MAGINE YOU'RE A Formula 1 driver. You get paid millions of pounds to drive one of the fastest cars in the world. You hang out with supermodels and fly around in private jets. Quite simply, you have the best job in the world. So why is Daniel Ricciardo the only F1driver who appears to enjoy himself?
While many of his peers skulk around looking miserable, Ricciardo has long been the paddock’s ray of sunshine. He laughs, he smiles, he cracks jokes and he drinks from his shoe on the podium - the now infamous ‘shoey’. Only once in his seven-year F1career has he not been the life and soul of the party; that was after the 2016 Monaco GP when Red Bull threw away victory with a botched pitstop. Everyone still remembers the grimace because it was the one and only time we’ve ever seen it.
Whether at the now defunct HRT, the team with which he made his F1debut in 2011, Toro Rosso or Red Bull Racing, his outlook has always been consistent. ‘Smile and enjoy, that’s the motto,’ he says.
His mechanics love him. His race engineer is one of his best friends. And, quite honestly, he’s a dream interview. On television he’s engaging; in print he’s more thoughtful than his jocular outlook might suggest, though the opening five minutes of our chat, on the Thursday ahead of the French Grand Prix, are pure Ricciardo.
Tomorrow, the Red Bull driver and the rest of the grid will work to get to grips with the Paul Ricard circuit, last used when F1gearboxes were manual and catch-fencing consid ered a state-of-the-art safety measure. But today, between meetings and a training session, we’ve slipped away from Ricard and blasted up until the hills in a DB11 - Ricciardo gets the keys to an Aston every race weekend. Like we said, best job in the world.
Ricard sits in a particularly beautiful corner of France; a sun-drenched playground of beaches, fine wine and sinuous roads. ‘Let me guess how old you are,’ asks Ricciardo, grin ning as he guns the DB11 down a tree-lined straight. ‘Fire away,’ I tell him.
‘Forty. Forty-one. And a half. No? Then it has to be 42.’ And so it goes on, the Australian far more interested in gently tak ing the piss than delivering any corporate message. When he tells me that he likes Aston Martin and the cars it’s building, I’m inclined to believe him.
‘The cool thing about being with Aston over the past few years has been watching them evolve as a car company,’ Ricciardo tells me, driving quickly but with the safety margin and confidence that comes with knowing what driving quick ly really means.
‘They’re now drawing in a younger audience and I think the cars have improved a lot. I judge a modern car by its gearbox - if you’re paying a high price, you don’t want to get a kick in the back every time you shift with the paddle. Now their gearchanges are like butter. They’re also really nimble and responsive to drive - real driver’s cars; Astons generally and the Vantage in particular. They also look and sound cool. They appeal equally to 50-year-olds and 25-year-olds - who ever you are, you’re going to feel pretty cool in an Aston.’
Thing is, Ricciardo’s pretty cool whatever he’s doing, whether it’s charging past rivals Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas to win (as he did earlier this season, in China), or explaining his evident virtuoso overtaking skills in post-race interviews. ‘Sometimes you’ve gotta just lick the stamp and send it,’ summed up his derring-do in the Chinese GP beautifully. ‘Holy testicle Tuesday’ was another victory quote - in F1, no one comes close for charisma.
As we drive, he’s happy to talk about anything, and not only F1. Travel’s near the top of his list of interests and he waxes lyrical about a recent climbing holiday in Colorado. He also loves cricket - he’s a mate of Aussie legend Adam Gilchrist - and football, although he rates Aussie rules higher than soccer. Also food; he’s on a ketogenic diet, which involves a high fat intake that he says gives him more energy.
‘I look like I’m having a good time because I am - 1 genu inely love what I do,’ he says. ‘You look at some of the other drivers in the pitlane and they look like they’re at a funeral. That upsets me. I look at those guys and wonder if they’re happy. If you’re not happy, change your job.’
Ricciardo looks unlikely to change his job for 2019, which would make next year his sixth consecutive season with Red Bull Racing. Earlier in the season, as he dominated the Chinese and Monaco Grands Prix, his stock had never been higher. Out of contract with Red Bull at the end of this year, he was being linked to Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and McLaren. Pretty quickly staying put looked like the right call: Mercedes are sticking with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas for 2019, while Ferrari will most likely place Sauber young gun Charles Leclerc (see page 66) alongside Sebastian Vettel. ‘Mercedes have been a bit boring there, haven’t they?’ says Ricciardo. ‘I don’t think the other front-running teams are optimising their driver line-up in the way that Red Bull does with Max and me.’
