He may be the last of our sporting larrikins, but as Formula One’s ‘young roosters’ start to challenge Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian just wants to be first.
It’s new contract time, and the rest of the paddock is waiting for the Ricciardo domino to fall. By late April, the 28-year-old will have to make a career-defining decision.
Stay with Red Bull – the team that has nurtured him but failed to provide a championship-winning car – or head in a new direction while he has the luxury of cherry-picking his next drive?
There is a plan. Get in the fastest car he can, win some world championships and sail off into the Western Australian sunset.
“I would have liked a world title by now, but I guess all good things take a bit of time,” Ricciardo told The New Daily after encouraging signs in pre-season testing that his Red Bull finally has the grunt to match it with Mercedes and Ferrari.
I am aware that this moment now – this year alone, but [also] whatever happens beyond this year will be pretty critical and crucial time in my career.
“I feel that I am at an age now and I have done enough in the sport that I am wise enough to make the right decision. I know enough about the sport and about myself and what I want.
“So yeah, I’m excited and ready to kind of give obviously the next few years a good push and see where it takes me.”
Failing a Red Bull miracle this season, everyone expects that the journey will take him to Mercedes, with Ferrari having young gun Charles Leclerc in reserve. The newly Renault-powered McLaren outfit still a risky option.
Which makes it all the more interesting that Ricciardo’s potential new teammate, four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, left the Australian out of his top-three competitors in a fantasy event where all were competing in equal cars.
Oh did he. Didn’t mention me? Sometimes people avoid their greatest fears.”
Hamilton picked Red Bull rival Max Verstappen, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, but not current teammate Valtteri Bottas – could it be Hamilton avoids boosting potential teammates?
“Oh maybe, yeah that’s what he’s doing,” Ricciardo laughs. “Fair enough. Fair enough.
“Hopefully … Not hopefully – I’m pretty confident we will change his opinion this year.”
Ricciardo may have missed Hamilton’s comments, but Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was quick to hose down any suggestion the Australian will play second fiddle to anyone, in or outside of the team.
“Lewis would be very foolish to underestimate Daniel,” Horner told Sky Sports News. “He’s a phenomenal driver, he’s arguably the best overtaker in the business.
“He’s absolutely ready for a championship challenge if we can provide him with the tools to do the job.”
Ricciardo is certainly aware of the cult of Verstappen – his 20-year-old teammate just signed to a long-term contract and is widely considered formula one’s next big thing.
“I guess each year that passes it is one year that I’m getting older and another chance for a young rooster to come up, so definitely all these young kids are coming, and obviously Max has already proven himself,” Ricciardo said.
“There are always going to be young kids coming up so I think … it is kind of important for me to keep evolving, stay ahead of the curve and not kind of get stuck in – you know, ‘I might have won three races a few years ago because I drove like this, but that will not be the way today’.
“So just keep staying ahead and being proactive and try and keep these roosters behind me.”
And in formulating his next move, the Australian says he cannot afford to let loyalty be a deciding factor.
“I think whatever decision I make, I think it will be done the right way, so I’m not going to, let’s say, put a knife in anyone’s back. But first and foremost it really has to be for me.
“It is my career and it is a very important part of my career where it is going to, you know, very likely take me into my 30s and it is a big one for me.
So look if I avoided the best car to be loyal I don’t think that would be the smartest decision. I would probably kick myself in the long wrong if I did that. So really, I’m just going to put myself in the best car. If it is Red Bull then [that’s] easy.
For now Ricciardo continues to work on his personal improvement – although in one TV interview he admitted to a weakness for fried chicken burgers during the off-season.
“Always trying to work on myself and try and figure it out … How you try and approach the weekend and just try structure so that you have got enough time to yourself to get prepared. Whether that is to warm up well, or try and visualise a little bit of the qualifying beforehand.
“And probably learning from a few mistakes from last year, you know, like qualifying. I had some good laps and some not so good laps and just understanding why that was.”
Ricciardo certainly appears able to balance the demands of the sport, while maintaining a sense of fun.
In an era where character can be questioned by one ill-timed tweet, he’s become a teflon star, most often seen laughing his way through the absurdities of the world’s biggest travelling circus.
Who else, but Ricciardo – or perhaps cricket cult hero Shane Warne – could grin his way through questions about grid girls; escape sanction for passing wind in a drivers’ press conference; or maintain the respect of his peers despite posting selfies of a dribbling teammate on a long- haul flight?
“I don’t know, it is weird. I don’t know sometimes, well pretty much all the time I find myself doing these things and then i think ‘what was I doing that for’,” Ricciardo concedes.
“I think if you obviously mean no harm by it and it is all in good fun, then yeah, and I guess it is just me being me at the end of the day and I guess it is just Warnie being Warnie and whatever.
But I don’t want to compare myself to Warnie – the God – I wish I could bowl a flipper like him, but yeah … I never want to be mistaken for just the larrikin.
“Obviously I’m, let’s say, a competitor first, but it’s important to try and have some fun with it because it can be very stale and serious at times and I don’t think that is an environment I would enjoy 12 months of the year.”
So what are the chances Ricciardo can cut an old journo a break and give The New Daily a call when the ink on the new contract is drying?
“No worries, no worries,” Ricciardo laughs.
“Look if I sign a good contract and win a few titles then it might be the last contract I sign and I’ll say ‘see you, catchya later’.”
The Australian Grand Prix runs Thursday, March 22 to Sunday, March 25.