Dateline: Silverstone, UK, July 10, 2011
The grid for the British Grand Prix is neatly book-ended. There is an Australian on pole position in the shape of Mark Webber in the #2 Red Bull Renault. At the very back, in 24th place, is the #22 HRT Cosworth, occupied by Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
The gritty Webber is about to start his 166th Grand Prix; for the ever-smiling Ricciardo, it is his F1 debut. It is also the first time in almost a quarter of a century that a Grand Prix starting line-up has contained two Australian drivers.
Fast forward two-and-a-half years. On the grid for the first race of F1’s brave new era in Melbourne on March 16, Ricciardo will sit in the Red Bull Renault vacated by his countryman at the end of 2013.
The West Australian may never develop a gift for Webberisms, those pithy statements Mark became rightly famous for, but he does have a nice line in understatement.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” he opined when the news of his elevation from Scuderia Toro Rosso to Red Bull’s senior team was announced.
Right direction? That’s like saying the top of Everest is a decent step up in the world, as Ricciardo prepares to represent the team that has won both Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles for the past four years.
Dan’s elevation to a Red Bull seat came about partly because of his consistent pace in the Toro Rosso in 2013, when he was a regular participant in Q3, and partly as a stroke of luck.
Webber announced he was leaving F1 at the end of the season just before the 2013 British Grand Prix. A change of plans then opened up Pirelli’s planned young driver test soon after that race to established F1 drivers and Ricciardo got the chance to impress the Red Bull hierarchy as they began their search for a replacement.
Dan grabbed it with both hands, setting the embarrassment of an early ‘off’ behind him as he powered to second place in the three-day test behind… Red Bull’s #1 Sebastian Vettel.
In the end the fresh-faced Ricciardo got the nod over early favourite Kimi Raikkonen, who will race for Ferrari instead this year.
“He’s got all the attributes that are required to drive for our team,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner of Ricciardo. “He’s got great natural ability, he’s a good personality and a great guy to work with.”
Whether it was his 2013 speed that got him the nod or his long-term relationship with Red Bull, and the need for Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz to vindicate their whole program, remains a moot point.
But two questions arise: how will Ricciardo stand up to comparison with Vettel, and where will he stand within the team?
“It will be a great challenge to race alongside Sebastian,” said Dan diplomatically, and he’s not wrong: the Australian has yet to stand on a Grand Prix podium while Seb has been there no fewer than 62 times, a remarkable 39 of those being visits to the top step.
As for the team, how will they view things if Ricciardo wins – as he has said he plans to do –in 2014? Will that be a feather in his cap, a vindication of the Red Bull driver program – or will it be perceived as a threat to their favourite son?
Ricciardo already enjoys a better relationship with Vettel’s mentor and Mateschitz’s right-hand man Helmut Marko as ‘Dr Marko’, a sign of respect that was never forthcoming from his Aussie predecessor in the team.
And it was Marko who took the hint when his scouts tipped him off about a new young Aussie looking to make a name for himself in Formula Renault in Italy in 2007.
For Ricciardo, that move had been a calculated risk. After starting in Formula BMW Asia with the Eurasia team in 2006, finishing third overall, Ricciardo went to Italy, not because of his family’s connections there but because they knew Red Bull were interested in the category Dan was joining.
It worked: he has been a Red Bull man since 2008, when he won the Formula Renault 2.0 West European Cup. The next season he did what Webber hadn’t been able to do, winning the prestigious British F3 title with Carlin; he was runner-up in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2010; and in 2011 Red Bull placed him at HRT mid-year to gain experience ahead of greater things.
“It forced me to learn quickly,” said Dan of that 11-race stint with the ill-fated Spanish team. By 2012 he was a Toro Rosso driver and he showed how well he had learned when he scored his first world Championship points on debut for the team in the Australian Grand Prix at season’s start.
“I don’t really know how that happened!” he confessed after a last-lap lunge carried him past team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne and into ninth place. “The last few laps were crazy and I was pushing like hell.”
He’ll have to do the same to match his new team-mate in 2014. If, as expected, Adrian Newey’s 2014 car is the cream of the new-look F1 crop, Ricciardo’s trademark smile could be bigger than ever.
Then again, if Vettel continues in his current vein, by season’s end it could be wearing thin…
|Get Behind Australia's Latest Formula 1® Star, Daniel Ricciardo|
|1989||Born 1 July 1989 in Perth, Australia|
|1998||Started karting at 9 years old|
|2006||Won a Formula BMW Asia Pacific Scholarship|
|2008||Selected for the Red Bull Junior Team|
|2010||Became Test and Reserve Driver for Scuderia Toro Rosso|
|2011||Drives in Formula 1® for the first time with the HRT Team for the last 11 races|
|2012||Secures first Championship Points at the 2012 Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix for Scuderia Toro Rosso|
|2013||Secures his highest finish at the 2013 Formula 1® Chinese Grand Prix. Named as Mark Webber's successor at Championship winning team Infiniti Red Bull Racing|
|2014||Will race for the first time for championship winning team Infiniti Red Bull Racing, at the 2014 Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix|