When asked “who is the best driver in Formula 1?” you tend to get three answers: Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, or Fernando Alonso.
That’s entirely understandable. After all, that trio have nine World Drivers’ Championships between them and have dominated the sport for the last dozen years. Two of them are battling for this year’s title while the third is one of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world. If you give any of their names as an answer to that question you wouldn’t have many people saying you are wrong.
However, there might just be a fourth name to add to that list in the shape of a smiling Aussie.
It will feel like a stretch to say that a man with five wins in F1 is on the same level, or better, than multi-time champions, but bear with me here.
Since entering Formula 1, Daniel Ricciardo has not sat in a championship-winning car. In 2011 he debuted in the terrible HRT, before getting a Toro Rosso seat in 2011 and quickly moving it up the grid and scoring points.
Red Bull, who won everything from 2010 to 2013, needed just two seconds to promote him when Mark Webber stepped aside, and in 2014 the grinning Aussie got to sit in a car that could compete for podiums, though not race wins. The introduction of hybrid power units saw Red Bull’s dominance end, and Mercedes become the all-conquering force. However, what he did in 2014 was a signal of intent. He got in the same garage as the mighty Sebastian Vettel and played him off the park.
In Melbourne, his first race with Red Bull, he qualified and finished in second before a fuel flow rate issue caused him to be disqualified.
It only took Ricciardo three races to get back on the podium though, taking third in Spain, the first of eight podium finishes that year, including race wins in Canada, Hungary, and Spa. Those wins were not without a bit of luck and the dominant Mercedes shooting themselves in the foot, but he was there to pick up the pieces with some terrific driving, especially in Hungary.
A result of being the only non-Mercedes driver to win in 2014 was that he finished third in the World Drivers’ Championship, a massive 71 points ahead of Vettel, who quickly bolted to Ferrari when the season was over.
What planted the seed of this article was Ricciardo’s incredible drive in Monza. He scythed through the field on his way to an impressive fourth place, and looking back it’s not something we really should have doubted, despite the power disadvantage the Red Bull is at around that track.
Ricciardo’s real coming out party, despite his three wins, was his performance at Monza in 2014, when he sold Vettel this dummy.
That’s a man with half a season in a top car putting a move on a four-time champion with exactly the same machinery. It’s a move that should look familiar too because he pulled the same move on Kevin Magnussen and Sergio Perez this weekend. His dive down the inside of Kimi Raikkonen was also a carbon copy of the move he hit Valtteri Bottas with in 2016.
So Ricciardo has a feel for Monza, so what? Well, it’s not just Monza where Ricciardo’s flair for an overtake has been seen. Just this year he flew past the two Williams in Baku and threw it around the outside of Bottas in Spa. Remember in the winter when drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg were saying that overtaking would be “almost impossible” in these 2017 beasts? Well, it is for a lot of people, but not for Ricciardo.
After starting 19th in Silverstone he finished fifth, and he won in Baku from 10th on the grid. The only place Ricciardo hasn’t overtaken anyone is in Monaco, where no one can overtake anymore.
The lack of race wins can be explained by the relative lack of pace of the Red Bull compared to the Mercedes during the hybrid era, and I feel confident in saying that in an equal car he would do as well or better than any of those “big three” I mentioned earlier.
So then, what is the caveat? Well, it’s next to him in the Red Bull garage.
In the last 12 months, Max Verstappen has gone from consistently 0.250 seconds behind Ricciardo on a Saturday to usually around 0.150 seconds ahead.
While Ricciardo’s qualifying lap from Monaco 2016 is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in an F1 car, he isn’t putting in laps of that quality week after week. However, that is Saturday.
On Sunday we have seen Max Verstappen get into more than a few scrapes, and while he is a magnificent driver in his own right, Ricciardo’s race craft is a sight to behold. He can look after his tyres, he can defend, and as we have seen he is the most spectacular and consistent overtaker in the paddock.
If that doesn’t make for the best driver, then I don’t know what does. Maybe he just needs a world championship for more people to realise it.
Do you agree that Ricciardo should be considered up there among the best, if not the best, on the current F1 grid? Let us know in the comments below!
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