AFTER a brilliant series of passing moves and victory in Shanghai, Australian GP ace Daniel Ricciardo will be a driver in great demand next season. PETER COSTER reports:
DANIEL Ricciardo’s five passes, from sixth to the top step on the podium in the Chinese Grand Prix, showed us why he will be driving a Ferrari or a Mercedes next year.
The passes were as smooth as honey and Ricciardo later showed the millions watching the honey badger painted on his helmet.
The honey badger is ferocious as well as sweet-toothed, as was the series of passes that started with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
Ricciardo passed the Kimster at the turn 14 hairpin on lap 37 to take fifth place. On the following lap he passed his Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen.
The Honey Badger passed four-times world champion Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes a lap later, also on the turn 14 hairpin.
The crowd erupted, drowning out the insipid noise from the 1.6-litre turbo-hybrid cars. They are supposedly louder than last year, but you wouldn’t know it.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was fist-pumping on the pit wall. “Clinical” was his comment. “He came from so far back,” he said in almost disbelief.
It was so far back that Ricciardo might have been coming from Perth, where he lived before becoming a resident of Monte Carlo, once described by Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people”.
But even Formula One drivers are entitled to minimise their taxes and Shanghai on Sunday was Ricciardo’s preferred place in the sun.
The smiling assassin is often described as the last of the late brakers, holding back until suicide seems inevitable before diving to the inside of the corner to make the pass.
No one does it better than Ricciardo. It needs nerves of steel and superb car control, as Verstappen found when he tried to pass Hamilton and failed.
After Ricciardo executed the perfect pass on the Mercedes driver, he said “Sometimes you’ve just got to lick the stamp and send it.” Hamilton surely got the letter.
Vettel, another four-time world champion, was Ricciardo’s next victim, again at the hairpin, on lap 42.
Verstappen later tried the same move and took Vettel with him as they spun in a pas de deux, that infuriated the German, who got into the Dutchman’s face after the race.
Verstappen is supremely talented, but overly exuberant. At least he admitted he was in the wrong.
Back on lap 45 of the 56-lap race, Ricciardo stormed up behind race leader Valtteri Bottas.
“I thought about pulling out,” Ricciardo said later. “Nah, just kidding,” he then laughed. “I was never going to pull out.”
“Surgical, “clinical” and even “scary”, said Ricciardo’s race engineer, who joined in drinking champagne from Ricciardo’s sweat-drenched shoe after the race.
The “shoey” has become part of Ricciardo’s victory celebrations. Warning: this can cause dry retching when watching at home.
How good is the toothy Australian? With the right car, and after three races this year the Red Bulls are as fast as the Mercedes and nearly as fast as the Ferraris, Ricciardo is as good as any and far better than most.
The 2016 world champion, Nico Rosberg, said on Sky after the race that Ricciardo “was the guy I hated most to have behind me”.
What happened at Shanghai is a turning point in F1, according to former world champion Damon Hill.
He told Christian Horner that he would need “a thicker cheque book” when it comes to re-signing Ricciardo at Red Bull when his contract runs out this year.
Negotiations are to begin this month, but Ricciardo is unlikely to stay. Red Bull hard man Helmut Marko said last year he believed Ricciardo was “on the market” and he had more to say in defence of Verstappen’s mistakes after Shanghai than in praise of Ricciardo.
He stood in the background as the cheering Red Bull team surged forward to embrace the Honey Badger. He offered only a wintery smile.
Like Ricciardo, Bottas, the number two driver at Mercedes and Raikkonen, number two at Ferrari, are out of contract at the end of the season.
The Finnish drivers have been long-term rivals. Raikkonen was world champion in 2007 and is now 38, which would have made him the oldest driver to take pole since Nigel Mansell in Adelaide in 1994, had he not been out-qualified by a tenth of a second by Vettel on the last lap in Q3.
Bottas could also find himself overlooked in favour of Ricciardo.
Bottas has won three times for Mercedes, no mean feat when it is Hamilton who commands all the attention.
It is the same at Ferrari for Raikkonen. At Shanghai, team orders turned “The Iceman” into a moving road block to allow Hamilton to close the gap on then race leader Bottas.
There may be reservations over what is being seen as a lack of total commitment by Bottas. On the last lap at Bahrain, he pulled out of a passing manoeuvre on Vettel.
Former F1 driver Mark Blundell said Bottas “bottled” it, but that is too harsh from a driver who never won a race in F1. “Too cautious”, might have been a better turn of phrase.
To return to Damon Hill’s remarks about the Chinese GP being a turning point for F1, there is much more to what took place than Ricciardo’s masterclass.
The Shanghai race has revived F1. The virtual safety car chaos at Melbourne, when Vettel suddenly roared out of the pits in front of race leader Hamilton, saw the deployment of the actual safety car at Shanghai after a collision left debris on the track.
Ferrari and Mercedes opted to stay out to retain track position whereas Red Bull seized the opportunity to pit both cars in a high-risk “double-stack” pit stop that gave them fresh tyres while the race leaders were left to struggle on worn rubber.
Enter the Honey Badger, who took the sword to the race leaders, in the process showing F1 owners Liberty Media it is drivers and edge-of-the-seat competition that makes a race.
Whichever team Ricciardo signs with at the end of this season, Mercedes or Ferrari or even Red Bull again, it may result in further seat changes or even driver retirements.
Hamilton is still to sign with Mercedes and will not want Ricciardo to enter the team on an equal footing.
Nor will Vettel, who has signed a three-year contract at Ferrari and will not appreciate Ricciardo coming into the team after being embarrassed when they were teammates at Red Bull.
The Honey Badger won three GPs in his first year in 2014. Vettel was on a doughnut when he left for Ferrari.
He had problems with a car he didn’t like, but so has Ricciardo, who had only minutes to avoid being relegated to the back of the grid at Shanghai when his engine was being replaced after a turbo failure in practice.
The next race is on April 29 at Baku in Azerbaijan, where Ricciardo won last year.
How sweet it now is for the Honey Badger.
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.