Framed by the rectangular box of our video call, Daniel Ricciardo is grinning. “Part of me still pinches myself,” he says. “How did I end up here? How did Perth and Formula 1 meet?” This last part he says slowly, giving each word its own space as he casts his thoughts to his faraway hometown. He tilts his head to one side, that Colgate smile transmitting bemusement, or perhaps amazement, through the screen.
It’s the Thursday before race weekend. A few days later, that same supercharged smile would beam through the television from the top of the podium at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. Ricciardo had executed a flawless run, breathing life into a difficult first season with his new team, McLaren. The Monza win was McLaren’s first Grand Prix victory in almost nine years and Ricciardo’s first since his much-valorised 2018 effort in Monaco, where he suffered a 25 per cent engine power loss on Lap 28 (of 78) and still defended his lead, making no errors, to win at the notoriously challenging track. It’s an oft-cited example of what makes the 32-year-old driver so good: he’s got grit, he’s got composure and he drives impeccably well.
As with any athlete who becomes a cultural fixation, much mythology surrounds Ricciardo. He’s called a “smiling assassin” and “honey badger”, and some believe the strategic operator’s jovial demeanour is a veil for his assertive driving. Exceptionally late braking and “dummy” moves, executed when overtaking, define his approach — tactical ploys that heighten both risk and reward. Where many drivers tend to bully other cars into submission, Ricciardo utilises clean manoeuvres that take his opponents by surprise. It’s a combination of style and skill that has commentators talk of his “racecraft”: his phenomenal ability to map a race and to get up from positions far back in the grid.
That racecraft is mirrored in his journey to Formula 1 itself. There have been only two Australian champions in the sport’s seven-decade history and while Australia hosts a Grand Prix, our interest in the sport pales in comparison with Europe’s. But once Ricciardo got it in his head that he could make it as a Formula 1 driver, his 2011 debut at the British Grand Prix was, perhaps, inevitable.
Ricciardo says he was no prodigy. But he was always determined. He grew up in an Italian Australian family in Duncraig, in Perth’s northern suburbs, and started karting at the age of nine after his father, a hobby motorcar racer, reluctantly bought him a “pretty crappy” go- kart. He says his parents used karting as a bargaining chip: if you’re good at school, you can go to the track. “I’ve always been a competitor with everything I’ve done, so naturally I wanted to then compete and see if I was any good,” he says. “It all took off from there.”
When he finished high school, his parents raised money through family and friends to get him to Europe to compete. It was a gesture of faith the teenager didn’t take lightly; focused where many his age are frivolous, he knew he had to earn his place. “I realised the opportunity I had and there was no way I was going to flush it down the toilet,” he says. “There were other kids in Europe in the same position as me, but I could see in their head they thought they’d already made it. I was switched on enough to see through that.”
On entering F1, Ricciardo admits he was “a little intimidated”, but after too many weekends of the same story — “if only”, “could’ve”, “should’ve” — he soon developed his signature racing style. He became assertive, poised. “I don’t like the feeling of leaving a racetrack with regrets,” he says. “I wasn’t doing myself justice if I didn’t put it all out there. When I went for a move or put my elbows out and stood my ground, it felt amazing. I knew deep down I was a fighter.” Soon enough, he was intimidating other drivers. “That was fun for me,” he says. His performance coach, Michael Italiano, says Ricciardo has “the gift of the feel of the car”. The two met at a boxing gym as pre- teens and started working together in 2018. “He talks to me all the time about how you feel the car in your hips; you feel where the limit is. That’s obviously a rare talent.”
Italiano says Ricciardo has a brain “like a sponge” that absorbs everything he’s told about his car and performance. Along with ambition and an uncanny ability to hold focus and stay calm amid chaos, it is what makes Ricciardo an exceptional competitor. ONZA WAS A welcome reprieve from a string of disappointing results for Ricciardo, not just this year but over the past few. Many had started to wonder what had happened to the speed and promise he’d shown in his younger years.
Racing for Red Bull, from 2014 to 2018, Ricciardo was on the podium frequently and scored seven wins, practically trademarking his celebratory champagne shoey. But while spending-wise Red Bull was considered to be among the “big three” teams (next to Mercedes and Ferrari), the car wasn’t competitive speed-wise, and the world title eluded Ricciardo as a result. His later years with the team were plagued by engine troubles and difficulties with his young teammate, Max Verstappen (who’s currently locked in a season-long battle for the top spot with Lewis Hamilton).
Those difficulties, it was speculated at the time, prompted Ricciardo’s dramatic move to Renault where, according to reports, he became the sport’s third-highest-paid driver with an estimated $US27 million annual salary (this was disputed by Ricciardo, who was “upset” by the stories). He stayed for just two years and two third-position podiums before making a three-year deal with McLaren, which was heading into the 2021 season on the up. With McLaren, he’s now racing with another notable youngster, the 22-year-old Lando Norris, who, at the time of writing, is well ahead of Ricciardo in the driver standings.
Ricciardo admits this isn’t what he’d expected of his career; by this point, he’d hoped to have won a world title. But there are so many variables beyond the skill of the driver that determine world titles in Formula 1, from budgets and engineering to race plans, pit stops and calamitous collisions. “Some days I really don’t like the sport I chose,” he says, reflecting on its volatility. The win ratio for most Formula 1 drivers — unless you’re, say, Hamilton — is deflatingly low. Ricciardo says his own is probably around one or two per cent. “The highs are really high, but the lows are too often,” he says.
Luckily, it’s in Ricciardo’s nature to embrace happiness as a measure of success. “I’m always reminding myself of the basics, making sure I’m still having fun doing it. That’s why I started racing,” he says. And while he still yearns for the world title, he says his perspective has shifted. “A few years ago, I would have said the world title was everything. Maybe it’s time in the sport or maturity, but I think to pin everything on a world title would be wrong,” he reflects. “I actually think I would regret that.”
This is just the introduction of our cover story on Daniel Ricciardo, to read the full 10-page feature pick up a copy of our fourth issue, on sale now at over 3000 newsagents nationally, or order a copy online.
Grooming by Tomi Roppongi at Saint Luke. Set design by Andrew Tomlinson at Streeters. Creative production by Sunday Service. On set production by Noir Productions. Thanks to the team at McLaren and the McLaren Technology Centre.