JOVIAL AUSTRALIAN SAYS HE IS NOT BEING LEFT BEHIND AND REMAINS CONFIDENT HIS BEST IS YET TO COME
The residents of Sturdy Lane, Woburn Sands, just 8km from Milton Keynes, must not have known what had hit them. A laughing Australian with a smile as wide as the Great Barrier Reef had moved in next door, claiming to be a Formula 1 driver.
Today, as much as in the early years of his career, Daniel Ricciardo does not quite fit the mould. Constantly giggling, he actually turns up to press conferences with a grin on his face rather than the usual steely corporate stare. He is not afraid to make a fool of himself. It means it can often be quite tricky getting a serious answer out of the 27-year-old.
For instance, I ask why life growing up in Perth made him so smiley. “I know my parents definitely smoked a lot of weed around the house growing up. A lot of herbs,” he quips. Red Bull’s press officer steps in to make it clear that was a joke. And then another: “I was adopted — left outside someone’s porch ... ”
His answer to a question about life as part of the Monaco club of drivers having left Sturdy Lane more than two years ago, without his school girlfriend, Jemma Boskovich — the pair split up before this season, a fact helpfully announced by his boss, Christian Horner, at the team’s launch — included a word best left in the urban dictionary.
But these are deadly serious times for the likeable Australian. The promise of the 2014 season has not yet been fulfilled. Ricciardo obliterated Sebastian Vettel that year, his first at Red Bull, making the four-time reigning champion look distinctly ordinary on his way to three victories.
Then came an unlucky 2015, when Ricciardo initially struggled to adapt to a car not as fast as the previous year. Daniil Kvyat outscored him, but the team knew Ricciardo had the upper hand. And now he faces Max Verstappen, the 18-year-old prodigy who won on his debut in Spain. Verstappen has scored 77 points to his 64 in their six races together.
There is a danger the 27-year-old could join the long list of drivers who get left behind, not managing to coincide their best form with being in a car capable of winning the world championship. The man himself spoke to this frustration after the disappointment of Monte Carlo.
But Ricciardo’s confidence that he will win at least one championship in his career is as high as it has ever been. “Am I worried? No. I’m not,” he assures his legions of fans, buoyed by his elevation to the upper echelons of the sport. And then another joke: “The only thing I’m scared of is sharks and snakes. Fortunately I still am learning a lot. I’m growing as a driver. I think if I’d learned all I had to now, then I would be worried. But I’m getting better and better. Valentino Rossi [the seven-time motorbike champion] is a great example of why to keep trying to improve yourself. If he was content with being best in the world, then he wouldn’t still be the best in the world.
“I don’t fear I’m going to be left behind. Sure, I look at people like Seb, and he had four world titles at this age. I was just in Red Bull that year too late. Some people have probably had it — not better — but had it slightly luckier, or had the timing. Still, it hasn’t been a bad break. I’ve won a few races. Sure, I still believe I’ll win a world title, I’d just rather do it sooner rather than later.”
Ricciardo came third in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, behind the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nicco Rosberg.
The man with the Colgate-advert smile knows that sooner rather than later he needs to turn his talent into titles to prevent being brushed aside by the next generation.