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Formula 1

How Ricciardo’s confronted what F1 drivers silently dread

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

The closer a driver gets to the peak of Formula 1, the tougher it is to reconcile a burning desire to be world champion with the reality that it is unlikely to happen.

As only 34 drivers have ever achieved that title feat since the world championship officially began in 1950, failing to achieve the ultimate target is something the vast majority must confront at some point.

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Daniel Ricciardo’s already there. The 32-year-old is now a veteran of 210 starts, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning and he says he’s downgraded the importance of an F1 title to him.

It’s still his ultimate motivation, he hasn’t given up hope. But he’s wrestled with how to twin sky-high ambition with the capacity to cope with not realising it.

“If you put all your eggs into one basket, and it doesn’t work out, the thought of what might happen – in a way it could be scary,” Ricciardo says.

“If I put all my life’s work into becoming a world champion and I don’t become a world champion, am I going to be depressed the rest of my life? I don’t know, it’s a bit of a risky thing to do.

“And I think, in this sport, when there’s so many other variables in it, nothing’s guaranteed. And it’s just not that black and white.”

One year ago, he was convinced McLaren gave him the best chance of winning a title one day. Now, he’s fighting to rebuild his reputation after a chastening 2021. F1 is fickle and laughs at the best-laid plans of mere mortals.

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So, it would seem convenient for a driver who in recent years has only seemed to edge further away from becoming world champion to now believe ‘ah, it’s not worth that much anyway’.

But Ricciardo doesn’t want to “downplay” success; he wants to be “mature” about it.

He’s right to acknowledge that top level sport is ruthless and winning in F1 is heavily influenced by circumstances.

Ricciardo has won eight races. Only 36 drivers have achieved more. He’s part of a very skilled group and is still the sixth-most successful driver of the V6 turbo-hybrid era – yet his career win-rate is only 3.8%.

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F1 is, has been and always will be car dependent to a certain point. The problem for a long time has been that one or two teams tend to dominate a given season. It’s so difficult to have the chance to win, let alone win when you get that chance, that eventually a driver would be mad NOT to find other ways to value their career.

What’s interesting with Ricciardo is he’s given the matter so much thought – he says it has been a real process rather than just trying to pretend ‘this is fine, who cares if I win’ – that he insists it’s extended to how he should feel even if he does ever win.

“I got this actually from a UFC fighter,” says Ricciardo. “His name is Rashad Evans. So, there’s a story where he worked all his life to become champion. He became a champion. And I think the next week he went back to the gym, and his team-mates were like, ‘How does it feel?’ and he said, ‘I feel no different’.

“In a way, it’s quite sad, because you want it to be something. But I guess the point was that having the title belt didn’t change him as a person. So, if you also work it up to be something, and then it’s not, I think that could also be quite dejecting.

“So, I tried to just level it out a little bit so that if I do become champion, awesome. But if I don’t, life still goes on.”

There are parallels here with something Max Verstappen said in 2021, in the thick of his title fight with Lewis Hamilton, that it wouldn’t change his life. And after he won the championship, he said he’d achieved the ultimate so everything else is now a bonus.

Let’s see how Verstappen feels now he’s tasted success, and once he’s gone racing as the world champion, if he’s willing to go back to being one of 19 other drivers. For some, nothing has the same value after that peak.

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Nico Rosberg is the most famous example: he retired after winning his only title because it was so intense he didn’t want to put himself through the same thing again when he’d already won.

You can easily see why Ricciardo would take the matter so seriously. There’s a vast spectrum of emotions with something as highly-charged as a lifetime of chasing a singular goal.

What if you covet it so highly there’s nothing left to chase, and you lose purpose? What if you build it up so highly that achieving it doesn’t live up to expectation and missing it is destructive?

Or what if it’s how you’ve defined your entire career and you fear you’re never even going to get a chance to try?

Most drivers probably don’t let themselves go near these questions. To do so would risk an existential crisis, so it’s impressive that Ricciardo’s even been open to contemplation.

“It’s probably just for some self preservation as well,” Ricciardo admits.

“It doesn’t change me or my mindset as a competitor or anything. But I guess some days, especially like the bad days, you sometimes do need to laugh it off – it’s just a sport.

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“If I don’t become a champion, life will still go on. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to live my dream for quite a few years now. At the end of the day, it’s a trophy, and it’s your name in the history books forever – but you’re still going to go to bed that night, you’re still going to wake up the next day.

“I don’t want to downplay it, but you just want to be mature with the approach of it. Lewis has seven of them. Does he feel different to before he had any? I don’t know. I’m not saying I have that answer, but I don’t know.

“It could just be quite scary to invest everything in it, because there’s a lot more to life. That’s probably where I’m at with it.”

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