All photos by LAT Photographic
Daniel Ricciardo has been given the difficult task of replacing fellow Australian Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing in 2014 – and he now has to prove that he's up to the job. He's walking into the team that's won the last three World Championships and will very likely win this year's as well, and as such, it would be a dream opportunity for any young driver.
But there are risks, of course. He's up against Sebastian Vettel, a man who is at the top of his game, and who has built the team around him since his arrival in 2009. And then there are the rule changes, which ensure that 2014 will be a re-set for everybody.
Even with Adrian Newey conducting the orchestra there's no guarantee that Red Bull Racing will maintain its winning momentum, especially as so much is in Renault's hands. Ricciardo's timing could thus be a little off – and there's nothing worse for a career than arriving at a top team just as it goes off the boil.
There are clearly some political motivations to the decision. Kimi Raikkonen had been his most serious rival for the seat, and for a while the different factions in the camp argued for and against placing an established star alongside Vettel. For Dr. Helmut Marko it was imperative that another Red Bull junior finally made it to the main team, thus justifying the very existence of the program he oversees.
To have employed Raikkonen – or even Fernando Alonso, briefly touted as a possible RBR driver – would have left the world questioning why Dietrich Mateschitz has spent so much money for so little apparent reward. Ricciardo's promotion also creates a handy vacancy at Toro Rosso, which will likely allow Antonio Felix da Costa to move up from Renault 3.5, and Carlos Sainz Jr. to step into the reserve role.
Over the years Marko has brought many drivers to F1 level, only to abandon them on the basis that they hadn't quite proved to be the next Vettel. The list includes Christian Klien, Tonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi (who at least retained a reserve job), and there are many more who got as far as testing F1 cars before falling off the radar.
Marko clearly believes that Ricciardo is the best prospect to emerge since Vettel, and the point is, he should know. He's followed his every move since Formula Renault days, and he knows his strengths and weaknesses relative to others who have come up the ranks.
Newey and team boss Christian Horner are also very familiar with Ricciardo through his testing with RBR and the many days spent in the factory simulator, which is used by the Toro Rosso drivers. They may have had their eyes on a more experienced driver for 2014, but ultimately they agreed that Ricciardo was the man for the job.
Crucially, he's also cheap – millions that would otherwise have been diverted into Raikkonen's bank account can now be plowed back into the making the 2014 car go faster, and Newey will be very happy about that.
The other obvious issue is that hiring a world champion such as Raikkonen would have made it difficult to manage the dynamic in a team where Vettel is such a strong influence. In contrast the easy-going Ricciardo, part of the Red Bull family since his teens, will not create any waves. The team knows only too well how difficult life can be if there's a clash of personalities – the tensions between Webber and Vettel have been arguably the biggest challenge that Horner has faced over the past few seasons. You can't really blame RBR for opting for a user friendly pairing.
Ferrari, in contrast, laid down a marker when Luca di Montezemolo told Fernando Alonso that no driver was bigger than the team, and subsequently rehired Raikkonen. It represented a change of policy for an organization which had long followed the route of having a clear leader.
So how good is Ricciardo? He had an impressive record on the way up the ranks, via British F3 and the very competitive Renault 3.5 series, but then so did lots of others. However, what ultimately won him the RBR seat was his qualifying form in 2013. He has regularly put his Toro Rosso well inside the top 10, and consistently outpaced teammate Jean-Eric Vergne. To be fair the Frenchman has had some good races, and Ricciardo has not always been able to turn good grid positions into results, but luck has not always gone his way. Next year he will have to prove that he can fight wheel to wheel with Alonso and Hamilton and others who give no quarter.
Daniel has got a wise head on his shoulders. Earlier this year I asked him about the pressures inherent in fighting his teammate for a Red Bull seat, and he neatly summed up his situation.
“There's definitely a lot on the line,” he said. “To be honest it's probably more obvious in our situation because Red Bull has two F1 teams, blah, blah, blah, but it's probably the same for all the guys. If anyone has a bad year in this sport... I won't name people, but I think everyone on a one-year contract has everything to play for, it can always be a make-or-break season.
“I think that's how it should be at the top – I think you should never rest, so to speak. There's always going to be someone coming up through the ranks. In the junior team we have a lot of young kids who are very quick, Da Costa, Sainz, there's always someone coming up through the ranks, so you can never rest, basically. It's how it should be, because this is the top level, and it shouldn't be a holiday. If we make it we're getting paid very well, so it shouldn't be easy.”
What's been impressive about the Ricciardo/Vergne pairing is that they have remained friends. They are very different characters, but crucially they got to know each other as teammates in Formula Renault, and spent a lot of time together away from the track. It sounds like they had a good time.
“We were still very young, still a bit immature I guess,” Daniel recalls. “We'd get to a race weekend on Thursday for practice on Friday, and every Thursday we'd find a go-kart track somewhere across the world, and just completely destroy each other's legs and everything! We were pretty reckless, but we had a lot of fun.”
After that Ricciardo was always a year ahead, with Vergne following in his wheel tracks, even driving the same F3 chassis in the British championship a year after Daniel. The fact that these two pals could end up as F1 teammates – and in a straight fight for one of the best seats on the grid – is quite a story, one that Marko was happy to see happen.
“I think because we had been teammates before, and we knew that let's say we were becoming quite competitive, he thought it would be a good showdown or something,” says Ricciardo. “He knew that we were both very hungry for it, very hungry to beat one another. I think that's essentially what they want to see, they want to see a good fight and to see who comes out on top. For that reason I think it was quite predictable that we would be together.”
Daniel says that their shared history has made them both appreciate what the other has achieved.
“I think so, just knowing that we both came up as kids through to F1 together, it sort of makes us realize that's how all the other drivers got here, they were kids once, and they've worked their way up. It brings everyone back down to a pretty normal level. If I was to jump in and have Schumacher as my teammate straight away, because I didn't know him, it would probably be a bit more daunting. But to have the other guy come up with you it makes you realize that everyone else is the same.
“It's bit off the topic, but I really like UFC, mixed martial arts fighting. These guys fight nearly to the death, or to a high threshold of pain! After the fight they acknowledge that the best guy won. Yeah, we are extremely competitive, and out on track we are fighting for everything we can, but I think at the end of the day whoever the best man is will get the respect he deserves. I think that's how it should be.”
Off track there's a touch of the old school about Ricciardo, and that makes him all the more appealing. There's no BS about him, and what you see is what you get. And most of the time you get a big smile – he is as friendly and down to earth as he appears to be on TV. It's easy to slip into clichés like "nice guys don't win," but he wouldn't have made it this far if he didn't have an inner drive. Don't forget that in his early days Vettel had a boyish charm about him, and he proved to be hard as nails...
Red Bull clearly has faith, but ask yourself one final question – where would he have figured on a list of possible replacements at Ferrari or any other top team?
He would have been on that list certainly, but there would have been several other guys who never came under serious consideration at Red Bull, where it came down to a question of taking a World Champion or promoting from within.
Now it's up to Daniel to prove that he really is better than the likes of Hulkenberg, Di Resta, Bottas and Bianchi, and others who are highly touted. We know he's quick – his qualifying performances prove that – but performing week in week out in a top team, alongside a multiple World Champion, is another step. And he has to be up there from the off, and not find himself sidelined into a supporting role.
It's worth noting that he will join at Red Bull at age 24 and with 50 GP starts behind him. Vettel was 21 and had contested just 26 races when he joined the team in 2009, and yet he was a title contender from the start. There won't be much of a honeymoon period...