Monday 18 February 2019

Trailblazing dreamer Ricciardo only scratching surface

Daniel Ricciardo of Australia celebrates with the trophy after the Canadian F1 Grand Prix
Daniel Ricciardo of Australia celebrates with the trophy after the Canadian F1 Grand Prix

David Kennedy

Red Bull and Mercedes between them have won the last 21 grands prix. That’s one hell of a lock-out party. However, as we all know, when one or two teams dominate it can all get a bit predicable.

Except last weekend was different. The only driver to break Mercedes’ run of six consecutive wins was Daniel Ricciardo who scored his maiden win for Red Bull.  And maiden wins are precious moments in a driver’s career.

He has an Italian surname but he’s every inch an Aussie. His father was born in Sicily and moved to Australia when he was seven, his mother’s family are also Italian, from Calabria, on the toe of the peninsula. Ricciardo was born in Perth, Western Australia, population two million, in the unprepossessing middle-class coastal suburb of Duncraig. Now he lives in Monaco.

Perth is the most isolated city in the world, but that didn’t stop Ricciardo from believing that one day he could race in Formula One.  Triple world champion, the recently deceased Jack Brabham, was proof that Australians could fulfil that dream. Brabham inspired Mark Webber, too; geographically those two were closer in New South Wales, a mere 40 hours drive from Perth. 

Webber served seven years at Red Bull and had dispensed sound advice to the guy who surprised everyone by securing the coveted drive. But right from day one Ricciardo has stamped his own authority on a team that was previously Vettel-centric.

He delivered a win seven races into his employment; the team’s first of the season. It was his 57th race, good going compared to Webber who was seven years and 130 races into his F1 career, or a better comparison would be two years with Red Bull before his first victory.

To win your first F1 race just shy of your quarter century is psychologically timely. In fact, he only learned to drive a road car with gears in his father’s yard at the age of 15. 

Ricciardo’s racing trajectory was pretty straightforward. He was 18 when he left for Europe after doing the usual karting apprenticeship, followed by some Formula Ford in an old Van Dieman. He raced in various single-seater championships in Europe. In 2008 he won the Formula Renault championship. In 2009 he won the British F3 series. His first full-time F1 job was in 2011 with HRT, then on to Toro Rosso and this year to the coveted role at Red Bull.

Incredibly two of our Status GP drivers were in line for drives with Toro Rosso. GP3 multiple race winner Canadian Robert Wickens beat Jean-Eric Vergne to win the Formula Renault 3.5 championship in 2011 but Vergne was chosen over Wickens because he was already part of the Red Bull driver development programme. Wickens was then eyed up by Mercedes and got a DTM drive as part of their junior team.

In fact, Toro Rosso had a total clean-out when they replaced Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari in favour of Ricciardo and Vergne.

Status GP3 race winner Félix da Costa was selected to join the Red Bull junior team in 2012. Da Costa was widely tipped to replace Ricciardo in 2014, but the team opted for Daniil Kvyat instead. The Portuguese driver got the consolation of a BMW DTM drive and is Red Bull Racing’s reserve driver for 2014, alongside Buemi.

Once upon a time a young man with the same dream went the other way, to Perth, to work in the iron ore mines to earn enough money to go motor racing. Derek Daly came with me. It was long before Ricciardo was even born. Thanks to that decision, and to meeting my sponsor and mentor John Hynes, we made it to F1. 

World champions Jones, Fittipaldi, Villeneuve, Piquet, Prost and Rosberg were among 40 drivers trying to qualify. In fact, Fittipaldi visited me in my garage to see exactly who was the madman driving the most dangerous car in F1. But youth has no mortal compass. Believing in the dream is the first step towards realising it.

Discord seems to be breaking out everywhere. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are still at loggerheads. The two Marussia drivers collided in Montreal on the opening lap.

Now Red Bull and Mercedes are at it. Red Bull is an Austrian company running two Austrian teams in F1. Red Bull also own the Austrian circuit which is the venue for next weekend’s Grand Prix.

Mercedes have triple world champion Niki Lauda, an Austrian, on board as chairman and advisor. His eponymous corner has been erased by the new owners. The only Austrian to have won his home Grand Prix is not a happy camper. 

Red Bull defended their action saying they want to sell the corner to a sponsor, implying that continuing to honour one of Austria’s greatest ever drivers doesn’t generate anything on the credit side of their ledger. Like they need the money.

The bickering doesn’t end there. Depending on which version you believe, Red Bull has evicted Mercedes from their pre-booked Red Bull-owned hotel and now the mechanics have to travel a long distance to the circuit.

It brings to mind the line from the film The Quick and the Dead when the guy says, “This is my town! If you live to see the dawn, it’s because I allow it. I’m in charge of everything. I decide who lives or who dies!”

So keep an eye out for revenge in the eyes of Lauda. How Red Bull would love to win this race and how Mercedes would love to stop them. Let’s hope the row between Hamilton and Rosberg doesn’t interfere with the row between Mercedes and Red Bull.

Austria hasn’t hosted a Grand Prix since Michael Schumacher last won in a Ferrari in 2003. Hamilton goes well on new circuits and he has a 22-point deficit to motivate him.

I raced there when it was called the Österreichring in a Formula Ford. It’s a great circuit. It’s been renamed the Red Bull Ring, naturally.

The Le Mans 24 hours race takes place this weekend. Toyota is on pole position. Mark Webber lines up fourth in a Porsche. Can Toyota beat Audi, winners 12 times since 2000? Last year‘s Audi winner Loïc Duval is currently in hospital for observation following a spectacular shunt in practice. In 2013 the race began tragically when Danish driver Allan Simonsen was killed.

For Grey’s Anatomy fans, Patrick Dempsey starts 41st on the grid in a Porsche. The actor is passionate about his racing and has not only raced for Mazda but has acted as ambassador for the manufacturer. He attended our 20th victory celebrations back in 2011 at Le Mans. 

Indeed, 23 years after Mazda won the race in 1991 they remain the only Japanese manufacturer to have done so. But if pole man Nakajima wins for Toyota he will be the first Japanese in a Japanese team to triumph. Pole is one thing but there’s still a gruelling 24 hours to go. At 2pm today we’ll find out.

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