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Back to the top step: Daniel Ricciardo’s love for UFC helps him with race approach

EXCLUSIVE: “You’re basically trying to kill me, and I’m trying to kill you,” Daniel Ricciardo says, his eyes glowing with his trademark enthusiasm.


Michael Lamonato

Friday 21 October 2016, 03:53PM


Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo after winning the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang on Oct 2. Photo: Jiji/AFP
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo after winning the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang on Oct 2. Photo: Jiji/AFP

Sitting inside the Red Bull Racing suite at the Japanese Grand Prix, the Australian driver’s interview with The Phuket News has taken an unexpected turn.

“I love UFC – it’s the most pure form of sport because it’s man against man,” he clarifies.

Ricciardo’s love for the Ultimate Fighting Championship is one of his better-known extra-racing interests, but this isn’t some self-indulgent detour on his part; his passion for the mixed martial arts tournament is a quite key to his racing approach.

“I probably learn as much about [psychology] from watching other sports as I do from anywhere else.

“There’s no equipment, there’s no technology involved; it’s just purely physical and mental.”

The mental game has been increasingly important for one of the sport’s hottest properties.

His Red Bull Racing debut promised much and delivered three unlikely wins, but a poor car in 2015 smashed his and the team’s momentum.

Matters improved in 2016, but victory has proved painfully elusive.

In Spain Daniel was accidentally dealt a slower strategy that enabled new teammate Max Verstappen to claim his maiden win.

In the blue-riband Monaco Grand Prix the team botched a crucial pit stop from the lead to hand Lewis Hamilton an easy 25 points.

For the first time the 27-year-old’s ordinarily smile-painted face was filled with stress and frustration.

“The dark side?” he says, casting his mind back. “Most times I’ve got a helmet on, so you can’t really see it, but, some things can upset me and piss me off.

“Monaco was pretty unique in the circumstances. I think it was probably as well that it had been so long since I had won … I felt like, ‘Okay, I’ve done everything I can, it should have come already’.”

Succumbing to meltdown isn’t an unusual racing driver response – Lewis Hamilton’s recalcitrance with his Mercedes team since his engine caught fire in Malaysia being one example – but when other drivers wrap themselves up in the moment, Ricciardo refused to let himself be claimed by his dark side.

“It’s perspective,” he recalled. “I went back, I looked at the whole weekend, and up until the pit stop it was the best race weekend of my career.

“Everything was pretty much perfect – okay, there was a crucial moment, but I actually had to leave the weekend happy because it was awesome.

“I think that’s the easiest way to move on.”

Critical to his recovery has been casting from his mind the pressure of comparing his results to those of his more decorated rivals – both Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were world champions at 23 years old – to grow his capacity for self-evaluation.

“I think I’m more now taking [races] as I get there,” he said. “It’s just rock up, see how it goes and do what you can.

“Last year I learnt that. It was a good thing because I was able to leave the track happy with a seventh place because that’s all we could do that weekend.

“If seventh was the best, if I was getting seventh, then I was like, ‘Weather the storm while you can, get what you can out of it, and eventually when you win again it’ll be even sweeter’.”

The clouds finally parted in Malaysia, where Ricciardo was finally able to reclaim the top stop, the team harassed Hamilton’s leading Mercedes car to the point of engine failure.

It was a critical win on the eve of a tipped Red Bull Racing’s championship tilt in 2017 under new chassis-friendly regulation changes.

If the likely becomes reality, the culmination of the last 24 months will be key to the Australian’s battle for supremacy against his feisty teenage teammate.

“It’s a bit like how I’ll approach a race weekend – I’ll come here and not really expect too much, I’ll just drive and see what happens!” he says simply. “I’ll deal with it if it comes or when it comes.

“Naturally the stakes rise, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what happens off the track has to change.

“I think what we’re doing right now is pretty good … so if we did and we’re winning races while doing it, I guess we’re probably maybe even happier. We’ll see!”

 

 

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