Daniel Ricciardo smiles – as he usually does – and accepts this season may be different from the last. In 2016, with his Red Bull fighting for scraps behind the dominant Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, there was harmony in his partnership with Max Verstappen, the team’s thrilling but raw new driver.
Now with a car that could prove far more competitive, the Australian driver is aware the fight between him and his team-mate, which starts on Sunday at his home grand prix, could turn the atmosphere within Red Bull a good deal more ruthless.
“I can’t be naive and think we are still going to love each other no matter what, even if we are banging wheel to wheel every race,” the 27-year-old says. “We are competitors. If there is tension or friction as the season goes on that’s part of the game.”
Both drivers share key traits: determination, single-minded pursuit of victory and an uncompromising nature. For everyone outside Red Bull, their rivalry could be a mouth-watering prospect.
The team’s principal, Christian Horner, is likely to have his hands full. No stranger to feuding drivers – he managed Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber to four world constructors’ titles with the pair not always on friendly terms – he looked on with interest as the mood between Hamilton and Rosberg soured at Mercedes last season. He called it a “lovers’ tiff between their own drivers”.
Then Red Bull were interested only in beating Ferrari to second place and had both drivers singing from the same hymn sheet. Should their car now be capable of competing with Mercedes, Ricciardo and Verstappen may well insist on singing separate songs.
Ricciardo’s part in this will be fascinating. His beaming Aussie persona appears to suggest unflappable optimism and a joy in his work, which is a pleasure to see in the paddock. It is a long way from the whole story.
Horner calls him the “driver of the year last year, definitely,” a view with which it is hard to disagree. The 19-year-old Verstappen took the headlines but Ricciardo put in the better laps. He is quick in qualifying as that storming pole lap at Monaco proved, quick on race day and with racecraft that makes him a fearsome overtaker.
His attempted move on Vettel in Mexico last season was a breathtaking example. He dived up the inside and into the chicane at turns four and five, locking up and braking all at once. Just to make the corner, he had to apply so many tiny adjustments, even having the nerve to attempt the move was remarkable. It may not have stuck but that was because Vettel moved into him (for which the German was later penalised). Without Vettel’s action, though, Ricciardo would likely have sealed one of the moves of the year.
It is instructive of the skill but also the cold, calculating steel behind the grin. “When I came into Red Bull, everyone thought: he’s just the happy, nice guy, he’s fast but he can’t race hard with these top guys,” he says. “That was a reputation I had to dismiss.”
He did so convincingly. His move on Sergio Pérez at turn one on his first win in Canada in 2014 was sublime, as was passing Lewis Hamilton at turn two in Hungary before putting Fernando Alonso to the sword two laps from the end for another win. His point was made. “People have seen now I am a racer and I have big intentions in the sport and I am prepared to get my shoulders out if I need to,” he says.
First and foremost, he will have to do that against Verstappen. “If Lewis beats me in a Mercedes, I can tell the world he beat me because his car is better,” he says. “But if Max beats me every race I am going to run out of excuses, so certainly your team-mate is the No1 person you want to beat.”
Horner knows there will be competition but has told his drivers to put Red Bull first. “I am expecting there to be close racing between the two,” he says, “but the bottom line is they both work for the team. We are not going to create some enormous rule book for each and every scenario. The rules of engagement are clear. The priority is the team. We expect them to be hard but fair. They will get the same equipment, the same chance, the same opportunities.”
The noises from both drivers are of mutual respect, which is all well and good until there is the potential for a tilt at the title. Their personas may differ but what is clear is a shared dedication to winning. If a fight is required, neither will back off.
Certainly for Ricciardo, when he climbs into the car there is no room for half-measures. “If I am putting myself out there and taking some of these risks, then I want to do it properly,” he says. “If I am going to race I will put everything on the line.” Source: theguardian