SOURCE: THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Daniel Ricciardo was that “young kid” once. When the Formula One driver from Australia gathered with his peers on the Albert Park grid for the annual start-of-season photo before his Melbourne debut in 2012, he tried to play it cool, but his eyes didn’t lie.
“There’s Michael Schumacher,” Ricciardo thought as the German great took his seat in the front row. To Schumacher’s left was two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. Compatriot Mark Webber flanked the Spaniard. Former (and future) world champions Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg plopped down onto seats in front of the 22-year-old.
“There’s more of a chance for me to do that at Renault,” Ricciardo tells The Age and Sydney Morning Herald during a break from pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, fiddling with a stiff new team cap that doesn’t quite fit yet.
“Coming here, people know a little of what I’m like, but they don’t really know me. People in this team now are meeting me as a 29-year-old, where a lot of people [at Red Bull] met me as the 20-year-old young kid.
“I’m not saying they treated me like a kid from then on, but they knew me as a kid, more what I used to be than what I eventually became. That’s why I have more opportunity here to create something.
“To think that you’ve got the chance to lead a team of, say, 1000 people, it’s intimidating and exhilarating at the same time.
“To think that you could have that much power is humbling, but I do acknowledge that I have some power to rally people together. The first thing I needed to do was recognise that I could have a lot of influence. I’m excited to take that on.”
Cyril Abiteboul is Renault’s Formula One managing director and the youngest team principal in the sport, the 41-year-old charged with spearheading the French company’s return as a fully-fledged chassis and engine manufacturer four years ago.
More than a decade on from Alonso ending the red reign of Schumacher and Ferrari in 2005-06, Renault has made steady progress as it morphs from being an engine supplier to other teams to a constructor in its own right, and Abiteboul sees the arrival of the seven-time grand prix winner as something that “is igniting the mixture” as it attempts to muscle in on the fight at the front.
“It’s been an exceptional reaction … there was a storm of applause, everyone was over the moon,” Abiteboul says of Ricciardo’s signature.
“It was huge news and a surprise because other people were not expecting that. It is a huge moment for us. It gave us a boost of motivation and some pride for the staff.”
How has Ricciardo’s arrival changed things at Renault? Abiteboul points to the reaction of his workforce when Ricciardo, along with new teammate Nico Hulkenberg, visited the team’s factory at Enstone in England just before pre-season testing commenced. As Ricciardo made his way towards the front of the room through a sea of staff, the applause and enthusiasm for a driver who had yet to turn a wheel in a Renault “something I didn’t see coming”.
“It was a fantastic moment,” Abiteboul says. “Daniel has a generosity of personality and he’s a smiler, and that to me is a sign of what he’s prepared to give to people.
“He has the type of personality that makes people want to work harder to please him, to make his car faster, and for the team to progress faster. He is a driver you are desperate to work flat-out for.
“He’s one of the few guys on the grid who is not just for himself, about himself. Not everyone has a driver that that, so when you have one who does, it can uplift a team.”
A rebooted Ricciardo will arrive in Melbourne with his trademark bounce back in his step, the memories of a trying last year in Red Bull colours in the rearview mirror.
This time last year, with a chance to explore F1’s version of free agency for the first time, Ricciardo was peppered with questions about who he’d be driving for the following year before the season at hand had even started, which barely abated thereafter.
Ricciardo concedes that by wanting to explore every possible option that was available and “do the contract thing properly”, he may have inadvertently added to his stress levels.
After his 2018 season started so brightly with two victories in the opening six races, he couldn’t want to turn the page after it spluttered to a meek sixth-place finish in the world championship.
After a year where he admitted to being “exhausted and jaded”, Ricciardo returned to Perth in December, aiming to recapture the energy that he felt the lingering contract negotiations and the way his Red Bull tenure ended sapped from him the longer the season went.
Ricciardo failed to finish eight of the 21 grands prix last year, seven of them with mechanical failures as unreliability blighted his side of the Red Bull garage. But it was the one race where he didn’t see the chequered flag for reasons other than his car breaking down that brought his future into sharper focus.
In last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Ricciardo and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen fought furiously for much of the race, which came two weeks after Ricciardo had capitalised on a Verstappen error to cut through the field to win in Shanghai.
With Ricciardo already weighing up whether to stay at Red Bull or look to pastures new, the incident – both its timing and the reaction to it – gave him plenty to ponder. The Baku clash wasn’t a “deal-breaker”, but it was significant.
“I struggled to let that go, the whole race and the aftermath,” he says.
“That played a part in my decision. I never really felt the same after that. As soon as I crashed into him, part of me felt, ‘you guys deserved this, that was a shitshow’.
“The team treated us as both equally at fault in that situation, where I think deep down they knew that it was their mistake and Max’s mistake. A lot of things didn’t sit well.”
Before and after their Baku clash, Ricciardo and Verstappen got along amicably off-track, but as Ricciardo’s contract negotiations lingered, he wondered what the future might look like if he re-signed, given the Dutchman was entrenched at Red Bull until the end of 2020.
“There was nothing physical – it’s not like Max had, say, a better or newer front wing than me,” Ricciardo explains.
“Perhaps Red Bull thought ‘you’re not going to go anywhere else’, but I think that’s the wrong mentality. I felt like I had to work too hard to justify what I wanted, and what the performances I’ve had say I should be worth. Perhaps the love just wasn’t there.”
Ricciardo repeatedly references the honesty, simplicity and transparency of his contract discussions with Abiteboul and Renault as a key factor in eventually signing a two-year deal with the team last August. After a fraught year on-track and a mentally draining one off it, the lack of clutter, a clarity of focus and an absence of historical baggage appealed.
“I don’t look back on it negatively, it gave me all my milestones in F1,” he says of his time at Red Bull.
“I joined them after the team won four world titles, so before I got there, I thought I was going to have a world championship car. For five years, that wasn’t the case. From that point of view there’s less risk coming into this, because there’s more room for us to grow.”
It’s growth Abiteboul feels Ricciardo can fast-track for Renault.
“It was up to us to come to him and explain our situation, and I think it was part of what he liked about our style and our approach, our attitude and how we manage the drivers. Maybe that’s a change from what he was used to,” Abiteboul says.