If Daniel Ricciardo is not your favourite Formula 1 driver, in all likelihood he could be your next best such is the attitude and talent of a guy with the biggest smile on the grid 24/7… almost!
Behind that familiar trademark smile lies a hunter, with a killer instinct who does his talking on track, littering F1 highlights clips with numerous great overtakes that put him among the elite of this generation.
If the F1 benchmark is set by Max Verstappen, with his fire and brimstone approach, and Lewis Hamilton a zen-like operator who gets better constantly, then Ricciardo sits between them as he has a bit of both.
Somehow, when logic suggested they should, Ferrari failed to pluck the Aussie with Italian roots from Renault and team him up with Charles Leclerc. The decision one of those mysteries of the Mattia Binotto-led journey into the wilderness. Ricciardo’s chutzpah might’ve been exactly what the Scuderia needs in these trying times.
Instead, Zak Brown believes Ricciardo is the man to lead McLaren and got his signature, perhaps in anticipation of the killer that lurks inside the 31-year-old. The signing looking like another shrewd move by the team.
In a wide-ranging interview with Square Mile, Ricciardo explained: “There’s an album that I used to listen to growing up, it’s called – Killing With A Smile – and I feel that’s me. Yes, I’ve got the smile, but I love to… well, I won’t say I love to kill, but I certainly love to hunt.”
“The competition is always what drives me; it’s like even having a new teammate, Lando [Norris], another young kid, more in that Max Verstappen mode, it’s another challenge for me and it’s like, ‘Yes, bring it on.’ Now I’m in my thirties naturally you get people questioning, ‘OK. Is he still in his prime or is he past it?’ That’s why I like game day.”
To battle Verstappen and Hamilton, the benchmark drivers of this era and looking like the main protagonists in this 71st edition of the Formula 1 World Championship. Mercedes have provided a constantly good car since the hybrid-turbo formula kicked in, while Red Bull have been there thereabouts, perhaps a bit closer if not ahead a tad this year.
In a nutshell, McLaren may be best of the rest with a strong upwardly mobile trajectory, it is not a winning team at this stage of the 2021 contest, and as a Mercedes customer, it has to be asked if they will ever really challenge for the big prize on every Sunday.
Ricciardo, a veteran of four teams prior to arriving at Woking, will start his 190th Grand Prix for the sport’s second most successful team and is aware that podiums will be hard to come, let alone victories.
He explained: “I’ve been doing it long enough that I could jump in probably any car on the grid and get up to speed within, call it, 10 laps or 20 laps. But there’s a difference between driving fast and getting that extra tenth out of the car.
“So that’s where driving isn’t everything and why normally with a new team, it takes time to perfect it. I think I’ll be good come race one, but will I be perfect in that environment yet? The plan is to be, but the truth is I probably won’t be.”
Already Hamilton has opened his eighth title quest with a remarkable win over Verstappen in Bahrain, the Britton blessed with a fantastic team and greatest F1 cars in the history of the sport at his disposal for the past eight years.
But Ricciardo has respect: “Where we can’t be too aggressive or disrespectful to Lewis, is that, do a few of us believe we could beat him? Yes. I’m quite sure of that. But none of us have ever been in the hunt for a title. None of us have dealt with that pressure. None of us have had that year after year.
“Pretty much every weekend he rocks up to a race. Yes, he has the best car, but he’s also expected to win all the time. And if he doesn’t, it’s, ‘OK, what happened to Lewis?’
As for the other 18 drivers on the grid: “I wouldn’t even say you’ve got one eye on the competition, you’ve got like half an eye open. But, really, that’s out of your control. You just have to use all your energy – focused on yourself and the team – and give yourself the best chance come race one.”
Daniel owes his career in F1 to the Red Bull organisation who funded his debut half-season at HRT followed by a couple of years at Toro Rosso before his five-year spell with the senior team, the two years at Renault and now McLaren.
What’s the impact of changing teams?
Ricciardo replied: “I guess I’ve been doing it long enough now that I’m probably more, what’s the word? Numb, to all the changes around me. But in saying that, yes, it does always feel weird, like, even the first few laps in the car, you always, kind of, question, ‘Am I going to be scared or is this going to feel OK?”
“And you wonder if, I don’t know, being detached from the sport for a few months, if that creates something weird, but normally after a few laps, it all feels normal again.”
“Yeah, that’s the coolness of the sport in a way, but also the downside where no one can really relate. So it makes our job feel even more special that, you know, we’re only a few that can drive these missiles. But then trying to get the appreciation or the understanding of why we need to be physically prepared – the margins between success and failure… no one can relate.
“Everyone can run on a football field for 90 minutes and comprehend, yes, that’s hard, you need to be really fit and all that, but driving in F1? It’s hard to explain.”
Daniel is now in his 11th year as an F1 driver and suggests he might lie low when he does call it quits: “As much as I love the sport, and obviously it’s given me a lot, I think I’ll also equally love to escape from it once I’m done.
“I’ve poured all my heart into it and energy, so when I do say I’m done, I think I’ll be done. At least for a bit of time. I mean, it might call me back to do something at some point… but I just see myself just going on a massive road trip and doing something really, still adventurous, but in a different way, you know, not on a schedule,” concluded Ricciardo.