Daniel Ricciardo keeps getting better.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised—he did just turn 25 and has only started 11 races with a front-running team—but the Australian's ongoing success does feel a bit surprising.
After his victory for Red Bull on Sunday at the Hungarian Grand Prix, though, surprise is no longer a valid response to Ricciardo's performances.
As the Formula One circus breaks for the summer, Ricciardo—in just half a season—has firmly established himself among the upper echelon of drivers. He is the only man to steal victory from the dominant Mercedes cars (twice!) and has thoroughly bested his teammate, the four-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel.
And after two sublime passing manoeuvres on two former world champions in the space of two laps at the end of this weekend's race, we know that Ricciardo's smiling demeanour in the paddock is just a facade. The man has a killer instinct, with the skills to back it up.
Since Ricciardo's maiden victory in Montreal last month, only Mercedes' Nico Rosberg has scored more points than him.
|Performance Since the Canadian Grand Prix|
|Driver||Points Since Canada||Total Points|
And although that win in Montreal almost fell into his lap when the two Mercedes cars had problems, the one in Hungary was thoroughly earned, from start to finish. After heavy rain soaked the Hungaroring track just before the start, Ricciardo drove a clean race while many others—including Vettel and Lewis Hamilton—were caught out by the conditions.
Yes, Ricciardo did benefit from the timing of the first safety car, which allowed him to pit a lap earlier and gain track position on most of the other leaders, but that did not win him the race.
The Australian was in the lead following that first safety car and again just after half-distance, but his final pit stop, on Lap 54 of 70, dropped him to fourth place. Nico Rosberg pitted two laps later, leaving Ricciardo in a straight fight with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Mercedes' Hamilton for the win.
Although Ricciardo's tyres were fresher, he demonstrated incredible patience, lurking behind the two more experienced drivers. On Lap 65, he tried to pass Hamilton on the outside of Turn 2, a long left-hander. The move did not work, but Ricciardo had tested the grip limit in the corner and he saw Hamilton's response.
Two laps later, he pounced. The Australian made the same brave move and held on through the following quick right-hander. Ricciardo did not even need the benefit of the drag reduction system (both drivers had it open at the time).
On the BBC broadcast, David Coulthard, winner of 13 grands prix, said, "That's a world champion-of-the-future move, undoubtedly."
From there, it was only a matter of time before Ricciardo also hunted down Alonso. On the following lap, he passed the Spaniard on the inside of the first turn and the race was won.
Later, in the press conference, Hamilton praised the Australian, saying, "Not only one of the nicest guys in the paddock but also one of the best drivers here, for sure."
Although a legitimate title challenge will have to wait until at least 2015, Ricciardo has more than met expectations for his first season at Red Bull. Whatever you might think of Vettel, there can be no denying that he is a very good driver. In the space of 11 races, though, he has been completely overshadowed by his new teammate.
And the drivers' standings—where Ricciardo leads Vettel by 43 points—do not even tell the full story. The Australian's lead could be even larger had he not been disqualified from second place at his home grand prix.
"I am a different driver and in a way a different person, a different sportsman than I was last year," Ricciardo said after his win this weekend, per a Red Bull press release. "I've got a lot more belief in myself and it's cool, I definitely feel like I belong here now and I've got confidence."
That confidence is what allowed him to go around the outside of Hamilton at the end of the race, and it is what has allowed him to not be intimidated by Vettel's hefty resume and full trophy case.
And while Ricciardo may continue grinning nonstop, we are all now in on his secret. He is a fighter and a champion just waiting to be crowned.
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