Pre-season, Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko hinted that he was willing to give Daniel Ricciardo a six month grace period as he accustomed to life with the reigning world champions. In reality, it took only a handful of races to convince the world that Ricciardo was a top talent whose promotion was entirely justified. But as the season wore on, another attribute of Ricciardo was showing through: his consistency. As team principal Christian Horner pointed out, it’s all very well being sporadically quick, but when you drive for a top team you have to do it week in, week out. Unlike at Toro Rosso, there’d be no chance of having an off-weekend. Ricciardo, at Red Bull, has been present week in, week out.
Ricciardo’s season started in phenomenal fashion with his excellent drive to second at home in Australia. But the dream turned sour as he was disqualified due to the fuel flow limit, while two weeks later in Malaysia he was again without points following a team pit error.
Therefore Ricciardo arrived in Bahrain without a solitary point to his name, while championship leader Nico Rosberg had amassed 43.
But since then, Ricciardo has been the regular challenger to the Mercedes pairing, racking up the points and podiums. And every time they’ve slipped up, he’s been there to pounce.
Granted, there’s been a healthy slice of luck in all three victories.
In Canada he was behind team-mate Sebastian Vettel and the strategy played out in Ricciardo’s favour, elevating him above the German.
In Hungary, his inability to pass Jenson Button worked in his favour, as the time lost meant he could react to the Safety Car, which the leading quartet could not.
In Belgium an error from Vettel paved the way for Ricciardo to move ahead, rather than spending laps and losing time behind the sister RB10.
But conversely, none of these incidents were the golden ticket to victory.
Back in Canada he had to make the decisive move on Sergio Pérez, which he executed brilliantly around the outside of the first corner.
In Hungary he had to firstly be patient, save his tyres, before attacking at precisely the right moment in an ever-changing race.
In Belgium he had to manage his tyres across the final stint of the race and adopt the strategy in a different manner – rather than being the hunter, he was the hunted. It was a different mind-set, yet he controlled proceedings without a single mistake.
On three occasions the Mercedes drivers have slipped up and on three occasions Ricciardo has claimed victory. He’s also done so while retaining his endearing attitude and overcoming a difficult pre-season campaign and start to the year – and beating Vettel. There are mitigating circumstances; Vettel has had some woeful luck in 2014, alongside having to adapt his driving style after several years of mastering a quirky technique. But even so, Vettel remains a driver of superb talents. Ricciardo beating him does not ‘expose’ Vettel nor does it diminish the German’s previous achievements. Rather, it shows the steely determination and skill of Ricciardo. Somewhat ironically, Ricciardo's three wins have all come after being outqualified by Vettel!
Ricciardo’s racing has also caught the eye this season; in Austria he executed a splendid move on Nico Hülkenberg for eighth on the final lap at a race in which the team struggled, while his recovery to sixth in Germany, having dropped to 15th after being an innocent victim of the opening lap collision, greatly impressed Fernando Alonso.
Ricciardo therefore deserves the accolades being thrown at him this season. But could he actually inch into title contention?
Ricciardo had an awful start to the year and from there he has been getting stronger. Meanwhile, Mercedes has a dominant car but will naturally refuse to back one driver, with the relationship between the pair at breaking point – oh, and only once in the last six events has there not been a mechanical problem with the W05.
Ricciardo remains a sizeable 64 points behind Rosberg, but that’s a lower deficit than it was post-Monaco. Furthermore, Ricciardo is the form man while Mercedes has a situation which borders on the unmanageable. Some upcoming circuits too, should suit Red Bull, while the carrot on the stick is the 50 points available in the season finale in Abu Dhabi. Red Bull has not given up in their quest for a fifth straight title, either. Mercedes may have the best package, but they do not have the best team. As 2014 has proved, that accolade still belongs to Red Bull.
Mercedes still has a commanding advantage: their drivers were over two seconds quicker than anyone else in qualifying, and without their collision they would have romped away with the race. But they didn't. The title fight should remain between Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton and it's highly unlikely that Ricciardo will be able to sneak the title in the manner of Kimi Räikkönen in 2007. It is unthinkable that Mercedes would allow that to happen, but the fact that after 12 rounds of harbouring a dominant car they still have to nervously glance at Ricciardo’s position shows that it is not an impossible task for the Australian.
"If I'm within 50 [points] coming into Abu Dhabi then yeah," he said when asked if he was a title contender.
"While it's still mathematically possible, yeah, we'll keep fighting. To come and steal some points on a circuit where let's say we weren't supposed to is nice but I think what's important, looking ahead, is to capitalise on the circuits that we should be strong on and if we can take maximum points, let's say, at a couple of those then it's never over."
Daniel Ricciardo – 2014 world champion? Highly improbable. But not yet impossible. Not by a long shot.