FORMULA ONE fans saw some spectacular driving when Daniel Ricciardo set out to chase down the field from the back of the grid at Monza. PETER COSTER admired his moves:
THE HONEY BADGER is fearless when cornered, sharp of tooth and claw and without mercy for an opponent, and so it was for Daniel Ricciardo at one of the fastest Grand Prix circuits of all at Monza in Lombardy.
This fearsome beast glares out from the back of the Australian driver’s helmet as Ricciardo bares his trademark white teeth, hunting down his prey. It’s not always a smile. At the Italian Grand Prix, where the elite drivers hold the hammer down for some 80 per cent of the circuit, the high-speed banking is behind the grandstands; declared too dangerous after the 1961 race.
Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators were killed when the German aristocrat’s car collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus and flew into the air and into the crowd, although not on the oval banking. Last weekend it was Ricciardo who showed the dash and nerve that has made him one of the top five drivers in Formula One and saw him declared Driver of the Day after he started at the back of the grid and finished fourth behind Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari, but denied a podium finish when he simply ran out of laps.
Why Ricciardo started with his 19-year-old teammate Max Verstappen only a few places in front of him was because Red Bull decided to forgo a unlikely win by changing engines at Monza rather than at Singapore on September 17. Red Bull was penalised under FIA rules that were brought in to stop the wealthier teams in F1 from changing engines whenever they felt like it. Fining them was not an option when teams such as Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have budgets that far exceed their competitors. Martin Brundle put the question to FIA president and former Ferrari boss Jean Todt on the grid before the start at Monza.
Why put out the teams the adoring fans have come to see in their tens of thousands, asked Brundle? Why not fine them and give the money to the poorer teams? Why penalise half the starting grid as happened at Monza?
Even the diminutive Todt agreed there should be another way to do it so the fans are not cheated of seeing their idols.
There must be some connection between stature and status in Formula One when you see Todt and Bernie Ecclestone alongside each other.
But more of the honey badger adopted by Ricciardo as his mascot, its eyes slit towards those he passes; if only they could see the furry little animal glaring back at them from beneath the Red Bull’s air intake.
Mellivora capensis has few predators. They are intelligent as well as relentless when annoyed and are avoided by other animals, even lions. Ricciardo might have admitted to being annoyed by his relegation on Sunday through no fault of his own. He and Verstappen were behind the victorious Lewis Hamilton on the grid in second and third positions after the Mercedes driver admitted they pushed him to a heroic last lap before qualifying closed.
Back went the Red Bull pair for the start and Verstappen in his usual teenage enthusiasm tangled with Williams driver Felipe Massa on lap three and recovered to finish 10th. But the day belonged to Ricciardo who hunted down his prey with courage and élan.
It was a display that held even the tifosi in thrall as Ricciardo executed thrusts through the field like a swordsman. He jumped 12 places to finish four seconds behind his former Red Bull teammate Vettel and declared it “good fun”.
Not only did Ricciardo set the fastest lap of the race, in spite of Red Bull’s belief it’s Renault engine did not have the pace of either the Ferraris or the Mercedes, the passes were often sublime.
The best was the adrenalin rush as Ricciardo hunted down Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. At turn one on the 41st lap of the race, Ricciardo’s engineer told him the Ferrari driver was on his own on the track and “vulnerable” to an overtake. “Let’s get him.”
“I like ’em vulnerable,” radioed Ricciardo before he passed the Finn wheel-to-wheel in the tightest of corners in a sweep that swallowed the Ferrari. The honey badger is a carnivore and the red car was red meat.
Ricciardo has come of age as an elite Grand Prix driver. When Red Bull co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz said he wanted to see Verstappen become the youngest world champion in F1 history, Ricciardo reached for the phone. “I’ve read your comments,” he said to the Red Bull co-founder. “Unless you pay me $10 million, I’m leaving.”
The Red Bull team insisted Ricciardo was joking, but there was a bite to the honey badger’s words. Verstappen is fast and furious, but he often goes where he shouldn’t go and forced to retire.
Ricciardo says, “Honestly, I don’t really care what goes on in the media and I don’t take those kind of comments from my bosses personally at all. I understand why it’s so much about Max. He’s the youngest driver in history (Williams driver Lance Stroll is younger, my parentheses) and as a brand it makes for pretty good headlines. In the end, I know this is also a business.”
Ricciardo is now 28 and has had a run of five consecutive podium finishes this season while Verstappen has failed to finish in six races and is two places behind Ricciardo in the title race.
Verstappen is frustrated with his DNFs and his father, former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, has told Red Bull’s Helmut Marko neither he nor his son are happy. “You sign a deal with Red Bull and you want a winning package. We don’t have that at the moment.”
The honey badger is more sanguine, a word that means positive in the face of difficulty; but it also means blood red.
Ricciardo replaced Mark Webber at Red Bull when Webber retired from F1 in 2014 and finished third in the drivers’ championship with three wins and won in Malaysia last year and at Azerbaijan this year.
At Singapore, look at the honey badger on the back of Ricciardo’s Bell racing helmet as the roving camera shows him climbing into the car. The honey badger is a mean mother.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.