DURING THE THRILLING CLIMAX to this year’s Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix, there was a moment when Daniel Ricciardo turned away from the dramatic scenes unfolding before him and gave the camera his signature, continent-splitting smile. Maybe Ricciardo wished he was out there on the track. Perhaps he was contemplating what he would do if faced with the multiple pile-ups and repeated restarts that will ensure the Albert Park race lives long in the memories of F1 fans. But in that moment, as a reserve (third) driver, he was a spectator like the rest of us. So, the smile. You couldn’t help but grin back at the screen.
That’s the effect Ricciardo and his smile invariably invoke, something the producers of Netflix’s smash-hit reality series Drive To Survive, shrewdly capitalised on. He’s now one of the sport’s most marketable stars, with a stable of sponsors and a slew of celeb stans (hello Anne Hathaway).
But a lot has changed for the 34-year-old since we last spoke to him at this year’s Melbourne Grand Prix. Most notably, he’s heading back to the Formula 1 paddock this coming week, signing an exclusive deal with AlphaTauri to pilot its AT04 for the remainder of the 2023 season.
There’s no doubt the short-term gig will prove difficult; AlphaTauri are currently placed 17th and 20th (last) respectively, with drivers Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries — whom Ricciardo is replacing — having faced many obstacles with the AT04 car this year, notably its limitation in late entry phase to corners, which triggers rear instability.
But Ricciardo being Ricciardo is optimistic, and Esquire’s chat with him earlier this year is still as relevant as ever. 2023 has been a year on the sidelines for Ricciardo to refresh himself mentally and let his motivation bubble up within. “My goal for the year is to naturally let things come to me, that hunger, that urge, that desire,” Ricciardo told Esquire in Melbourne back in April. “I just want to naturally find answers. Already, I’ve learned a lot and I know some things where, if I were to be racing again next year, I would do a little differently. I wouldn’t have that perspective if I was still in a race car.”
He’s right, he wouldn’t. Stepping away is often a precursor to stepping forward. No wonder he’s smiling.
Esquire: How does it feel to be back in the fold at Red Bull?
Daniel Ricciardo: I would sum it up as better than expected. When I get dressed in the morning, I put the shirt on and look in the mirror, it just makes me feel a little bit nostalgic. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in the past. I think everything happens for a reason and I’ve lived and learned and grown through it, but I’m really, really appreciative to be back in this family.
ESQ: Are there any major changes you’ve noticed in your time away?
DR: The biggest thing was when I went to the factory to do some sim [simulator training]. I did a tour as well and I was just like, jaw on the floor. The infrastructure has grown so much. I’m like, How has this happened in four years? It’s no coincidence they’re now at the front. They’ve done a lot and pushed a lot; it’s a ruthless pursuit to [get to] the front and they’ve done it.
ESQ: They’ve always been renowned for being the most innovative team, right?
DR: Yeah, when I was here the team always had that winning mindset. They’ve always been a group of hungry individuals. But now I feel it’s hit another level.
ESQ: What are you most excited about this season?
DR: On track, obviously Red Bull started the season killing it. So I’m excited to see how the other teams fare with that and who’s going to be able to close the gap fastest. Everyone’s talking about Vegas. That’s gonna be an absolutely mammoth event. I think it’s going to elevate the sport to another level.
ESQ: Are you inspired by the impact Fernando Alonso is having this year?
DR: Yeah. I remember doing an interview when I was 27 and a race hadn’t gone well and I was a bit frustrated and I was saying, I’m starting to get old, time’s slipping away. I don’t feel like that anymore. Watching the likes of Alonso do what he’s doing at his age, it’s like, if you want it, you’ll find a way to pull it off and perform. That’s why I know, if the heart’s there, I can get back to the front.
ESQ: How do you manage the pressure of being a Formula 1 driver?
DR: I think one thing I’ve got a lot better at over the years is reading, or rather, not reading. I’m not even talking about negative points of view. Even positive articles can make your head get too big or you can start thinking you’re too cool for school. It’s about making sure you have your priorities right. I have my small group of people or my family around me, who are going to tell me right from wrong and, if I’m not seeing it, keep it real. So, having the discipline not to read stuff has helped me have a clearer mind. And feel a bit more comfortable with myself.
ESQ: Does that extend to social media?
DR: Yeah, all that stuff. And look, it’s part of it and we’re always going to be doing interviews and media. I’m going to post things and some people will like it, maybe some don’t, but it’s fine. You kind of have to build that one-way system where you just can’t afford to get locked into or it becomes a rabbit hole. Keeping your mindset clear also involves having hobbies outside of racing. Having little trips that I’ll plan with friends through the year takes the load off. Doing things that a normal person would do. That helps keep me balanced through all this.
ESQ: We were speaking to Mark Webber yesterday and he said he doesn’t miss driving, but misses the community. Can you relate to that?
DR: Yeah, not the actual process. It’s interesting. It’s hard at times when it’s not going well to find the enjoyment, because there are so many other externals and then when the driving part doesn’t go well, it’s like, Damn, that was a heavy weekend. I’m knackered and I don’t really have much to show for it. But it’s just part of the beast now.
ESQ: There’s a big crossover between watches and motor sports. Would you consider yourself a watch enthusiast?
DR: Yeah. My dad was always into them and he would make the crossover. He’s like, ‘Son, trust me. One day you’ll mature and you’ll understand why I love watches’. He’s like, ‘It’s in your blood. You love cars, you love the motor, the mechanics, you will find a love for watches as well’. Around 24 it just clicked and I was like, Oh, I get it. Obviously they’re a fashion piece, but I really appreciate the work behind them as well.
ESQ: You’ve built one of the most powerful personal brands of any Aussie athlete. What do you like about TAG Heuer and their watches?
DR: I think about the history of motorsport with TAG Heuer. It goes back to [Ayrton] Senna. He was a hero growing up and there’s a strong association there with TAG Heuer and Senna. Also one of the first watches I saw my dad wearing was a TAG Heuer, so it’s always been there. It’s genuine.
A version of this story featured in the inaugural Esquire Australia issue.