Formula One’s next Champion: Daniel Ricciardo

September 14, 2016 10:22 pm

The 2017 musical chair is yet to settle down as there are still spots left in the grid to be filled up either from inside or outside. The other news on the grid is that with the retirement of Massa and the “not retirement” of Jenson Button, Formula One is going through a transfusion of young blood in great volume and with age running out of Gen X drivers, it’s time for the young ones to take the baton now. Factor in next year’s regulatory changes and we may have a new champion crowned come the end of next year.

So, suppose you have a free run to sign whichever Formula 1 driver you want. Who would you choose?

Lewis Hamilton stands out, a triple world champion and unquestionably among the all-time greats. Fernando Alonso, too, for all his light has been hidden under a McLaren-Honda bushel of late. Sebastian Vettel is another obvious choice. But the name that should really stand out is Daniel Ricciardo.

Why? After all, he has only got three grand Prix victories to his name, and when Red Bull won a race this year, it was Max Verstappen delivering the goods. And didn’t Daniil Kvyat outscore him last season in identical machinery? Plenty for the Ricciardo doubters to hang their doubting hats on.

All of those statements are true, but assuming you accept the premise that Ricciardo is regarded as one of F1’s top drivers, he is unique among them in that he has never had the best car on the grid under him. So that renders the GP wins statistic a positive rather than a negative.

Kvyat’s points tally last year was a consequence of Ricciardo having the worse end of reliability when the Red Bull was at its most competitive. As for Verstappen’s Spain win, staggering as that was, that race was one of the two Ricciardo should have taken this season taken from him by team errors. Just look at Ricciardo’s mighty qualifying lap to see how he dug deep when under pressure from his rapid young team-mate.

That Ricciardo has the speed is unquestionable. On a single-lap basis, that has been in evidence in F1 for a long time, stretching all the way back to his sixth place on the grid for the Bahrain GP in 2012 for Toro Rosso that was arguably the qualifying lap of the season. In a straight fight, over a single lap, there’s no driver you would choose over him.

In terms of consistency, we saw in 2014 against Sebastian Vettel that he was able to deliver that in races and he has continued to do so since.

In battle, he is a canny driver. Defensively, he’s not easy to get around and as for overtaking skills, that’s an area where he’s demonstrably one of the best on the grid. Actually, make that the best.

Interestingly, it was a race in which he failed to pull off a pass that exemplified this – this year’s Spanish Grand Prix. Two things stood out during his pursuit of Vettel. Firstly, his skills in overtaking. He tracked Vettel, lay in wait and then launched a sneak attack, lunging into the first corner. He didn’t telegraph his intent with some half-baked looks in previous laps, but waited and pounced. It didn’t come off, and Vettel complained but after the race, the Australian made very clear what lay at the heart of his overtaking ability.

“Unlike probably 99% of the drivers on the grid I actually tried to make an overtake,” he told Sky Sports F1. “A lot of them are content sitting behind and not actually having a go.”

Clear echoes there of the famous Senna line, “if you no longer go for a gap which exists, you are no longer a racing driver” – albeit with the caveat that this famous line came during an interview that focused on the infamous, and deliberate, crash with Alain Prost at the start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.

Read: F1 archives: When Senna crashed because the wall moved. 

Ricciardo has shown real incisiveness. His first grand Prix victory in Canada 2014 depended on passing the Force India of Sergio Perez for second to get a run at lame duck leader Nico Rosberg, and his second in Hungary on late moves on Hamilton and Alonso.

Occasionally, there have been passing manoeuvres that have been on the edge, but Ricciardo is exactly the kind of driver F1 needs in this regard. He is willing to attack, willing to risk it all for the ultimate prize but he stops short of rash manoeuvres and bulldozing people off the track.

See the below overtake for instance:

The mention of Senna raises the question many do ask about Ricciardo – whether he’s ruthless enough. His permagrin public persona couldn’t be more different to the intensity Senna brought to the track.

But we saw after the Spanish and Monaco GP’s, both races that he should have won, that Ricciardo doesn’t find a lack of success funny. Inside him beats the heart of a true racer. Not only did he make his feelings very clear when the Monaco GP finished, but he also revealed his awareness that the clock is ticking.

The question is, will Ricciardo get a drive he deserves before the days of his peak performance are over?

“I’m 27 very soon and I don’t even have anything close to a world title,” Ricciardo told Sky Sports F1, before explaining how confident he was that he had the ability to deliver given the opportunity.

Ricciardo did not find that losing a Monaco GP after he had done the heavy lifting to win, only for it slip through his fingers through no fault of his own amusing. He did not find losing the Spanish GP amusing. The upshot of that was that he was willing to point out to the world that, at an age when Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all had world titles under his belt, he did not find it amusing that there is no world title on the horizon.

That, at heart, is the ruthlessness showing through. He avoided emphatically slating the team, a pointless exercise given the individuals making the errors hardly did so deliberately. But the implication was that if Red Bull couldn’t offer him the means to succeed soon he would be willing to look elsewhere.

Ricciardo has started 102 Grands Prix and driven both the worst and the second-best car on the grid, as well as pretty much everything in between. But he’s never had the chance to boss a season. You get the feeling that’s what he craves more than anything. The novelty of winning the odd race here and there has long since worn off, and the ability to laugh off failures like Spain and Monaco and take solace in the fact there is plenty more time has faded.

As Ricciardo said in post-Monaco interviews, missing out on a rare race wins is “getting a bit long in the tooth”.

That’s what proves the key ingredient is there. There are plenty of fast racing drivers, plenty capable of winning races on their day, but it’s that drive, that determination, that ruthlessness that the true champions share.

Plug Ricciardo into a world championship winning car and you would not bet against anyone to beat him. After all, throughout his career he has proved his ability to deliver when under the most pressure.

Look back to what was effectively a shootout with Jean-Eric Vergne to secure the Red Bull seat for 2014. Publicly, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said it was between them and, at the time, the momentum was with Vergne, who had just delivered excellent drives to eighth and sixth in Monaco and Canada while Ricciardo had, by his own admission, lost his way.

Immediately, after some serious soul searching and some intensive work with the team, Ricciardo’s form picked up while Vergne couldn’t quite string things together. Both had the pace, but Ricciardo was the one who demonstrated the ability to perform under pressure.

So the boxes are all ticked – speed, racecraft, ruthlessness, determination, the ability to scrutinize his own performance and fix problems.

There’s only one question Ricciardo has yet to answer, and that’s the one that has yet to be asked.

Could he cut it in a world championship fight?

You can never be sure how somebody will stand up to a new situation, but everything we’ve seen from him so far suggests he’s made of the right stuff. It’s time for him to have that opportunity, and with Red Bull and the improving Renault engine coupled with aerodynamics skewed 2017 regulation he is at the right place if not the best.

After all, part of being a world champion is about making sure you are in the right place at the right time.

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