Saturday 12 April 2014

More to Ricciardo than we realised

How often do we say of F1 drivers employed in a team stuck in midfield or at the back: 'I wonder what such-and-such would do in a better car?' It's a tempting question to ask, but as often as not it's all illusory. Away from F1's headline acts the glare of scrutiny is less intense. The pressure is lower, and pressure is able to do funny things to all of us. Perhaps inconsistency and other foibles are less widely-noticed.

And the F1 teams, who as we know have much more evidence to work with than most of the rest of us do watching on, often know as much. Reflecting this too often those who do develop a good reputation in mid-pack and who get their step-up can then disappoint; one thinks of Giancarlo Fisichella, Heikki Kovalainen and others.

Daniel Ricciardo has had an even more ready
than usual smile this season
Photo: Octane Photography
But the evidence of his first three races after getting the keys to a Red Bull is that Daniel Ricciardo is one of those plucked from the midfield who is fully deserving of his step-up, and is showing every characteristic of one making good on it.

At the time it was confirmed not everyone backed Ricciardo's selection by the Red Bull A-team, in the stead of the apparently more qualified Kimi Raikkonen; indeed the odd interpretation not flattering to the Red Bull management was aired. I can say with reasonable conviction that I supported Ricciardo's promotion more readily than a lot of people did, but even I have been surprised, albeit pleasantly, by how he's done since getting his big break; both in the quality and extent of his repertoire as well as in the speed with which he's put it all to good use.

The evidence was always there in his Toro Rosso days that Ricciardo was quick on a single lap. But it's easy to forget too that for all that Ricicardo excelled on a Saturday some wondered if he was merely a quali specialist; after all he tended to sink back when it really mattered on a Sunday. On the subject of Ricciardo perhaps not following up strong qualifying performances with good race results, the man himself at the time insisted it wasn't all that it appeared: 'In qualifying at least in Nurburgring and Budapest I probably pulled it out, not to be cocky, we were nowhere all weekend and in qualifying I managed to find a bit extra' said the Australian in Spa last year. 'So in the race it's hard, because we never had that pace it's hard to keep the one-lap performance over 70 laps when you've got tyre deg and the rest. I think that we out-qualified the car...and unless you get lucky in the race it's hard to really convert that.'

Thus far in 2014 Ricciardo seems to be proving his interpretation correct. He's continued his fine Saturday form, as seen most notably in Bahrain where his best was good for third place on the grid (albeit compromised by a cruel penalty), and this on a track that wasn't supposed to suit his Renault power unit as well as on a day that his world champion team mate was nowhere (though admittedly hobbled by technical woes). But what is really striking is that even in this short stretch of time Ricciardo has shown himself to be good at pretty much everything else as well.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part is that Ricciardo without fail has been precise, robust and spirited in wheel-to-wheel battle. He claimed perhaps the most noteworthy scalp that there is by dicing with Fernando Alonso and winning after he emerged from his first stop in the Malaysia race. Two weeks before in the Australian race he didn't put a wheel wrong on his way to second place (on the road) despite being under pressure pretty much for the duration. He did the same with Alonso on his tail until his botched stop in Malaysia, and all the while he showed the consistency of pace to just about cling to team mate Sebastian Vettel's coattails.

Ricciardo has impressed whatever the weather
Photo: Octane Photography
His efforts in the wet have been excellent, particularly in Melbourne qualifying wherein he seized a front row slot.

While on Bahrain's race day Ricciardo topped the lot with his run from starting in his deliberately diminished (by the stewards) 13th place grid slot to finish fourth. It was another another quick and consistent run, and late on he made two excellent passes, first of all shaving the pit wall in vaulting his haughty team mate. Then a couple of laps later he deprived Nico Hulkenberg of fourth place with a fine unorthodox move at the fast turn 11, allowing his opponent to block the inside line on the entry so that he could cut underneath him smartly in the corner itself. And as the chequered flag fell Ricciardo even was pressing Sergio Perez for the final podium slot. With another fraction of a lap he likely would have got it.

Perhaps most striking of all of Ric's rise is how rapidly he has got his feet under the Red Bull table, and the confidence he displays apparently when dealing with his team. He's been no callow new boy, deferring to those around him, and even in Baharin we heard him on the radio resolutely lay his view down when being held up by Vettel early on: 'We’re losing time like this...We've got to decide what to do.'

Possibly given his perma-smile and engaging personality a few of us were guilty of underestimating him. But whatever is the case, it now appears there is far more to Daniel Ricciardo than just about any of us suspected in advance.

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