Reappraising Daniel Ricciardo's Talent After Start to F1 Career at Red Bull

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2014

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing is interviewed ahead of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2014 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo scored his second straight fourth-place finish at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday.

Earlier in the week, the Australian's disqualification from his home grand prix—where he finished second last month—was upheld by the FIA's Court of Appeal. That news did not slow him down on the track, though.

After just four races at Red Bull, Ricciardo has put to rest any doubts that existed when he was selected above everyone else on the grid to replace the retiring Mark Webber last season.

The move made sense, as Ricciardo had come up through the Red Bull Junior Team, and the 24-year-old Australian has ensured the team has nothing to regret in giving him the drive. And there was legitimate cause for concern, even if it was not voiced.

Webber and Vettel did not have a great relationship at Red Bull.
Webber and Vettel did not have a great relationship at Red Bull.Andy Wong

Sebastian Vettel had dominated Webber—a battle-tested, nine-time grand prix winner—for most of the last three seasons of their partnership. How would Ricciardo fair, who had never even been in contention for a podium during his years at HRT and Toro Rosso?

The answer: Quite well, thank you very much.

I wrote last week that, based on the first three races of the season, it looked like Vettel would have his hands full just trying to stay ahead of his new teammate. In China, Ricciardo put in his best performance yet, relative to the German champion.

At the Shanghai circuit, for the second race in a row, the four-time reigning world champion was asked to move aside for the young Australian.

Although Vettel's original response to the request on the team radio, "Tough luck," was broadcast to millions of viewers around the world, he did eventually let Ricciardo through. That was at the start of Lap 26.

Ricciardo leads Vettel in China.
Ricciardo leads Vettel in China.Lars Baron/Getty Images

When the race ended 29 laps later (two laps earlier than it should have, thanks to an overzealous chequered flag waver), Ricciardo was 20.642 seconds down the road from Vettel. From the time he got by the German, Ricciardo was faster by an average of 0.712 seconds per lap.

Over the race distance, Ricciardo put in 12 laps quicker than Vettel's best lap time, 1:42.169, according to the detailed lap data provided by the FIA.

Following the race, Vettel acknowledged that he is no match for his young teammate right now, saying, per ESPN F1, "At the moment the gap is very big and I need to work on that. Daniel is showing there is more in the car than I can get to at the moment."

With Ricciardo's disqualification in Australia and a disastrous pit stop in Malaysia, Vettel still leads the Australian 33 points to 24 in the Drivers' Championship. However, in the two races that have been decided between them on the track, Ricciardo has come out on top twice. 

He has also been impressive against the rest of the field. Currently sixth in the Drivers' standings, Fernando Alonso and Vettel are the only non-Mercedes-powered drivers ahead of him. Meanwhile, his qualifying positions of second (twice), fifth and third attest to his raw speed.

But as ever in Formula One, teammates are most easily measured against teammates.

In contrast to Vettel, who appears to be fighting the car at times, on Sunday Ricciardo said, according to the official F1 website, "It's going well with the team, I feel comfortable here and I did the best I could today." 

And it has not just been in race trim that the young challenger has had the measure of the champion. Ricciardo has out-qualified Vettel in three of four races—including by half-a-second in China.

Vettel has won 39 races in his career, not to mention the four Drivers' titles, so Ricciardo still has a long way to go to be considered on the same level.

Right now, though, he is every bit as good as Vettel...and maybe just a touch better. 

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