x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ahead of his 'biggest' event Daniel Ricciardo will just grin and race it

At only 22 years old, Daniel Ricciardo is about to make what he says is 'probably' the biggest day of his career as one of two Australians in the Australian Grand Prix.

Daniel Ricciardo, left, was wary of all the attention and media demands place on him ahead of his home grand prix in Australia.rmula One Grand Prix of Australia will take place on 18 March 2012.
Daniel Ricciardo, left, was wary of all the attention and media demands place on him ahead of his home grand prix in Australia.rmula One Grand Prix of Australia will take place on 18 March 2012.

MELBOURNE // It is December 2011 and in a modest house in Perth, Western Australia, a young man of 22 years is stood in his bedroom holding a phone. His other hand - clenched into a tight fist - is pumping the air jubilantly. Daniel Ricciardo has just been informed by Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing's motorsports consultant, that he has been selected to compete this year for Scuderia Toro Rosso.

The news came, Ricciardo says, as a slight surprise. Toro Rosso's 2011 drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi had both performed admirably and there had been suggestions that the Australian's half-season at Hispania had dissuaded Marko to give him a full race seat with Red Bull's sister team.

Instead he will partner Jean-Eric Vergne in what is the least experienced driver line-up in F1.

Ricciardo recalls the events of that fateful afternoon with remarkable lucidity; certainly, one suspects, with more clarity than he recalls any events that occurred the following morning.

"When I got the news, I wasn't expecting it 100 per cent," he said, now sat in a Toro Rosso race-suit and wearing a Red Bull cap and his ever-wide smile.

"I had heard stories that the driver line-up was more or less confirmed, so I didn't know what to think. I certainly didn't think straight away 'Oh he's going to tell me I'm in Toro Rosso'. But it was the news I wanted to hear."

Ricciardo's debut for the Faenza-based team will take place Sunday when the new F1 world championship gets underway in Melbourne - just in case competing in front of his compatriots in what is his first home race was not nerve-racking enough.

In doing so, he will also help make history as, alongside Red Bull's Mark Webber, it will the first time two Australians have taken part in the Australian Grand Prix.

In a world where drivers kowtow to sponsors concerns, bite their tongues and greet media questions with a granite mask, Webber is seen as an anomaly.

The 35 year old speaks his mind and is not averse to sarcasm. Ricciardo also is different. While Webber's Twitter handle is @AussieGrit, many fans have suggested Ricciardo's should be @AussieGrin, his infectious effervescence, his joie de vivre, even Dr Marko - cast by some as Red Bull's evil, one-eyed professor - is not immune.

"On the phone, I was doing a bit of this" - Ricciardo explained, stopping mid-sentence to flex his muscles Hulk Hogan-style - "and I think Dr Marko could visualise me doing it, so he had a bit of a laugh. As soon as I hung up, I went to [to celebrate]. I don't remember anything for the next week."

He is, naturally, joking, but the Toro Rosso press officer, presumably yet to lock in on Ricciardo's sense of humour, looks incredulous. We live in hope that the former F1 champion's charisma will not be trained - or drained - out of him.

Later, when Ricciardo is asked a more pressing question regarding the technics of the car, he is advised again: "You don't need to answer. You're allowed to be blunt with [the media]".

Ricciardo may only be embarking on his first full season, but he knows the game: "The team advise you when it's better not to talk or to keep your emotions at a lower level," he said. "You can't always go over the top and get too emotional about things, but if I can be honest and say what I'm thinking without putting too many people down, then I'll say it."

Ricciardo says Sunday's race is "probably" the biggest day of his career. It is difficult to imagine a more momentous afternoon and Franz Tost, the Toro Rosso team principal, concedes as much. "For Daniel, it is maybe not perfect to start the season in Australia because there is a lot of pressure," he said. "But if you are in Formula One you have to live with pressure."

Joe Ricciardo, the Sicilian-born father of F1's newest Australian, feels his son's most valuable trait ahead of a stressful future is his "easiness".

"Nothing fazes him; he's pretty calm, he doesn't take things too seriously until that helmet goes on. It's not all racing and cars - he loves his music, for example. I see other kids over there in Europe walking up and down the paddock, it's all racing, there doesn't seem to be anything else and you can feel the tension - but not in Dan."

The 22 year old is wary of expectations and pressure ahead of his first home race; he has been in demand all week, taking part in photo shoots and public appearances, press conferences and media briefings. However, he is looking to use the interest to his advantage without focusing too much on the reality of racing in front his compatriots.

"There is a lot of positive energy and if I can channel that in to my performance it can only be beneficial," he said. "It's kind of like a football team playing at their home ground, so it shouldn't really be any different for us. But I don't want to put it on a pedestal because then I might crumble at the wheel."

When asked if he has set himself a target for his first home race, Ricciardo flashes his increasingly familiar Aussie grin.

"I will just try to kick some arse and make everybody happy," he said. "Of course, you could say finishing on the podium - that would be amazing - but if we were to walk away with some points that would be a result."

Ricciardo will begin his quest from 10th on the grid; his career-best starting position.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


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