Daniel Ricciardo grew up in Perth, a long way from Australia’s motor racing mainstream, so rather than coming to notice nationally, he headed first to Asia, then Europe, to hone his craft. So it is that he’s in Formula One without going through Australia’s nursery classes.
Since being picked up by the Red Bull organisation and being assisted through the ‘junior’ classes, the cheerful and seemingly easy-going Ricciardo has risen steadily through the ranks. However, he’s now coming up against Sebastian Vettel – the dominant driver of the past few F1 Seasons.
Testing from Spain and the Middle East has shown that Red Bull (and more particularly, engine supplier Renault) may well be starting their race a bit late. That aside, Ricciardo will be measured against his teammate, regardless of their overall positions in the field; after all, they’re presumed to be in equal equipment.
Ricciardo’s arrival at the top team was great news to Australian fans, but should have been no great surprise; he’d been consistently a bit quicker than his fancied teammate Jean-Eric Vergne at Torro Rosso – Red Bull’s second-string team. Mark Webber had demolished teammate after teammate before coming up against Vettel. Webber often had the pace of his teammate, but not the ruthlessness, nor the 100 per cent backing of the team. Through it all he remained professional, somehow.
Unlike many, Ricciardo didn’t have to buy his way into Formula One. His family funded his early racing in Formula BMW in Asia, but once he was picked for the Red Bull development program, there would be at least a heavy subsidy coming from the energy drink giant. With both Red Bull drivers now there by virtue of the same talent scheme, if they can get their cars to be reliable, they’ll be a force.
By way of comparison, while Ricciardo has shaded Vergne in the last couple of years, 2005 and 2006 world champion Fernando Alonso was only just quicker than teammates Alex Yoong and Tarso Marques in 2001’s Minardi lineup, although he was soon snapped up by Renault after a year as a test driver in 2002.
Kimi Raikkonen, champion in 2007, came to Formula One with very little racing car experience – every time he jumped into a car, he demolished his opponents and was bumped up a class. He came to F1 with only 23 car races behind him (but a win rate of over 50 per cent). It took him a few years to win his World Championship after being shaded by Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld in his first year.
The 2009 champion Jenson Button was the ‘next great hope’ of the jingoistic English motorsport press. Like Raikkonen, Button was shaded by his teammate, Ralf Schumacher in his first year at Williams in 2001.
Going by those numbers, it might be looking good for Ricciardo, but he’s going to have to spend the next year or two being compared with a bloke who could well be one of the greats.
Many drivers have come into F1 with lots of money and been gone just as soon as that money ran out. Ricciardo, though, has been carefully groomed and nurtured. Possibly the last such driver was Lewis Hamilton – and look how he’s gone since. A World Championship (2008) behind him and with early season favouritism, Hamilton looks the driver to beat right now.
The most important thing to remember this weekend is that the Red Bull Renaults have had a troubled start to the year. Just getting a car across the finish line will be a huge effort (and a big gain in knowledge).
It’s hard to not get your hopes up, though, isn’t it?