasions that I have really seen him angry. The first was after the Spanish Grand Prix last year, when a strategy call by his team cost him the win and handed it to his then-new teammate, Max Verstappen.
The second came the following race, when a tyre mix up at Monaco once again cost him a win. That one was more painful, and Ricciardo expressed his frustration in public. It took time for the usually mild-mannered driver to calm down and be able to even talk to the team.
That person – the angry, frustrated Daniel – seems a million miles away from the man in front of me now. For both Daniel and the team, the season is going well. One race win and seven more podiums, Riccardo’s form has shown that he is able to deliver decent results even in a car that is not yet as good as that of Ferrari or Mercedes.
So could he be F1 World Champion one day?
“Si, Oui… Yes! Hopefully soon. If I haven’t done it by the time that I’m 40, then I’m going to say hope is gone. But I’m not there yet.”
Making the right moves in Formula One is key to putting yourself in with a shot at being a champion. Just look at Fernando Alonso, a two-time world champion who, with a couple of bad moves under his belt – a case of wrong place, wrong time – his attempt to win the title for a third time has hit the buffers.
With that in mind, staying at Red Bull might just be his best bet. Whatever happens in the future, one thing is sure: Daniel Riccardo has the ability to be a title contender. With the right car and the right circumstances, the Honey Badger is ready for the challenge – and just imagine the celebration if that were ever to happen! The Shoey, the champagne, the shining smile… Somehow I don’t think I’m the only one who’d like to see that one day.