Daniel Riccardo has the speed and the talent to win races and fight for this year’s world title according to his Red Bull team boss Christian Horner – and his own Aussie racer predecessor Mark Webber.
But he may have to wait a while for the car that can carry him to glory as Red Bull go into the 2017 season acknowledging rivals champions Mercedes and a revitalised Ferrari had the edge in pre-season testing.
In the final countdown to Sunday’s season-opening Rolex Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, the big-grinning West Australian has been showered in praise, but has admitted that he may need to show more snarl than smile if he is to end Mercedes’ domination and beat favourite Lewis Hamilton to the drivers crown.
“When I came into Red Bull, everyone thought ‘he’s just a happy, nice guy’, said Ricciardo. “He’s fast, but he can’t race hard with these top guys… That was a reputation I had to dismiss and people have seen now that I am a racer and I have big intentions in the sport -- and I am prepared to get my shoulders out if I need to...”
Ricciardo’s transition from Mr Nice Guy to Street Fighting Man is still under way as he seeks the balance that will enable him to retain his true nature and image, but scrap for every point in F1’s new era of ‘fatter and faster’ fitness-sapping machines.
“I think that Daniel was driver of the year last season and he is hitting peak form in his career right now,” said Horner. “We want to capitalize on that and, hopefully, we can give him a car capable of challenging for race wins.
“His performance over a single lap on a Saturday is fantastic and his ability to dig a lap out of the car is, I think, the best out there on a Saturday afternoon,” he added.
“His race craft is phenomenal, his overtaking skills are absolutely first-class and some of the overtakes that we have seen him make over the last couple of years have been fantastic… And I think there is still more to come!”
Webber joined the line earlier this week when he summed up his views ahead of the season-opener. “Lewis remains the man to beat,” he said in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun. “He hasn't got many weaknesses, but Daniel is capable of matching him.
“Daniel is so experienced now and he he’s got very few flaws. He’s very composed, he's good in all conditions and you don't see any red mist coming over him, which is a great quality.”
Ricciardo knows he needs his car to develop smoothly if he and team-mate Dutch teenager Max Verstappen are to handle the pressure and live up to Horner’s billing of them as the best driver pairing.
“It’s great for both of them because for Max there is a huge amount of attention and interest, as he is so young and such an exciting driver,” said Horner.
“Daniel could have withered under that pressure last year, but he didn’t. He rose to it. I think there is a great respect and relationship between them -- they are pushing each other hard, but also working collectively off-track to best serve the team.’’
All that will look fine until the first big battle, admitted Ricciardo, who has kept a lower-than-usual profile in the run-up to the Australian season-opener.
“I can’t be naive and think we are still going to love each other no matter what, even if we are banging wheel to wheel every race,” he told The Guardian in a recent interview. “We are competitors….
“If there is tension, or friction, as the season goes on that’s part of the game. If Lewis beats me in a Mercedes, I can tell the world he beat me because his car is better.
“But if Max beats me every race, I am going to run out of excuses. So, yeah, your team-mate is the number one person you want to beat…”
If he can do that, most observers reckon it will be enough to keep him in contention in the title scrap and, with luck, might even help land his first home win in front of the Albert Park crowd.