Fighting fit and thrashing his way to the top, Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo is a man on a mission. With his sights set on a first ever Formula One World Title, Jennie Gow has the lowdown on the born racer beneath the big smile.
Daniel Ricciardo is not your average racing driver. He smiles like a Cheshire cat, ‘chats’ to people in the paddock, listens to thrash metal and even ‘socialises’ with members of the media (gasp!).
Yes, Daniel doesn’t subscribe to the politically correct, sometimes bland image of racing drivers around the world. Daniel, after all, is different. And now, he stands on the precipice of a Formula One World Championship.
So how does a 27 year old from Perth get himself into a winning position in the world of F1 without a massive purse to fund his way? Through hard work and true Aussie grit. And a mega-watt smile that makes people fall in love with him.
Daniel started karting when he was 9 years old, and worked his way up the ranks – first, in Formula Ford and then gaining a scholarship to Formula BMW Asia. His earliest racing memories were of being held by his mother while watching his father race. The Ricciardo family is, in his words, ‘close’. However, in 2007, Daniel decided to move to Europe to race where his idol – the great Ayrton Senna – had raced before him. Though he was only 17 at the time, he knew that, to be a real contender, he would have to move to the heart of racing.
In 2008, Daniel’s life was about to change forever. He was competing in Europe, but his funding was running low. Being a racing driver, even in junior categories, is expensive business. Daniel once told me he guessed his parents had spent close to a million pounds getting him through the junior ranks. That’s a lot of money!
But fortune was about to favour the brave… Seeing great potential in the young Australian, Red Bull Racing signed him up to their Junior programme. Suddenly, Daniel had the backing and the funding to compete with the big boys.
His first Championship win followed shortly after that signing. He won the Formula Renault 2.0 WEC title and, the following year, he did what so many Formula One drivers before him have done on their way up: win the British Formula 3 Championship – something Senna, his idol, had done 24 years earlier.
At the end of that year, a Formula One test at Jerez saw Daniel set the track alight. He was signed up as Red Bull test and reserve driver for 2010, alongside fellow Antipodean Brendon Hartley. Daniel didn’t have to wait long until his F1 debut. It came at the British Grand Prix in 2011, after he was jettisoned in to the Hispania Racing Team to replace Narain Karthikeyan. His performances impressed enough to win him a place at Toro Rosso the following year.
Signing for the Red Bull programme was a godsend for Ricciardo, but it’s an incredibly hard place to learn your skills. There is no room for failure. You effectively have two years to learn and then win a Championship. If at the end of those two years you haven’t succeeded, the chances are you are out. His former team mate Hartley was dropped by the programme, Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari was then let go of and current Formula E Champion Sebastian Buemi lost his race seat, too. Next to be spat out was Daniel’s Toro Rosso team mate Jean-Eric Vergne. But Daniel was determined. He was not about to be kicked out. Instead, he was about to be elevated to the number 1 team – Red Bull Racing.
Daniel would replace the retiring Mark Webber, who had just bowed out of Formula One having failed to win a World Title, despite winning 11 races. It was now over to the young pretender to see if he could achieve what hadn’t been done since 1980 – An Aussie at the top of the sport. Two Australian drivers had won the World Drivers’ Championship: Jack Brabham, in 1959, 1960 and 1966, and – most recently – Alan Jones, in 1980.
To many of us in the paddock, Daniel was a happy, smiley chap who was evidently a good racer. But was he too nice? Could you smile your way to a World Championship? Not likely. Nice guys seldom finish first, as the saying goes, and that was my fear for Ricciardo. But he had a secret weapon…
“I came across the Honey Badger a while back. It’s not the biggest animal in the world. In fact, it looks a bit like a wombat. It’s pretty cute, you wouldn’t think much of it. But in reality, it’s a raging ball of anger that tears things apart. It’s a bit like me: Don’t be fooled by the sunshine exterior. Press the right buttons and I can be a very dark individual.”
Daniel Ricciardo was now playing with the big boys – four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel was his team mate. But Daniel wiped the floor with him. His very first race for Red Bull Racing saw Daniel jubilantly climb the podium in front of his home fans, having finished in second place. But the result didn’t stand, and he was subsequently disqualified for fuel flow irregularities.
Though he was bitterly disappointed, he went on to record eight podiums, including his first win – at the Canadian Grand Prix. As he bounded onto the top step, his smile lit up the whole country. In the paddock, the reaction was celebratory. It was a joyous result for the team. Everyone likes Daniel – How could you not?
Everyone, that is, except Sebastian Vettel – who had started working on an escape plan to leave the team. And when the news came out that Vettel was headed for Ferrari, Daniel was all of a sudden the number one driver. A new responsibility beckoned, and it was to be one which he savoured.
Yet, with Daniil Kvyat as his new team mate, the 2015 Red Bull car failed to set the world alight. It was a test for Ricciardo – How would the ‘nice guy’ do when the chips were down? He smiled his way through the season and only behind closed doors did he let his true feelings be known.
However, we were just about to see the darker side of Daniel – a side which he had never shared with us, the media.
By the time of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, Kvyat was out and teenager Max Verstappen was Daniel’s new team mate. As the race unfolded, the two front-running Mercedes drivers took each other out. The doors were open for Daniel to win – but it wasn’t to be. Instead, it was Max who went on to win, sealing victory on his debut to become the sport’s youngest ever race winner. The result was all down to strategy, and it was clear that Daniel was not impressed.
Then came Monaco – not Red Bull’s finest hour. Ricciardo was comfortably in control of the race until a blunder by the team saw Daniel sat in his box at the pit stop. The tyres weren’t ready, and it ultimately cost Daniel the win. And not just any win – a precious win around the hallowed streets of the Principality. He was furious. Speaking to me after the race, he tried, and failed, to hide his emotions. Too cross to even speak to his team, he went back to his home in Monaco to try to forget the day.
It was the first time we would ever see the Honey Badger bite.
Now, in 2017, with that aggression unleashed and his natural ability in an F1 car undisputed, it feels like only a matter of time before a World Title is Daniel Ricciardo’s. He is the most affable chap; spending time with fans and bringing the ‘shoey’ to the podium – Who else other than Daniel could get the great and the good of F1 to share a drink from his sweaty shoe after a race?
He is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air to the paddock. Though his smile hides his true intentions. For beneath that toothy grin, is a man driven for success. Will 2017 be the year he finally stands on the top step, following in the footsteps of Brabham and Jones before him? I kind of hope so. A shoey on the top step and a smile that would be a million watts wide…? I, for one, would like to see that.