After seven races in this year’s Formula One championship we have learned one thing: Daniel Ricciardo is Australia’s next global sporting superstar.
The 24-year-old won the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday and rose to third in the overall standings, two places ahead of stable-mate and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel. The formidable Vettel is chasing his fifth consecutive world championship and, this season, his new teammate, who has beaten him home in the last five races.
The win in Canada was Ricciardo’s maiden grand prix victory and offered more evidence that he’s got what it takes to win the world championship.
When he pulled on the fireproof suit in Melbourne to start the season, local fans hoped he was that good. Commentators suspected he was, but knew that talent and promise were little more than precursors. Not having tested himself in one of the championship-winning Red Bull cars, even Ricciardo would have had questions lurking in the remoter parts of his mind about his ability to compete with the best.
Seven races later there’s no longer any debate about it. He’s the real deal.
Vettel, already a legend, has crossed the line ahead of Ricciardo only once – in Malaysia – after the Aussie’s car let go of a tyre as he was leaving the pits, forcing him to retire a few laps later. Even with the 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Bahrain, Ricciardo finished two places ahead of Vettel after starting three places behind him.
Ricciardo’s form has been strong – and improving – since the season opened with a mix of triumph and tragedy in Melbourne. Taking second place to the roars of his home crowd, Ricciardo watched as stewards disqualified him on a fuel technicality, robbing him of 15 championship points.
But his results since then suggest more wins are likely. He’s been edging closer and closer to the front of the field with each race:
• Melbourne: 2nd (disqualified)
• Malaysia: retired
• Bahrain: 4th
• China: 4th
• Spain: 3rd
• Monaco: 3rd
• Canada: 1st
Now that he has broken through for a win, Ricciardo has set himself on a path to becoming the most recognisable sportsperson Australia has produced in at least a generation. Could he become a global uber-brand like Greg Norman? We think so.
Norman took his famous looks and talent and created a global business empire, keeping him in the public eye long after his playing days were done. Golfers have a longer shelf-life than other sportspeople, but so do drivers. At 24, Ricciardo could have another 10 years at the top, possibly more. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher took off the fireproof suit for the last time at 43 but was 35 when he won his last championship in 2004. The oldest current F1 driver is 34-year-old Kimi Raikkonen. (The oldest ever Formula One competitor was Monaco’s Louis Chiron who drove at 58 during the 1958 championship.)
Ricciardo’s only current threat to exulted status is Adam Scott, the world’s best golfer. But golf doesn’t reach as far into living rooms as Formula One and it is not played at the highest level in 19 countries.
If Ricciardo takes a podium finish he can make headlines in Abu Dhabi, Russia, Spain, Shanghai, Budapest, Melbourne and just about everywhere in between.
Three of the four major golf championships are played in the US and the fourth in Britain. Adam Scott’s best hope of making headlines in Sao Paolo would have been to marry a local soap star, but that’s no longer an option after he married his longtime girlfriend earlier this year – and almost failed to make headlines in his own country.
Cadel Evans could raise his hand at this point but his stardom diminishes the further you get from Europe. Ricciardo has already outstripped the global fame achieved by Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter put together and multiplied by five. No Australia football player – round ball or otherwise, current or past – gets close to Ricciardo’s brand recognition.
Formula One can be a fickle sport, one where equipment often has a bigger say in success than talent. But Ricciardo is blessed with both. While the history of F1 is littered with stories of hopeful beginnings going sour, Daniel Ricciardo is as well placed as anyone since Greg Norman to become a genuine global megastar. He’s just got to keep his eyes on the road.