Mark Webber once famously – or perhaps infamously – quipped, “Not bad for a number two driver” after winning the 2010 British Grand Prix. The second season of he and Sebastian Vettel as Red Bull teammates was the year the pleasantries of the year previous began to erode, ever so slowly, but culminating in bangs like at Istanbul and mind-games like Silverstone.
Although Webber had the edge late in that season points-wise, late season victories by Vettel in Japan and Brazil kept him in the title game, even as both sought to overtake Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari. Then of course the Abu Dhabi finale happened, Alonso shaded the wrong Red Bull car’s strategy (Webber’s), and both had lost out to Vettel as the then-23-year-old German claimed the first of his four successive World Championships after winning the race.
It was the beginning of the end for Webber at Red Bull, as Vettel pummeled him over the next three seasons. Webber was always good if not great, whereas Vettel had the ability to fuse his driving style with the way the car was designed, and seemingly always had the pace edge.
Oh, Webber still had his fighting moments. But they were few and far between these last three years.
Which makes Daniel Ricciardo’s sublime start to 2014 all the more remarkable. Because not only is he not intimidated by sitting in the same chassis as the reigning king of the sport, he’s legitimately taking it to him.
With three Grands Prix in the book, we have enough evidence to prove that his Australia and Malaysia efforts weren’t a fluke. In Bahrain, Ricciardo was Red Bull’s man, and not Vettel.
Perhaps it’s fitting Ricciardo picked the Number 3 going into this season – he picked it from his karting history and his fandom of the late Dale Earnhardt. Heck, he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have even exchanged tweets this year.
On-track though, much like we discovered Vettel can be a ruthless assassin behind the wheel last year in the whole Multi-21 episode, in Ricciardo, we may have his equal – a stealthy, no holds barred stunner under the helmet whose effervescent smile is the public persona of his steely resolve.
Consider Red Bull’s myriad woes in preseason testing and yet Ricciardo didn’t publicly appear phased. He outqualified Vettel on his team debut, doing everything he could and then some in his home Grand Prix with second on the grid and in the race before his eventual disqualification due to exceeding the fuel flow limit.
In Malaysia, he wasn’t quite ahead of Vettel, only briefly behind in the rain-affected qualifying (Vettel was second and Ricciardo fifth), but he shaded him closely in the race. But more bad luck followed with his unsafe release and front wing damage then occurring near the end of the race, when a sure top-five position was there for the taking.
Ten-spot grid penalty for Bahrain? No problem. Just go out and outqualify Vettel again, with third place for the Aussie while the champ failed to get out of Q2. Then from 13th on the grid, run a strategy that sees him quicker and have a radio transmission relayed as such. Then pass him late in the race, for position, and end fourth to Vettel’s frustrating sixth.
Anyone else could have been battered by the bad luck to open his chance at this top-flight opportunity, but not Ricciardo. How he has responded in the face of adversity has been brilliant to watch, and one of the best stories of the season thus far.
With Jean-Eric Vergne having his struggles with rookie Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso as well, Red Bull’s choice of Ricciardo has been further confirmed. Vergne has his moments of brilliance but not the out-and-out pace, consistency or luck where Ricciardo seems to have two of the three on a regular basis.
The question now is whether Ricciardo’s success is fleeting, or here to stay.
We’ve not seen Vettel in a position where a teammate, in his F1 career dating to his debut as a 19-year-old in 2007, could consistently match or beat him over the course of a full season. Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastien Bourdais couldn’t at Toro Rosso; Webber, as mentioned above, was never a true equal in the same machinery.
Yet Ricciardo stands on the precipice of being able to do that, by the combination of his skillset and his mentality.
Having the right attitude to go head-to-head with an alpha dog in the same garage is the key to not getting annihilated. So far Ricciardo seems to have that right temperament to go along with his on-track prowess.
If he can continue this push, Vettel will be in the unusual position of needing to respond.
Perhaps then we can see another side of Vettel. He needed comebacks to win the 2010 and 2012 championships, but he hasn’t been in a position where he’s had to come back within his own team.
He may need to now after Bahrain. Because through three Grands Prix, Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull is no number two driver. He is a clear 1A.