MONTREAL — Daniel Ricciardo could not stop smiling after winning the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon. "It's not really often your dreams come true," the 24-year-old Red Bull driver said, "but as a kid I pictured myself on the top step of a grand prix podium with a sea of people one day."
It was the affable Aussie's first career victory, and it came in only his seventh race since joining the four-time defending champions.
The win makes it three straight podium finishes for Ricciardo and confirms his status as a world championship contender—perhaps not this year, with Mercedes still head and shoulders above the field, but certainly next season, if Red Bull and Renault recover as expected.
Ricciardo is the fourth Australian to win a Formula One grand prix, following Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Mark Webber. Brabham, a three-time world champ, passed away last month, and Ricciardo told reporters, "I'd like to dedicate this to the late Jack Brabham. I'm sorry he missed this."
On Saturday, Ricciardo was frustrated with his qualifying performance, which left him sixth on the starting grid behind the Mercedes and Williams cars and his teammate, Sebastian Vettel. Sitting with a small group of journalists in the paddock after qualifying, he described his lap as "pretty scrappy," although he originally used a different word beginning with "s."
Still, he was lighthearted and optimistic, saying, "We'll hopefully have a good one tomorrow," while acknowledging that the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve's long straights favoured the Mercedes-powered cars.
That was borne out early in the race, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton quickly building a big lead. But then the previously unbeaten Silver Arrows both lost their energy recovery systems, causing their brakes to overheat.
Hamilton eventually retired, while Rosberg was able to continue, but at a reduced pace. Slowly, a train of cars including Sergio Perez, Ricciardo, Vettel and Felipe Massa closed in.
On Lap 66 of the 70-lap race, Ricciardo passed Perez on the outside in the run down to Turn 1. "As soon as I passed him, I knew it was my race to win," he said. "I knew there was enough life left [in my tyres] to catch Nico and nothing could stop me from that point. That was the turning point of the race for me."
The Australian was two seconds behind Rosberg at that point but swiftly hunted him down. Two laps later, Ricciardo passed the championship leader with the help of the drag reduction system.
There was no chance of Rosberg taking the place back as, on the last lap, Perez clipped Massa at Turn 1 and both cars hit the barriers heavily, bringing out the safety car.
As Ricciardo took the chequered flag, TV viewers heard his team congratulating him over the radio while he was silent. Afterward, Ricciardo clarified that, "I didn't cry. I didn't know what to say. I always believed I could do it, but when it happens, you don't know what to do. I wanted to make sure [Massa and Perez] were safe before I went crazy."
Thankfully, the drivers were OK, although Perez was given a grid penalty at the next race for causing the collision.
After the race, Ricciardo credited his team with his success this year. He was promoted after two seasons at Red Bull's sister team, Toro Rosso. Arriving at the senior team, he said he was told, "'Do what you've been doing the last few years. Don't put a lot of pressure on yourself. Just go and enjoy it and drive fast.' It's such a simple approach, but it's been great."
He also spoke about his relationship with Vettel, who Ricciardo has outperformed for most of the season. "Seb's been very complimentary of me this year," he said. "I genuinely saw today that he was really happy for me."
Ricciardo is now third in the Drivers' Championship, though still 61 points behind Rosberg. It is unlikely that Red Bull or anyone else will be able to claw their way back into the title hunt, but Ricciardo is in a great position.
He has proved that he is a match for Vettel and now leads him by 19 points. If Renault can close the power gap between their engines and Mercedes' over the off-season, Red Bull will be regular challengers at the front of the grid next year. And if that happens, there is no reason to doubt that Ricciardo can win the world championship.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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