The new Formula One season cannot come soon enough for Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is clearly as fired up for the fight now as he has ever been and much as he still revels in the pure pleasure of racing, it is without doubt the competitive instinct that drives him. When it counts Ricciardo will give no quarter, be it rolling the dice from the Old Kent Road to Mayfair or all the way to the chequered flag, this is a singularly steely Dan.
“I am what you see,” he says. “If I am smiling and laughing then it is me having a good time and I truly do love and enjoy this, but anything with competition I turn pretty quickly. I was playing Monopoly and [the card game] Uno over Christmas and I was getting pretty agitated. Anything with competition I change, that’s part of me when something is on the line.”
Ricciardo is now 31 and will make his debut for McLaren at the opening race of the season in Bahrain. He is pleasingly personable as ever and laughter punctuates his conversation with an easy ebb and flow. He is still unafraid to unashamedly embrace the enjoyment the sport brings him. Who else would initiate the tradition of drinking champagne from his own race boot – the infamous “shoey” – when he claims a podium finish.
Yet Ricciardo is calm and considered when analysing his own abilities and character, of which he is confident and demanding. The former world champion Alan Jones would recognise a fellow straight-talking Aussie. “I like putting qualifying and the race on a little bit more of heightened intensity,” Ricciardo says. “That gets the best out of me if I put that pressure on myself. I like seeing what you are made of.”
His task this season will not be easy. Not only must he adapt to a new team, having left Renault at the end of 2020, but he is up against an undoubted talent in British teammate Lando Norris, now entering his third season in F1 and with McLaren. Still, podiums are a realistic target. The team did superbly to finish third last season and are clearly on an upward curve after their nadir between 2015 and 2017.
With the rules for this season mainly stable, the cars are largely a carryover from last year and McLaren have begun a new relationship with Mercedes as an engine supplier. This is no repeat of when they enjoyed a works-team relationship with Mercedes but even as a customer team they possess the best power unit on the grid. In testing the car looked strong, around fourth for long run pace and close to Mercedes over short runs. They look to be just on top of what will once more be a tight midfield of Alpine (formerly Renault) Aston Martin, AlphaTauri and Ferrari.
These battlers will be unlikely to mix it with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, who appear once more to be in a field of their own. If Mercedes win the constructors’ and drivers’ title this year it will be their eighth consecutive double and a record. Yet for Ricciardo, who appreciates that F1 has always had periods of superiority, there is no lack of enthusiasm to join the fray.
“With the Merc dominance it would be easy to get frustrated and bitter toward that success, but I try not to be that person,” he says. “If anything I take my hat off, they are doing a good job and we have to just find a way to match them. That’s a motivation.”
Inevitably he cannot help but find some humour in the shadow of the Mercedes monolith. “I was about to say it’s not rocket science but it kind of is rocket science,” he laughs. “Maybe if I don’t have the best car on the grid, what if I did win a race?” he adds. “How much more currency and respect that would get? There is always a good underdog story waiting to be written. One I hope to write.”
Ricciardo’s touch and verve have made him one of the best overtakers on the grid. He has scored seven wins, all with Red Bull, including three in an outstanding debut year with the team in 2014. At Hungary that year he passed Hamilton and Fernando Alonso with sublime skill to secure the win. He has no fear of reputations, with an attempted move on Sebastian Vettel in Mexico in 2016 a marvellous statement of intent, as was putting Kimi Räikkönen to the sword with some late braking at Monza in 2017. The performances of a smiling assassin that could not be ignored.
His time with Renault yielded only two podiums in two years and this season taking more will require his very best but he is insistent he will turn heads regardless of where he is fighting on track. “I want to get the lunging overtakes back this year. I just didn’t pull off enough over the last few years,” he says. “If I am exhausted after the race that’s when I know I have put everything into it. I will know inside that I have put it all out there on a Sunday afternoon.”
McLaren’s plans to challenge at the very front are focused on the regulation changes set for 2022 so for Ricciardo this feels like the start of a relationship with the team to which he has to commit if he is to realise the ambition that still burns fiercely behind the grin. “I haven’t yet achieved what I really want and that is a world title,” he says. “That is my motivation in itself and when the visor comes down for competition that is absolutely when I come alive. I give it everything, I have no time for games.”