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Steely Dan does it again and cements status as championship challenger

Ricciardo imperious yet again in Monte Carlo

Monaco Grand Prix – Daniel Ricciardo’s unstoppable drive over the weekend in Monte Carlo has underlined his ability to seriously challenge for this year’s World Championship.

“This one I don’t know how to handle. This one hurts a lot.”

“Nothing you can say can make that any better. Just save it.”

They were the pained words of Daniel Ricciardo two years ago when his certain victory in Monte Carlo was thrown away by his team; a big lead thrown away by Red Bull when they called him into the pits to switch onto slick tyres on a drying track, only to not have the tyres ready. Sitting there as the seconds ticked away while his car had no tyres on it, Daniel’s certain knowledge of an impressive array of Australian swear words must have been exhausted when he emerged onto the track only a few feet behind eventual winner Lewis Hamilton. A win on the streets, the biggest individual race prize in Formula 1, had been lost through no fault of his own.

While Ferrari were the class of the field last year with the slight change of regulations, Red Bull showed up again this year with the car to challenge. Ricciardo, right from the start of the weekend, looked focussed, calm, measured. And fast. Very fast. Max Verstappen wasn’t far away either, but looked riskier on track; allowing his Red Bull to get tail happy leaving Rascasse & Antony Noghes with abandon. For all his flamboyance, Ricciardo stayed with him throughout practice and upped his pace accordingly, finishing both of the first practice sessions on top. Moving into FP3, and it was Verstappen who initially seemed to have the edge in terms of outright laptime. That was until the smallest big mistake a driver can make happened. Turning in milli-seconds too early while distracted by passing Carlos Sainz, Verstappen binned it – catastrophic for his weekend with only two hours until qualifying. Ricciardo, watching on impassively, went back out on track moments later and promptly put in the fastest lap of the weekend to that point, showing that he had been within his limits throughout.

Ricciardo
Red Bull/Getty

Qualifying was more of the same. Ricciardo always looked in charge, and there were gasps throughout the media centre as he smashed in a 1:10.8 on his first flyer in Q3. Had he been feeling brave, he could have sat out the remainder of the session with noone else able to dip below 1:11, with only Vettel managing to get close. 1:10.8 – a new overall track record and a lap that on no occasion had looked in any way anything but measured and calm.

Explaining his mindset after qualifying, he said: “The risk and reward is very real here and that was proven this morning.”

“…To be fast you can’t think about those things. Knowing we had obviously a great package all weekend… we need to push it but I don’t think we need to overdrive it. The car has been performing well. It’s just hitting your marks and just trying to keep it clean I guess. We’re all pushing each other, particularly Max and myself in the same time. It’s no surprise that these things can happen and, as I said, when we’re lapping 1m10s 1m11s there’s no room for error.”

Onto the race and, holding off Vettel & Hamilton into the first corner, Ricciardo set about sprinting away. He managed to open a solid three second gap quite quickly, until the first hesitation from the engine sent his heart rate soaring. Not again. Not after all of that. Accelerating onto the main straight, feeling the lumpiness of the engines power curve, and seeing that aggressive, snarling Ferrari of a relentless Sebastian Vettel closing in fast, he radioed in to report his problems and beg for a solution. This is it – the moment he’s told that Monaco has slipped away yet again. Vettel is told about the issue, and the Ferrari gets in position; the lion about to execute the wounded gazelle. The radio springs to life, and Simon Rennie speaks: “OK mate, we see what’s going on. Keep it smooth. Keep focussed. You’re doing a really good job”.

And so began the toughest, and luckiest, 50 laps of Ricciardo’s career so far. Lucky that it happened at Monaco, a track where the missing 200bhp meant he didn’t get swept past down a straight where he was some 35km/h slower than Vettel’s Ferrari. Hailing the ‘really great chassis’ that he had under him, Ricciardo refound a rhythm and a pace that meant Vettel never really got that close, despite his best efforts. With the errant MGU-K sending his brake temperatures skyward, and near failure, he made some drastic brake bias changes to keep his rear brakes from spontaneous combustion. He avoided 7th, the highest gear used in Monaco, and delivered a slow, steady, monotonously boring race that felt interminable. Never ever relaxing, waiting for the sudden complete death of the engine, the laps ticked away one by one until Lap 76. “OK Daniel, three laps to go, we sugges-” “I got it, buddy.” – came the reply. Three minutes later, and he crossed the line to take the win he had earned two years ago and had had stolen away from him. A fortuitous, brilliant, and dominant performance that he proudly proclaimed as “redemption” as he rode a wave of elation back to the pits and to the plaudits.

Ricciardo
Red Bull/Getty

Two wins, joining Vettel & Hamilton who are also both on two wins apiece in faster cars, underlines that Ricciardo is a very, very serious contender this year. Praise also has to go to Red Bull. Team boss Christian Horner revealed afterwards they were willing to let the Renault engine die before they would retire the car, and the risk taking approach they’ve shown by doing that, as well as their lightning fast reactions to the changing circumstances of the race for Daniel’s win in China, is the perfect antithesis to the somewhat slow, laborious, conservative strategies employed by Mercedes & Ferrari. So wrapped up in their own rivalry this year, it allows Red Bull to be more the Dark Horse. Let’s not forget, Ricciardo’s retirements from Bahrain & Azerbaijan have been costly. Both would have, and should have been, podium finishes and a further 30 points or so – right in the thick of it. Not bad for a driver in a car that is not the measure of the W09 or the SF71-H on a ‘normal’ circuit – yet.

Red Bull get engine upgrades in Canada, and have been traditionally good car developers throughout a season. While the gap to the front is a decent size, it’s far from insurmountable. With Ricciardo’s driving this year being, arguably, the most consistently best of the frontrunners, it’s more than possible that a more serious challenge could evolve in the next few races. He reckons he needs another win before the summer break to have any sort of momentum to try, but his consistency and lack of errors stand to him while RBR extract more and more pace from their package. With the RB14 being slightly weaker as it stands, Daniel will need every bit of help and buffer as he can get, and that’s where Verstappen comes in. Having two Red Bulls up front will give Daniel extra ammo, but will Red Bull have the balls needed to tell their supposedly higher paid, star driver of ‘the future’ to aid the man that is being openly courted for a seat at a rival team? To aid the man with more than double the points? Right now, Daniel is the stronger and better package and becomes increasingly potent as he starts hitting the peak of his career. All while Verstappen brings the fastest car home in P9. Come on, Red Bull – it’s time to get smart.

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Thomas Maher

Co-owner, Chief Editor and a journalist for FormulaSpy.com - Ireland's only accredited F1 & Formula E website. Also working in the Irish radio broadcasting industry. Donations: PayPal - paypal.me/thomasmaheronf1 ETH/ERC20 - 0x9d0b8071180AAcB0bD5f0c1d43281768C73e8763

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