Daniel Ricciardo is pondering. This year, a presence in the paddock – but not on the racetrack – has been a curiously flummoxing existence for someone so synonymous with a seat at the 20-man table. In his own words, he has been doing “everything the drivers are doing… other than the driving.” So aside from the obvious of the lights-to-flag racing, what has the Australian found the most difficult about his eight months away from Formula 1?
“I’d say the starting grid on Sunday,” he says, a glint in his eye, a longing for something previous. “I love that feeling before you’re about to race. It’s intense, it’s nerve-racking but it’s awesome. I miss that buzz.”Well, miss it no longer. The Honey Badger is back. Officially on loan from Red Bull to sister team AlphaTauri for the remainder of the season, Ricciardo last week replaced the axed Nyck de Vries and will be in the cockpit in Hungary this weekend. It represents a lifeline – his lifeline – back into the sport, a carving of an opportunity so desperately craved. In the end, he only missed 10 races.
And all it took was one Silverstone tyre test after the British Grand Prix, at the wheel of the fastest car in F1 this year. A pace which would have put him on the front row of the grid a few days earlier. Never a duo to hesitate, Red Bull chiefs Helmut Marko and Christian Horner made the call swiftly.“After Abu Dhabi last year, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever race again,” he reveals to The Independent, with a casualness which implies a deep-down admittance that he wasn’t done just yet. “But coming back this year, I removed all ego and status.
“I do think this year will be the best thing that’s ever happened to me and it will boost me now for the rest of my career. It honestly came at the right time… everything happens for a reason.”How a career can change in a year. Because, although we didn’t know it at the time, last year’s British Grand Prix was the breaking point for McLaren and Ricciardo’s uncomfortable marriage. A day after the Aussie finished second-last out of all the finishers at Silverstone, McLaren big boss Zak Brown made initial contact with Oscar Piastri.
As Ricciardo interjects, this is where “all the s*** went down!”
Nothing short of gutted at the time – “it sucked” – the 34-year-old now takes the judgement call as a positive. A chance to regroup, reassess and especially in the initial stages, relax.
“I’ve really enjoyed this time off, to have the time for myself,” he says. “Last week I went home to Australia for my birthday, I haven’t done that since I was 17… so 17 years ago.“It honestly came at the right time. Look, I wish those two years were better. But it’s given me a mental break because the competition is intense, as much as we love it. It consumes a lot of you so I feel for me to bring my cortisol levels down a little bit, I just feel a lot more balanced this year.”
Ricciardo hadn’t missed a grand prix since June 2011. 11 years, 232 races later and so came to pass a rest he now admits was much-needed and well-utilised. A huge NFL fan and a supporter of the Buffalo Bills, he attended the Super Bowl in Arizona. The same week, he thrived in the modern anarchy of golf’s WM Phoenix Open. He even went to the prestigious Met Gala in New York. But more than any showbiz spectacles, he felt like a normal human being again.“I didn’t want to see a gym for a while,” he says. “I just wanted to eat and drink with my mates. Out of principle, I wanted to give myself a break. Just to allow myself to put on a few kgs. It felt really good, I trained just once in December and January.”
But then, around the launch of Red Bull’s 2023 car in New York, a flip.“I got to February and remember thinking ‘yeah, I’m done.’ I’d had enough. I didn’t feel like drinking every weekend and partying all the time. I wasn’t going crazy but I thought ‘this life isn’t for me just yet’.“And then I became very self-motivated. I wanted it to come from me, I didn’t want someone telling me to run. I had this urge and desire to be back on the grid – and I’ve never enjoyed training so much. I’ve got more energy to train and the desire has increased, especially not being jet-lagged every fricking week!”
Much to the surprise of many, while Ricciardo did take up the “third driver” role with a Red Bull team he claimed seven of his eight grand prix wins with from 2014-2018, he opted against racing even part-time in other racing series. For a lover of America, the likes of IndyCar and NASCAR were not explored. Not even a one-time jaunt at the 24 hours of Le Mans. Why?
“Two reasons,” he starts. “Still a big part of me wanted a break from competition. It’s probably the thing I love most in life is competition, it’s why I race. But equally, it’s really tiring and draining. The last few years did take it out of me.
“The other element is I still feel really strongly about being in this sport. The moment I start to engage in something else, the perception is: ‘Is he thinking of an alternative career?’
“There’s been times where I’ve been really keen to do Le Mans. I was desperate in 2015, speaking to Andreas Seidl who was running the Porsche project and was asking Red Bull to let me do it. But now, it’s not something that I need to do before I die.
“I’ve given so much to F1 that I don’t have the capacity to do something else at the level and effort that I’ve put into this sport.”And how Ricciardo’s decision has bore fruit. Attaching himself back in the ecosystem where it all began with Toro Rosso, the Australian who has catapulted himself into a sporting celebrity with his warm, charming personality has ended up back at the modern-day equivalent team in AlphaTauri. Simulator sessions – even with ex-race engineer Simon Rennie now running the programme at Red Bull – are never enough for any racer.
Cue the second coming. Now entering the twilight years of his career, can he see himself ‘doing an Alonso’ and racing into his 40s? Given his perseverance to reclaim a spot on the grid this year, the response is something of a surprise.“Ideally not,” he says. “Ideally, I’d have had enough success in the next five years. I think there’s something cool about going out on top.“This is my element but what this year has shown is I’m OK after retirement, I do have hobbies and other things going on. For lots of athletes, the thought of retirement is scary – what do you do now? You’ve lived this crazy life for so long that it can be daunting.
“But for me, let’s say the next 3-5 years of awesome success and then… peace!”
Now up against Yuki Tsunoda at AlphaTauri, with Max Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez already under pressure after a string of poor performances, a spot with Red Bull next year is not the ludicrous suggestion it may have been six months ago. 2025 may still be the more realistic target. Ricciardo admits “if one step here then gets me here… then I have to be open-minded” with regards to future seats.Nice guys come last, as the episode title for his McLaren demise in Netflix’s Drive to Survive insinuates. Yet for Ricciardo, a re-opening of a door which looked closed could trigger a renaissance. A planned road trip across the United States will have to wait. Instead, a chance to race in his beloved Las Vegas in November has come to fruition – and a chance to get back to the front.
The ultimate ambition – race wins, maybe even a world championship – is still at the forefront of his mind.“That is the reason I would come back,” he signs off. “I still believe I can do it. I feel like the Red Bull Daniel. He is still here.”
— Scuderia AlphaTauri (@AlphaTauriF1) July 14, 2023