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The Best, from The West

After a great season – in which many named him the best driver in Formula 1 – Daniel Ricciardo sat down with AA’s DAN KNUTSON to talk about winning, which GP loss was harder to take and how he dealt with a mercurial teammate

DANIEL RICCIARDO has just had his best season ever, not only in Formula 1 but in his entire motorsports career.

The Aussie won a Grand Prix and should have won two more in 2016. He was the best of the rest behind the two drivers in the dominating Mercedes cars. He raised his game to new heights after being challenged by his new teenage teammate. And when things went bad for Ricciardo he used that as a motivation to get even better.

Ricciardo won three Grands Prix in 2014 with Red Bull, suffered along with the team in its recession in 2015, and bounced back to the front in 2016. So does he feel that he is now driving better than ever and that this was his best season ever in motor racing?
“I think so,” he tells Auto Action.

“2014 was a huge year for me. But I feel that I have dealt with situations better this year. My racing has become a bit better. The qualifying has been pretty good, but there is still sometimes where I obviously want more out of myself. But I think the level has been improved. It has been fun.”

The difference between the 2014 and 2016 seasons is that Ricciardo and Red Bull were more consistently fighting at the front of the pack. It was an encouraging sign that the team is now more capable of challenging Mercedes.
“It has been definitely our best year since I’ve been with the team,” Ricciardo notes.

“The progression we have made has got better and better. Everything we’ve put on the car – all the developments – has been really strong. So from a working point of view it has been our strongest year. We had podiums nearly every race. If I was not on the podium, Max [Verstappen] was on the podium. If he was not, I was. We were very strong on all types of circuits, so it was fun. It is a lot more fun when you are fighting at the front. To turn around what we had last year to this year is a big credit to the team.”

A major problem in 2015 was the Renault Power Unit, which was way off the pace, compared to Mercedes and Ferrari. After announcing a divorce from Renault, Red Bull had to seek reconciliation. The Renault power unit is now branded a Tag Heuer. Did that help take the pressure off what was a very frosty relationship between the two partners?

“I don’t know how much the branding has had an influence,” Ricciardo says, “but definitely the work they have done has been good. They obviously changed a few things within the way they work, the philosophy and all that. But it seemed that at the start of the year the engine was a bit better than we all expected, so the work they did even exceeded their expectations. And then it seems that that gave them confidence. It gave us confidence. And it made everything work better. So then they kept improving and we kept improving.

“When things are going well you can work together, and when you build confidence it is the same when you are driving – when you have a few wins you build confidence and drive better and everything. Renault – erm TAG – was able to build off their own confidence, and this allowed Red Bull to have a bit more correlation with them, a bit more trust. So that was good.”

Ricciardo would have had a few more wins on his CV if not for the double whammy of Spain and Monaco. He led the Spanish Grand Prix after Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton crashed into each other. Red Bull then put Ricciardo on a three-stop strategy, which was a mistake because it only had Max Verstappen pit twice and the teenager went on to win his first Grand Prix after having just joined the team.

Two weeks later Ricciardo had the Monaco Grand Prix all but won when another team mistake – not having the correct set of tyres ready when he pitted – cost him the victory.
Which disappointment was harder to swallow? Spain because Verstappen won, or Monaco because he really had the win in the bag?

“Monaco,” Ricciardo responds immediately. “Monaco as well because it was the race after Spain, so it was like a double impact, a double effect. After the race in Spain I was obviously very upset, but it was more like confusing, if you know what I mean. It was like: I nearly won a race in a year we didn’t really expect to win a race, but I am not even on the podium, and the kid that just joined the team is winning his first race. It was just a crazy, crazy experience. Monaco was harder to take.”

Winning in Malaysia went a long way to ease Ricciardo’s bitter disappointment, but missing out on winning THE Monaco Grand Prix will always be the one that got away from the Aussie.

As deeply as it hurt, the double whammy made Ricciardo a better driver. Many drivers get better or raise their game when things go their way. Ricciardo acts the other way around. After Spain and Monaco he became stronger than ever as he takes motivation from negative things.

“It has always been a strength of mine,” he agrees. “If I have a bad weekend or something I can normally turnaround and have a strong weekend the week after. For me, I think about all the work I have put in to get here, the sacrifice and everything.

“After a bad weekend you have a lot of emotions running through you. I normally reset and say okay, I belong here, this is the reason why I am here, and I will do everything I can next week to make it better, and just find a way to overcome the negativity. I enjoy that pressure as well. When people are saying erm…I am like: I’ll show you!”

So the bounce back is not only for Ricciardo but also to show the doubters?
“Yes.”

In 2014 Ricciardo was the ‘wunderkind’ at Red Bull. He was beating his teammate, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and he scored three wins on his way to finishing third in the points.

Everyone wanted to talk to Ricciardo. Then two years later Max Verstappen wins his first race, a race Ricciardo was leading and probably should have won. Did Ricciardo suddenly feel that a lot of people were not coming to talk to him and that there was a lot more attention on Verstappen? Was Ricciardo going: Hey, I am here! And I’m as quick or quicker a driver than I was.

“Yeah!” Ricciardo says with a smile. “That was another challenge which I enjoyed with Max coming in and having such a big impact, and I could see that there was a lot of attention around him. I am not jealous of that, but obviously I am thinking, okay I just need to show them that I am still here. It is another way to just perform on track and show, yes he is very talented but I am also talented!”

Ricciardo was talented enough to rack up 256 points [compared 238 in 2014] and to lock up third place in the drivers’ championship with two races to go. Does this reassure him and the rest of the world that given the right car he can state: I will be up there?

Yes,” he says. “In the two years we had a good car, ’14 and ’16, I have proven that I can get results, get a lot of points, and be there when the opportunity is there. I feel in 2017 if we have the car then it will only increase my ability and my desire as well. So it has been good!”
Good indeed. In fact the 2016 season was Ricciardo’s best ever in motor racing.

TEAM AUSTRALIA
Mark Webber retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2013, which gave Daniel Ricciardo the opportunity to replace him at Red Bull. And now Webber has retired from all race driving with the conclusion of his three seasons with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

With Webber ‘re-retiring’ it means that Ricciardo, 27, is now the senior statesman of the Australian drivers abroad. How does it feel to be the reference because just a few years ago he was the new guy?

“It is interesting,” Ricciardo says. “I obviously like representing my country. It is something I did not really think about a few years ago. I just said okay I am racing and I am from Australia and that is it. But now I see the positive impact that it can have on the country or some kids. So for me I get a little but shy when I think, wow I can change someone’s ideas or life of experience.

“But I acknowledge it now, and if I can inspire someone, especially someone younger through what I am doing or by being a good example in something I support, then this is something I am aware of. So I will try to be a good example, whether it is with racing or something outside of racing. Now being the older guy, maybe a few more people will look to me to be that example.
“Mark was good and had a good image in Australia. For me I would like to keep a good image as well.”