A stunning first win for McLaren in the Italian Grand Prix gave a stark reminder of the emotion, honesty and personality Daniel Ricciardo can bring to F1 – a combination of those qualities unlike any other driver on the grid.
“It means everything,” Ricciardo said of his win in the post-race press conference.
“I definitely try not to dictate my life happiness around the sport, because it’s been three and a half years since I won, so I’d be pretty miserable most of the time if I just based my happiness on winning races.
“A lot has happened since Monaco 2018, so to be back here in this moment – that’s why we love the sport. It makes all those crappier days worth it and it’s as simple as that.
“There’s a high that you get from this moment right now that… I’ll probably watch this interview in a few days and I’ll be like: ‘Oh, I actually said that?’
“I’m still floating right now, to be honest. That’s what it does.
“And that’s what draws you back. It’s wild.”
What’s amazing about a Ricciardo interview’s ability to draw you in is he’s not always the most joined-up speaker, but there’s a natural charisma that makes it so easy to gloss over the occasional jumbled sentence. And when Ricciardo’s on the sort of form he was at Monza on-track, you know it off-track too: his energy volleys and thunders in engrossing fashion.
Sunday’s result is big for F1 – probably bigger than you think. It was a window into a reality that looked like it might be lost to the championship when Ricciardo left Red Bull and bet on Renault to be his ticket to a title fight. When that happened, F1 risked losing one of its greatest ambassadors from the frontline.
Ricciardo’s still been Ricciardo in between the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix and 2021 Italian Grand Prix. But his prominence inevitably faded between victories.
He was never a title contender at Red Bull but he was at least a semi-regular race winner and invariably a factor towards the front of grands prix. He livened up races and he was a dynamic personality off-track: the perfect combination.
Him slipping into the midfield meant F1 benefitted from that personality less. It wasn’t lost completely but it was less frequent. And as it became clear the Renault move was not working out as Ricciardo hoped and there was no immediate route back to a seat at the top table, the potential reality became clear: Ricciardo may never get a world championship shot. He may never even win again. It would be unjust for a driver of his ability but an enormous loss for F1 too.
Moving to McLaren was met with fresh enthusiasm from Ricciardo, who called the team his best-ever chance of winning a title. That’s a big claim for a driver who spent five years racing Red Bulls. Surprisingly, though, for much of this year, McLaren hasn’t looked like the problem in that relationship – OK, it hasn’t been winning races anyway, but Ricciardo’s struggles were beyond comprehension. He looked further away from the target than the team did.
“The whole year has been something…a little foreign for me,” he admitted in the daze of his Monza win. “Something that’s been more challenging than I’ve had before.”
With that came a different side of Ricciardo. The situation took its toll. He was still bubbly, charismatic and fun – his usual self – a lot of the time. But in the heat of the moment, his frustrations were clear. Ricciardo was determined not to let the issue take a permanent hold but in his most difficult moments, there was clearly no controlling how emotionally taxing it was.
When that happened the Ricciardo who livened up races and was dynamic off-track was replaced by a Ricciardo who was still capable of good moments on-track but was just, to be blunt, quite slow. Off-track, to his immense credit, he only rarely strayed into being broody and pissed off. He was usually calm, polite and measured. But the spring in his step was also usually missing, which is hardly surprising.
On-track performance and off-track value go hand-in-hand for a driver and Ricciardo’s value to F1 is a strong example. A win or a podium? Time for a shoey. A barnstorming drive? Time for a joyous interview. Bold, hold-your-breath overtakes? Time for a social media clip or three.
At this point it’s worth stressing: Ricciardo doesn’t owe F1 that personality. Not at all. But the beauty of him in his pomp is that it’s not for the cameras. It’s not for show. It’s just Daniel Ricciardo being Daniel Ricciardo. He is unique even among F1’s most entertaining characters, with an effortless cheek and – cliched as it is to say about him – a permanent smile.
The last couple of years we’ve missed Ricciardo from the front of F1 on-track but it was only this year that we started to lose some of that sparkle off it.
Since the summer break though, he has looked refreshed. The time away clearly did him good – from a competitive perspective of course, but that’s to be saved for another time. From a purely mental, emotional perspective, Ricciardo needed that time off in August.
“There have been lows this year but deep down I never lost faith or the belief,” he said.
“I think I also just needed to step back and I think that’s where having some time off in August helped. I truly think that helped this weekend get to this position.”
There’s been a step-change in his performance since Spa and, unlikely by coincidence, a shift in his demeanour as well. It hit the rev limiter at Monza. He was in a naturally hyped mood and lived up to that on-track and off it on Saturday.
The bullishness with which he looked ahead to Sunday was that of a driver with totally unblemished confidence – a world away from what the same driver looked and sounded like just a few weeks before.
When Ricciardo’s quick and happy he just breeds joy in F1. McLaren winning again was a feel-good story in its own right and no doubt a Lando Norris victory would have been greeted with rapture. But a Ricciardo win, amid the season he’s having, with the unfiltered delight that it came with? That was special.
Above all else, this was a colossal result for Ricciardo in the context of 2021. Asked by The Race to explain the significance of it personally given the mental stress of this season, Ricciardo… couldn’t. At least at first.
“Yeah,” he started. “It feels… I don’t know what the word is. It feels…not good…or it feels good, but it’s like… It’s reassuring, I think, for me and things like… I believe in myself, obviously. I think everyone does to get to this point.
“But I’ve certainly been challenged this year. The sport is a tricky one, it’s not so black and white and sometimes you do struggle to find some answers.
“You have to stay on course and stay true to the course and it’s like… you can easily get lost as well.
“Deep down I would have moments of frustration or moments of dropping my head, but I kind of made a point never to let that last. I also made a point to try and gain something from it and learn from it.
“Yeah, there’s been days this year where I definitely haven’t loved it but I’ve had those days pretty much every year. They happen. There’s probably just been more this year.
“I don’t resent those feelings either. I think those things make you definitely appreciate the good days but also they make you understand some internal questions within yourself and how much you want it and how much it means to you.
“For like a moment you fall out of love with the sport but actually the clarity you get afterwards kind of makes you realise how much you do love it and how much you want it.
“That’s been the biggest thing this weekend. To fight for a podium, the want really shone through.
“When it gets to that point and that level… Yeah, I would back myself to the hilt.”
To prove it like he did on Sunday was clearly a sweet mix of relief, delight and vindication.
Ricciardo rode the high from that long after the chequered flag fell and took us all along for the ride.
One of F1’s truly great characters looks back to his best on-track and off it.