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BUBBLES FROM THE BOOT – THE BADGER IS BACK!

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RICCIARDO’S Italian Grand Prix win gets a troubled season back into top gear, writes PETER COSTER:

The Return of the Honey Badger is a fairytale for which Daniel Ricciardo is only just finding the words.

“For anyone who thought I left, I never left, just moved aside for a while,” he said after winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday.

The Australian driver’s last victory had been at Monaco in 2018 for Red Bull Racing, the team he abandoned when he felt its success was being built around a younger Max Verstappen.

Two years with Renault was followed by another move to McLaren.

What followed was a disaster, the McLaren looking like a car that was driving Ricciardo rather than Ricciardo driving the McLaren.

Before Sunday’s race, there were the rumours that Danny Ricc might be dumped at the end of the season.

How long could McLaren stick with the 32-year-old driver from Perth, now a resident of Monaco, who was in the worst slump of a formerly highly successful career?

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The answer on Sunday was obvious as Ricciardo gulped champagne from his driving boot in what was his trademark “shoey” before the yips and the gremlins crept alongside him in the driver’s seat.

Whatever they were, they were gone as Ricciardo put the Macca on top of the time sheets in first practice at the circuit known as “The Temple of Speed.”

Drivers died on the banking that resembled a cliff face, the last being Wolfgang “Taffy” von Trips when his Ferrari collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus before flying into the crowd, killing the German driver and 14 spectators.

On Sunday, Ricciardo found himself on the front row of the grid alongside Max Verstappen.

Behind them were Lando Norris in the other McLaren and Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes.

Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes had set the fastest time but was starting from the pit lane because of an engine replacement penalty.

Ricciardo was pumped to bursting point before the start. The adrenaline was obvious as he bumped fists and elbows with his team before getting into the car.

“Attack, attack, attack,” was his answer when he was asked how he would drive in the race.

McLaren had not won a race since the Brazilian Grand Prix with Jenson Button in 2012.

The team’s strategy was to finish ahead  of Ferrari, its main rival for third position in the constructor’s championship this season behind Red Bull and Mercedes.

Ricciardo wanted to win, however unlikely that might be as Hamilton and Verstappen raced on the sharpest of edges for the world driver’s title this year.

So poor have Ricciardo’s performances been that any thought of him winning on Sunday seemed remote.

But something had changed. Ricciardo was tanned and fit, almost gaunt, from the summer break.

Danny Ricc was on a mission few gave him much chance of bringing off.

Even if he were to somehow defeat Hamilton and Verstappen, teammate Lando Norris was only a row behind him on the grid after showing him the rear end of his McLaren this season, even lapping him and giving him a wave as he passed.

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But when the lights went out on Sunday, it was Ricciardo who took the first corner and the lead from Verstappen, a lead he never relinquished.

He finished ahead of Norris in an astonishing McLaren one-two after Hamilton and Verstappen crashed out of the race when neither would concede a corner.

This time it was Hamilton who was lucky to escape injury when the Red Bull landed on top of the Mercedes after hitting a kerb.

Super slo-mo saw the halo flex under the impact. Hamilton said he felt the impact of the Red Bull’s rear wheels on his helmet.

He escaped death or a serious spinal injury, just as Verstappen was very nearly killed when he collided with Hamilton in the British Grand Prix.

Hamilton was the matador who had slid inside the wheels of the Red Bull on the fastest corner in F1 and held up his arms to the cheering crowds at the finish as if he were holding the ears of a vanquished animal.

As we have said in these columns over the past few weeks, “matadors” and “gladiators” as the world’s fastest drivers are locked in increasingly personal combat.

The stewards imposed a 10-second penalty on Hamilton after the Silverstone race and Verstappen will lose three grid positions at the Russian Grid Prix for failing to give way on Sunday. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner saw it as Hamilton not giving Verstappen enough room to pass.

Ricciardo has rejoined the fray, not only winning a race he never looked like losing but setting the fastest lap and restoring McLaren as a contender in F1.

The team carries the name of Bruce McLaren, the New Zealand driver who died in a testing accident in one of the all-conquering CanAm sports cars of his own design.

McLaren CEO Zac Brown now looks to the day when he adds another constructor’s championship to the eight constructor titles and 12 world driver’s championships McLaren gathered in its glory days.

He swilled the champagne from Ricciardo’s boot along with Norris, who seemed genuinely excited by Ricciardo’s victory as his own second place.

But not over-excited if his call on team radio was any indication:

“I need Daniel to pick up the pace. He’s driving too slow” and did they prefer him to stay behind Ricciardo rather than pass him.

“I think I had the pace to at least try,” Norris said after the race.

“I can’t say if I would have got Daniel or not, but I could have tried at least.”

Whether he could have passed Ricciardo was another matter. The resurgent Ricciardo increased the margin when he needed to.

Norris has continued to talk up how he had stayed in second place for the good of the team.

But with a touch of new-found arrogance in a remarkable season.

Everyone in F1 knows how good he is, but this was always Ricciardo’s race to win and he did so with seeming ease.

Still, F1 is an ego-driven sport and no one belongs on the grid unless they believe they are a winner.

Ricciardo’s self belief  crashed this season and the first corner on Sunday when he edged out Verstappen was the first corner of a comeback that has only started.

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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.

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