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Ricciardo remains bullish on his long-term prospects

Red Bull's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo looks on in the pits during the third practice session at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza on Sept 2, 2017.
Red Bull's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo looks on in the pits during the third practice session at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza on Sept 2, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MONZA • "That lucky b****r" is how Daniel Ricciardo describes his former Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel, but the usual chasm-wide grin belies any malice.

It is a typical response from the Australian, who started yesterday's race 16th on the grid but finished in fourth place, while being unable to challenge for the Formula One title.

On the other hand, Vettel, who won four titles for Red Bull, is once more at the sharp end of the fight in a resurgent Ferrari.

Ricciardo's upbeat attitude is more than just that of a typically good-humoured Australian. He has learnt to deal with disappointment and emerge the better man for it.

When Vettel won his first title in 2010, Ricciardo drove the Red Bull in the end-of-season young driver test in Abu Dhabi. His form would have been noted by the new champion. The track at Yas Marina had improved by about 1.5 seconds since the season decider but Ricciardo's time was still 1.3sec quicker than Vettel's qualifying time.

He was in a Toro Rosso midway through the next season and stayed there while Vettel won his next three titles, before being promoted to the senior squad in 2014.

He had every reason to smile but what followed was a shock to the system as Mercedes ran away with the turbo-hybrid era. Ricciardo has not been in a battle for the title since.

"In the second half of 2013 Sebastian had more wins than we have had as a team since then," he says. "I came into the team thinking this is the best car on the grid so that was one little frustration I had to deal with."

The 28-year-old is not exaggerating. Vettel won the last nine races in 2013. Red Bull have won six since - five by Ricciardo and one by his team-mate Max Verstappen.

That he could challenge with the right machinery was clear from his debut season with Red Bull. He outdrove Vettel, who would leave for Ferrari at the end of the year. Ricciardo won three, Vettel none and he out-qualified the world champion by 12 races to seven.

Unfortunately the car dropped even further off the pace the following year and they finished fourth in the constructors' championship.

It was a low point, but Ricciardo soon came to terms with it.

"I learnt from 2015," he says. "I had built up that that was going to be a championship year. I thought we had the tools to do it but we didn't. I held on to it for quite a while and became a more frustrated, unhappy person. I wasn't my typical self often enough.

"I changed my perspective. I am frustrated that we are not in a championship fight but if I hold on to the frustration, it is not going to make me perform better. I have years left ahead of me, I have to be smart in how I deal with it."

He has proved he has speed and formidable racecraft. The Red Bull was once again slow to start this season but Ricciardo has wrung six podiums from it, including one win in Baku and third in Belgium on Aug 27. He has learnt to embrace every moment, despite not being where he wants to be.

"I am loving the podiums because we know we don't have the car to be there," he says. "But I see Seb and Lewis (Hamilton) up there all the time and obviously I want to be that guy."

He admits that not competing with the two title contenders remains hard to take.

"There is some frustration," he says. "I look at Seb or Lewis and think, 'If only I had your car.' I acknowledge they are at the top of their game but I feel I could be there as well."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Ricciardo remains bullish on his long-term prospects'. Print Edition | Subscribe