The name may be Italian, but the boy is an Aussie through and through. Just ask Daniel Ricciardo’s father.
Joe Ricciardo was born in Sicily but came Down Under at the tender age of seven. His wife Grace was born in Australia but her family hails from Calabria. Since Jarno Trulli lost his race seat to Vitaly Petrov and his Russian roubles, leaving the grid without an Italian driver for the first time since 1970, Daniel Ricciardo might just be the closest thing to it in 2012.
“Yes, they’re trying to claim him in Italy,” chuckles Joe, “but his roots are here and he’s got the Aussie flag on his helmet.”
The young man who joins Mark Webber on the Melbourne grid for the first time will be in a Toro Rosso STR07 after a slightly anxious wait at the end of 2011 for the telephone to ring.
“I was actually at home, it was after dinner and the phone call came,” Daniel recalls.
“It was short, sharp and to the point, but it contained all the news I wanted to hear. It was an awesome Christmas present and a big relief. I was with Mum and Dad at the time and I came out of my room and told them the news and it felt pretty special.”
Dan, who actually started his overseas career in Italy in 2008, has been marked by his father’s passion for motor sport. “My own Dad had no interest,” Joe recalls, “but I did, and from a very young age – as early as I can remember, in fact.”
“The family tells me that my grandfather used to take me on his shoulders to watch motor racing back in Sicily, so I can only imagine that would have been the Targa Florio [a world-famous open-road endurance race based around Palermo] in those days. But I loved the racing in the Sixties, Jim Clark and those blokes, which is where my passion for historic racing came from.”
Joe will admit to “a little bit of local racing” in his own past and still has a collection that includes a Hamilton/Costanzo Formula Pacific car, but Dan’s passion for the sport was fuelled by the racing he and his father watched together on the small screen. But interestingly enough, Joe insists that there’s another side to his son.
“I think his best quality is his... easiness, I suppose you’d call it,” he says. “Nothing fazes him; he’s pretty calm, he doesn’t take things too seriously until that helmet goes on. It’s not all racing and cars – he loves his music, for example. I see other kids over there in Europe walking up and down the paddock, it’s all racing, there doesn’t seem to be anything else and you can feel the tension – but not in Dan.”
That quality shines through as Ricciardo Jr. assesses his priorities for the year ahead in the light of his 11-race F1 experience with the HRT outfit in 2011. “Looking back at the whole year, I did more travelling than ever before in my life and I found out it can be really tiring and can take it out of you,” he says.
“So I learned how important it is to be on time and to manage my time as efficiently as possible and to rest when I can. There was so much to take in last year and from the driving point of view, as a reserve driver you can see everything the job involves, but until you are actually racing, you do not realise the demands it puts on you, so that was another important lesson.”
“I learned to get my priorities right and not waste my energy elsewhere.”
That may have been helped by Dan’s involvement with the Red Bull Junior Driver programme. “It was pretty fortunate that Red Bull picked him up when we were at a crossroads and the budget was a bit stretched,” Joe recalls, but of course Dan’s quality shone through from the moment he won the West European Formula Renault Cup, then moved on to dominate the prestigious British F3 series in 2009 – the year in which he ended the season with a brilliant F1 test at Jerez for Red Bull.
It’s easy to forget that Dan did those 11 races last season, and even he concedes that coming to Melbourne will be a bit like starting all over again.
“It does feel a bit like my first race,” he says. “It’s quite special – to have the opening race of the year at home creates even more of a buzz.”
Not that Dan hasn’t been here before: as a youngster he used to come “every couple of years or so” as a spectator, and last year he took part in his first official F1 practice session when he stood in for Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari – one of the men who have made way for the team’s all-new driver line-up – at Albert Park on Friday morning.
Ricciardo finished a respectable 16th in that session, completing 23 laps with a best time of 1 minute 29.486 seconds. Meanwhile Mark Webber in the sister team’s Red Bull-Renault was topping the session with a best time of 1:26.831, and he will have told Daniel what to expect this time round.
As Webber well knows, with the local buzz comes a burden of expectation, not only in terms of media hype but also from Aussie fans desperate for a home-grown hero to cheer on.
“It’s going to be hectic,” Ricciardo acknowledges, “I’m aware of that. But I’m just going to try and soak it all in and enjoy it because it’s a huge opportunity, a huge experience.”
True enough: but how far can Daniel Ricciardo go? In a sense, he’s halfway to being a Ferrari driver – every racer’s dream – already as his Toro Rosso is powered by the Italian manufacturer’s engines. But joking apart, Joe sees other qualities in his son that could ear-mark him for stardom.
“He’s got this pure discipline,” he says, “it’s unbelievable. He knows what he wants and you can’t tempt him with anything that gets in the way. We all want to win a Brownlow or captain a winning Test team or whatever, don’t we, and Daniel is no different: winning races and being World Champion is his aim. I think he’s got the skill, the temperament, in fact he ticks most of the boxes.”