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Ricciardo: ‘I’d love to have raced Senna’

“Coming into last season, a lot of people knew I was fast, but they questioned my racecraft. Once I started showing them I could race, I just wanted to keep showing them more and more.”

Daniel Ricciardo smiles that smile of his. “I’ve never loved a Sunday more than I did last year.”

Cliché alert, but it’s physically impossible not to get caught up in the 25-year-old’s bubble of happiness. No matter the situation, setting or topic, he beams with infectious enthusiasm. If smiling were a state, Ricciardo would be its king.

TG has been granted a very exclusive audience with the Aussie driver - former teammate of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and new RB lead driver - to talk all things F1. And facial hair, but we’ll come back to that.

First, there’s the small matter of his trailblazing season last year. True, last year’s F1 season was actually two race series into one: Formula Mercedes (with Lewis and Nico knocking ten bells out of each other), and Formula One (the rest). But, as Daniel acknowledges, few would have predicted that when the Merc duo came to blows, he would be the one standing over their smouldering ruins.

In fact, he was the only non-Merc driver last year to score a win. Three, in fact. And all this while handing his four-time world champion teammate a humbling lesson in How To Drive A 2014 F1 Car. Fast.

So, with smile welded in place, Ricciardo opens up about last year…

Top Gear: Hi Daniel! Your podium in Australia last year must have felt a world away from your early days racing Formula Fords in Perth.

Daniel Ricciardo: It’s felt like it’s come pretty quickly, but at the same time looking back, and those early days in Formula Ford, that feels like a long time ago. I feel like I’ve developed as a driver since, so I think that’s important.

A lot of us have a raw ability and talent, but then it’s who can really develop and take that next step.

TG: So how did you feel when you got disqualified from the points? [Ricciardo’s car was judged to have exceeded the maximum fuel-flow rate]

DR: Australia sort of seemed too good to be true, so when I got the disqualification, I was like, ‘it was too good to be true!’

I was disappointed that night, obviously, but I would say 24 to - maximum - 48 hours after it all happened, I was ready to go again for the next one.

When it’s not your fault, it’s easier to move on. I felt I did everything I could do, so there wasn’t much for me to get upset about.

TG: How did you regroup after that?

DR: Melbourne served me well. I obviously had a fire lit inside me, but after that it just increased once [the podium] got taken from me.

TG: And then you won in Canada, your first-ever in F1…

DR: I enjoy Canada a lot anyway. It was always one of my favourite circuits, if not my favourite. Everything there that day was just perfect.

TG: What was the first thing you did straight after the race?

DR: Cancel my flight! The team threw a party on the rooftop of our hotel, so when I won and got the flight cancelled, I thought, ‘this is gonna be a big night, I’m gonna be in a bad place in the morning’. Thing is, I got back to the hotel and the adrenaline drop was immense, I was exhausted. Obviously I went out and had a few drinks with the boys, but it wasn’t as wild as I thought it would be.

But the team took the load for me. I heard some good stories.

TG: Last year was notable not only for your wins, but also for beating your teammate. Comprehensively.

DR: It did feel good [beating Vettel]. Coming into the season I obviously knew how strong he was, but I didn’t really know how strong I was. I mean I knew he wouldn’t beat me by a second or anything, and I believed I could challenge him, but I wasn’t sure by how much.

Once the season got going and I started beating him more consistently than he was beating me, that was a nice little thing to see. Both qualifying and race day.

TG: It seemed like you had a good relationship with him though?

DR: It was good to be honest. And it stayed good from start to finish. My results didn’t really get in the way of his attitude towards me. I thought he was really professional. He’s very into it, he loves spending lots of hours working with the team. It was good to learn from him.

TG: Will you miss him this year?

DR: I don’t think so. Not in a bad way, I was fortunate to get a year working with him and see what he does, and now Danny’s (Kvyat, DR’s new teammate) the complete opposite - he’s a young kid coming through and all of a sudden I’m the experienced guy. So it’s another thing for me to learn from. I do feel a little bit like the older brother to him.

TG: Where you surprised by Vettel’s move to Ferrari?

DR: Yes and no. I was prepared for both scenarios, for him to stay and for him to go. Once I found out, I was like, ‘aah, yeah I can sort of see why.’

TG: Let’s move onto this year: realistically, what are your chances, with the cars relatively unchanged from last year?

DR: It’s all speculation until we drive them. Even if Mercedes race with the car of last year they’d still be hard to beat. McLaren and Honda, that’s going to be interesting, they could be strong, they could not be. We have no idea. We have faith in Red Bull that we’ll be strong, but how strong? We’ll find out.

TG: What about Adrian Newey taking a step back? Does that concern you regarding the development of this year’s motor?

DR: We’ve already got a design team in place to spread the load a bit more, and that’s been in place since last year. They’re prepared if Adrian steps back as much as some have been predicting. From what I understand, he’s coming to the first tests, first few races… it sounds like he’s going to attend more than everyone thought he would.

TG: Do you think you can win this year?

DR: This year I hope can be the one, I’ll do what I can within the team to give me the best opportunity possible. If we’re talking a few years, I’d definitely like to have a world title. Racing, you need to be in the right environment as well. I’d like to think within the next few years I’ll have a title.

TG: With Alonso and Button pushing on a bit, how long do you reckon you’ll be in this game for?

DR: You know what? When I first started in F1 I said to myself I won’t be here until my mid-thirties, there’s so much travelling, I don’t know how long I could do it.

The bizarre thing about our sport is that we do a lot of other things apart from racing. Racing is actually a really small part of the job.

There are a lot of media days, loads of travelling. That’s the bizarre part, and that’s what I thought would get tiring. But at the same time I’m not going to retire and do nothing when I’m 30. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk away from racing as easily as I thought. We’ll see. There are other opportunities, definitely, but right now, for at least another five to eight years, I don’t see myself leaving the sport by choice.

But Le Mans for example, I would really love to do that one day. I’ve got to tick that off. And get myself one of those Rolexes.

TG: Everyone is calling for a change in F1 regulations. What’s your take on the whole thing?

DR: I think it’s in a good place. It’s never going to be perfect, there are cons with all sports, but generally, last year, in terms of racing and spectacle, I thought it was really good. Obviously the sound was one of the complaints, but that’s something we can fix.

TG: What about Niki Lauda’s calls for 1200bhp monsters?

DR: Everyone likes more power! It’s definitely not in a bad place, but if they’re going to stick another 400bhp on the car, I’d be happy to take part.

TG: Did you prefer the old V8 then?

DR: Obviously I had more success with the sixes, but when you’re in the car, the noise of that V8 was awesome. The massive blips on the downshift, that was very cool. But I’m happy to drive both.

TG: So which era would you most like to have raced in?

DR: I’d be greedy, I’m gonna say two; I would have loved to have raced in the days of Fangio, just to really have a look at what that was like, and the McLaren of Senna would have been a lot of fun.

TG: And if you could have gone up against any driver in history?

DR: The obvious one? Senna. I think James Hunt would have been cool to race against, because I would have liked to have actually seen it, if the stories were true, if he really was as wild as he said, that would have been fun.

Because it’s been a lot of time, it’s like, have the stories just become better and better as the years go on or was it really like that?

TG: Finally Danny, we have to ask: what’s next on the facial hair front?

DR: I think Austin’s facial hair [an extraordinary handlebar-moustache-plus-sideburns arrangement] will be a regular. It worked well for me, and I plan on keeping the Austin spirit alive. Other than that… um, no further thoughts. It takes me a while to grow it, so I have to start growing it now for Austin…

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