As 2014 continues to produce one of the most exciting and intense Formula 1 championships since the turn of the century, the focus continues to be on the perceived problems within the sport.
In the eyes of Christian Horner, these are being stirred by the media, but when you have the likes of Luca di Montezemolo and Bernie Ecclestone pointing at the cracks in the product, it doesn’t send out the right message. One team was reportedly subject to a takeover bid earlier this year, only for the potential buyers to pull out because they felt that the sport wasn’t going in the right direction.
When Rush came out last year, it brought back memories of a bygone era in Formula 1, when the drivers were seen as superstars. The likes of James Hunt and Niki Lauda caught the imagination of fans; Ayrton Senna did the same; to some extent, so did Michael Schumacher.
However, the recent crop of F1 drivers have been criticized for not capturing the imagination of the fans. As TV audiences fall in markets such as France and China, efforts are being made to remedy the situation: double points and standing restarts are just two of the ideas to come forward. But is the sport in need of an individual to bring in fans from outside of the sport? A Senna or a Hunt to really get people interested?
The answer could be Daniel Ricciardo, who is quickly becoming a favorite among fans despite only being in F1 for three years.
Daniel doesn’t have the playboy persona that Hunt boasted (then again, does anyone!?), nor is he the tearaway talent that Senna was in his early years. However, he is giving a human face to a sport that is largely hidden behind helmet visors and driver suits.
When speaking to Daniel in the paddock, it’s quite clear that he is two things. Firstly: highly determined and gunning to win (as is any racing driver). Secondly: a genuinely friendly person. It’s very rare to leave a press briefing with Daniel without a smile nearly as big as his own.
As with any major sportsman, there must be a certain detachment from the ‘real world’ in that they are elite; they are better at driving a Formula 1 car than you or I. However, the way to really connect with fans is to also show yourself to be like them in some cases. Social media is one of the easiest ways to achieve this. A simple retweet or reply can do wonders for your profile and popularity.
Daniel was quick to share his success in Hungary on Twitter with a few entertaining tweets, showing himself hugging his winner’s champagne and making no promises about how sober he would remain. “Wow I was hurting this morning haha…” was the tweet the next day!
Can’t guarantee this guy’s gonna remain sober for much longer this evening 😇 pic.twitter.com/zSzisUXN1n
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) July 27, 2014
And it’s tiny touches like this that are quickly making him one of the most likeable and big selling points for Formula 1. Some of the other high-profile drivers either stay away from Twitter (which they’re entitled to do) or – quite clearly – leave it to the PR departments. However, it doesn’t stir new fans in the sport. It’s nice to see drivers really connecting to the people that pack the grandstands and spend their hard-earned cash on tickets and merchandise.
Daniel has a great sense of humor, quite clearly, and this is even clear just when talking to him. He is open to a joke – even when I teased him about Australia losing to England at cricket last year, he was laughing – and hasn’t forgotten his roots. He knows how blessed he is to be doing what he is doing. He is living the dream.
This is all very good news for Formula 1. Bernie Ecclestone has said in the past that the sport needs a superstar, and Daniel could be exactly that, but not in the conventional sense. He is someone who the fans can connect to; he is a human face for the sport.
In many ways, he is following in the footsteps of his predecessor at Red Bull, Mark Webber. Also from Australia, Mark was loved in F1 for his no-nonsense attitude. When he bowed out at the end of last season, he took his helmet off for the warm down lap, quite literally showing the person that is underneath the helmet and in the car. It was an iconic shot from his swansong year.
Daniel is that much younger, though, and has quickly established himself to be more than ready to fight for wins and championships. It was missed on the FOM world feed broadcast, but when he passed Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the dying moments of the Hungarian Grand Prix, he said over the radio “that’s how you do it, ladies” – not quite “shake and bake”, but still a pretty cool thing to say after putting two F1 champions firmly in their place.
With a cool brand like Red Bull behind him, Daniel is becoming a marketer’s dream. He may not be a superstar in the conventional sense, but he is becoming one of the most popular and most respected drivers in Formula 1. Could his success aid the sport’s crusade to bring new fans in? That remains to be seen. For the time being though, let us enjoy seeing a future great growing and flourishing under the shadow of Mercedes’ domination of the 2014 season. We’ll be able to say “I was there!” when he made his debut; when he won his first race; maybe even when he won his first championship.
For all the perceived bad in Formula 1, Daniel Ricciardo is so full of good. Long may that continue.