If you were to have fallen out of bed last Sunday morning, switched on the telly, flicked though the channels until you stumbled upon something called Formula One, you might have had trouble in identifying the “rookie” that commentators were raving about during the podium ceremony.
After all, Nico Rosberg, the race winner—despite his best efforts to grow a beard on occasion—still looks 10 years younger than his 28 years suggest. Kevin Magnussen, meanwhile, with his head dwarfed by a Pirelli podium cap, looked like he’d just won a competition to stand alongside his heroes.
But it was Daniel Ricciardo, of course, who sported the largest grin and was the most animated of the three. He was the one whom the crowd cheered loudest for and who broke podium etiquette by falling up its steps in excitement.
And although he was later disqualified and stripped of his second-place finish after his car was found to breach the 100kg-of-fuel-per-race distance limit, his contagious enthusiasm and joy meant that he remained the hero of Albert Park.
To the untrained eye, Ricciardo was the rookie.
Even to some trained eyes, however, Ricciardo could not shake the rookie tag, having being mistaken for a novice at various stages across the weekend by people—professionals, no less—who really should have known better.
An honest mistake? Of course. They know that Ricciardo made his Formula One debut in mid-2011. They know that he has driven for three different teams since then. And they know that he has more than 50 grand prix starts to his name.
Nevertheless, it provided a fascinating insight into the elitist nature of F1 that a driver of Ricciardo’s experience—someone who has known what it’s like to be a backmarker, a midfield runner and now a front-runner—was confused for a rookie in his first weekend as a driver for Red Bull, the four-time world championship-winning team.
It is almost as if the 39 races he competed in for Toro Rosso between 2012 and 2013—not to mention the 11 he started for HRT in 2011—counted for nothing rather than acting as an integral part of a driver’s learning curve.
He’s had his fun—now it’s time to get serious.
That sentiment applies to Toro Rosso drivers more than any other team on the grid, given that the team acts as a driver training ground for Red Bull and therefore has no real desire to emerge as a leading outfit in its own right, blending into the background.
If you’re a Toro Rosso driver, the aim of the game is to beat your teammate on a regular basis and impress the Red Bull hierarchy; conquering rival teams is a bonus.
Such a chronic lack of ambition made it difficult for Ricciardo to gain the widespread publicity and plaudits that his sensational qualifying performances in Bahrain in 2012 and China last year deserved, which perhaps made it all the more surprisingly impressive when he appeared to be totally at ease with his new surroundings all weekend in Melbourne.
An inspired performance, at the beginning of a season in which he was expected to be Sebastian Vettel’s whipping boy, was just what Ricciardo needed to confirm that he does indeed belong in as high-profile an environment as Red Bull.
The challenge of partnering a world champion is not to be underestimated, and it will be interesting to observe just how Ricciardo reacts to living in the shadow of his teammate when Vettel begins to assert a degree of superiority over the Australian.
That the initial joy of his Q3 qualifying lap for second place was followed by rather guilty, nagging, self-conflicting thoughts about how much quicker Vettel would have gone in the same car had the German reached the final session is indicative of how Ricciardo will be measured against Vettel in moments of victory as well as defeat.
There is no hiding place, although you get the feeling that the Australian will not regress into a shell like Felipe Massa did beside Fernando Alonso, nor retaliate in the same way that Mark Webber, his predecessor and compatriot, had a habit of doing alongside Vettel.
Instead, he’ll just carry on being the same old smiling Daniel Ricciardo.
After all, Ricciardo’s signing last summer was partly due to the fact that Red Bull required a calmer atmosphere after years of bubbling tension between Vettel and Webber—a point that the German alluded to while speaking to BBC Sport following last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix as speculation surrounding a potential move for Fernando Alonso, the most political driver on the grid, to Red Bull emerged.
Clearly, the team believes that Ricciardo will be a more obedient rear gunner to Vettel than Webber ever was. And on the evidence of his performance in Melbourne, there is every chance that the 24-year-old will turn out to be a more capable partner than Webber, too.
If there was a criticism to be put toward Webber in the latter stages of his career, it was his frustrating inability to consistently meet the demands of the Pirelli tyre-conservation era, which led to three seasons of hit-and-miss results between 2011 and 2013.
Ricciardo, however, has already displayed opportunism in denying an all-Mercedes front row in qualifying, as well as discipline, calmness and authority over the course of a 2014–style race distance, albeit with more fuel than permitted, in only his first race as a Red Bull driver.
He will be a dependable back-up option should Vettel ever encounter difficulty, which is more than can be said for Webber, who despite taking several brilliant victories could never have been relied upon as a team leader.
Although the announcement that Ricciardo would drive for Red Bull was met with a degree of disappointment last summer, when Kimi Raikkonen for a long time appeared to be the more obvious, bold and capable option, the 24-year-old has over a single grand prix weekend proven that there was far more to the decision than plucking the next cab off the Toro Rosso rank.
Not bad for a rookie driver, eh?