And why would Daniel go to Renault, when they’re around o.8sec per lap slower in race trim than Red Bull with exactly the same engine? And the less said about McLaren the better, given their woeful perfor mances oflate.
So he’ll stick with what’s widely regarded as the fin est chassis on the grid - a car that next year will sub its Renault power units for Honda. After three terrible seasons with McLaren (2oi5-’i7), the Japanese giant is now on the right development path. It’s changed the ar chitecture of its i.6-litre V6 turbo to mirror that of Mercedes (turbine and compressor at opposite ends of the combustion engine) and already it’s more powerful and efficient than it was last year. Red Bull Racing’s sister team, Toro Rosso, is reaping the rewards; remember Bahrain, where rookie Pierre Gasly finished fourth?
Honda are also more organised now, thanks to their recent work with engine guru Mario Illien. Where they missed countless performance targets in the past, they’re now more predictable. Honda said they’d bring a performance upgrade to the Canadian Grand Prix, and they did. The Honda is also the smallest engine in the pitlane, something design genius Adrian Newey will love when he’s planning next year’s RB15. Recently, Ricciardo’s boss Christian Horner told me the Honda deal was ‘the right step’. ‘Where we’ve been a customer of Renault’s for the past 12 years, now we’re going to be a works team,’ Horner told me.
I asked him what he’d miss about Renault. ‘Um...[io sec onds of silence]... my Twizy.’
Ricciardo’s already told me that he and Max Verstappen make a strong partnership, stronger than Mercedes, but is that the way for Daniel to win the world championship? You could argue that the differences between the top three cars are too marginal to have a team-mate taking points away from you, especially one that’s prepared to put you in the wall - as Verstappen tried to do on two occasions at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Predictably, the race ended in tears, with them crashing into each other.
‘Yep, that one was a bummer,’ says Ricciardo. ‘Fortunately, we’ve only come together a couple of times and I don’t think it’ll happen too often. But I don’t want an easy team-mate; that’s the easy route! This is sport. It isn’t meant to be easy.
I’ve had Vettel, I’ve had Max and I’ve enjoyed those challeng es. I’d love to go up against Lewis; he’s bloody quick and I’d like to have a crack at him in the same car.
‘But I’m OK with Max. We get on OK and we’ve had a good rivalry. I think we’ve pushed each other to another level and it’s going to be hard for one of us to domi nate the other.’
They go about their racing very differently. Max is intense in his outlook and extreme in his driving; he leaves little mar gin for error, which is why he has so many incidents. Daniel, on the other hand, is much more laid back and a sure thing inside the car. He’s quick, yet he brings home the bacon. In the first eight races of 2018 he scored 96 points to Max’s 68.
Ricciardo doesn’t appeal to the same demographic as Max because he’s nine years older. It was a major sticking point in his negotiations with the team, but he managed to re-sign on the same financial terms: €2om a year - coincidentally the same sum saved by getting free Honda engines from 2019.
But shopping around proved an interesting exercise. This was the first time in Daniel’s career that he’d been a free agent and his meetings with Toto Wolff (Mercedes), Zak Brown (McLaren) and Cyril Abiteboul (Renault) will have paved the way for easier negotiations with those teams in the future.
‘Until now Red Bull have always told me what I’m doing next,’ says Daniel. ‘They directed my career and that made it easy for me. There was interest from other teams back in 2014, after I got my first win, but I couldn’t do anything about it because I was contracted to Red Bull. This time I could, and it was interesting. But I feel a loyalty to Red Bull because they were a vital part of getting me here. They’ve helped me a lot, but I’ve given them good results too - and I’m the best-look- ing kid in the paddock...’
Ricciardo’s longer-term future will depend on the state of the sport. If he doesn’t like what he sees post-2021, when new technical and sporting regulations are introduced, he may not hang around.
‘There are many things about F1which are great,’ he says. ‘The speeds we’re racing at now are awesome, but that also means it’s hard to follow another car. We want the fastest cars in the world, but we also want overtaking and they [owners Liberty Media Corporation] need to get that right. I also feel that some of the races are a bit long, so there’s things you can do there as well.
‘But don’t get the wrong impression: I want to be world champion. Winning the Monaco Grand Prix this year was the next best thing, but I want the title and I’m more motivat ed to achieve that than ever.’
With that he hops out of the Aston, salutes it (yep), and wanders off into the paddock. Another race to blitz; people to charm. F1has no better ambassador, and just imagine if he were world champion one day - then there wouldn’t be anyone left who didn’t want to be Daniel Ricciardo.