Read time: 11.5 minutes
You know those days when you’re so rushed off your feet, you feel you can’t get a moment to come up for air from beneath a sea of deadlines, meetings and, until recently for many, home schooling? We’ve all had days like this and they can test the resolve of anyone, even someone with the sunniest of dispositions.
Even Daniel Ricciardo, perhaps?
Not a chance. After a long day spent in the simulator and fulfilling marketing engagements at the McLaren Technology Centre, our very own ebullient Aussie was more than happy to reflect on his first few months in papaya for McLaren.com.
You've now had time to process everything from a very busy pre-season test in Bahrain. How do you think it went and what did you learn?
The biggest thing you want in testing, especially when you’ve only got three days, is reliability and to get lots of laps in. And that’s exactly what we got: we didn’t encounter any major reliability problems and, although we didn’t top the lap chart, we covered everything we needed. It was a smooth test and a big tick in the box for everyone in the team. The car felt good and we did a good long run in the final session. I left the test feeling comfortable in the car and the team.
Talking of the team, what's impressed you most?
It’s the amount of time and effort the team has put into preparing me. From the start of January, I’ve been provided with so much information and lots of homework to ensure that everything felt very familiar when I sat in the car for the first time. It’s definitely worked! I feel fully integrated in the team and not just from an engineering point of view, also the strategy and operational side of things, and even the marketing side.
We can remember McLaren F1 Racing Director Andrea Stella saying he was going to give you lots of homework. What’s it like being a student at 'Stella School'?
I think I’ve burnt out the camera on my laptop with the number of video calls we’ve had! But every single call has been invaluable and there’s been a real purpose to them. That’s another thing that’s really impressed me about the team: everyone is clearly a very hard worker, but there’s no time wasting. It’s not a case of working a 16-hour day and thinking it’s awesome that you’ve put that many hours in, it’s what you do in the time you spend working that matters – quality, not quantity.
Going back to the pre-season test, the lap times suggest the team has clawed back the performance that was expected to be lost due to the aero regulation changes for this season. Have the changes affected the way the cars drive at all?
When you look at the lap times, I think it shows how impressive F1 is from a development point of view – how new regulations can be thrown at the teams to reduce car performance, but teams quickly find ways to get that performance back. The car was sliding more on the first day of the test, which left me thinking that the cars would be trickier to drive this year because of the downforce lost at the rear due to the aero changes. But, as the test continued, it became apparent that this was down to the track conditions – the wind, the sand – and by day two, and definitely day three, the car felt very similar to last year.
Don't get me wrong though, if I see a gap at the weekend, we’re all good, I’m going for it.
It really highlights just how clever the engineers are; sometimes I wonder why we don’t open up the regulations and let them do what they want because, in the end, they’re always going to find a way around the rules. I go back and forth in my head trying to decide whether being a driver is the hardest job in F1, but I always end up at the same conclusion: driving must be the easy job because look how many brains are needed in the team to design, build and operate an F1 car.
Well, you say that, but someone's got to get behind the wheel, extract the performance from the car, go for gaps and pull off overtakes. You're renowned for being the last of the late brakers and you've recently spoken about how braking is the biggest thing you need to get used to in the MCL35M. How long do you think it will be until you understand where the limit is and really push the car?
By day three of testing I was in a better place with the braking and starting to feel pretty comfortable with it. I think it will only improve the more time I spend in the car. Don’t get me wrong though, if I see a gap at the weekend, we’re all good, I’m going for it.
And is it a case of adapting to what you’ve got or adjusting what's there?
It’s probably a combination of both. If I think back to my time at Renault, the car was pretty different to the Red Bull when it came to braking – and braking was a real strength of the Red Bull. I had to get used to that difference, but we also had to minimise it by changing the setup and trying to get closer to the feeling of the Red Bull. The McLaren is not in a bad place with the braking though, it’s more a case of me getting used to the differences.
Talking of getting used to new things, what do you think of your new team-mate, Lando Norris, and what's it like working with him? Your feedback about the MCL35M has been very similar, which is usually a good sign and less of a headache for the engineers!
Yeah, the similarity of our feedback is a promising sign. In the debriefs we’ve been asking for the same sort of thing and that’s so important when you’re trying to drive a team forward – you want to be driving it in one direction rather than all over the place. Even though Lando is a lot younger than me, he knows his stuff. This is his third year in F1, so he’s definitely not a rookie anymore; he’s got quite a bit of experience now and a good understanding of the car.
Along with driving the team forward, what are your aims this year?
I think it would be great to hold on to third place in the Constructors’ Championship. It’s going to be just as hard as last year to do that, if not harder, so we’re going to have to be on our A-game, but I feel like I have a lot of experience in the sport that can help the team to continue to move forward. And it’s not just about me, as I said, Lando has a good amount of experience too – he got his first podium last year – so I think as a driver line-up we bring a lot of positives to the team that can drive it forward.
Final question and we're ending on more of a philosophical note with this one; this year marks a full decade since you joined the F1 grid, if you could go back in time to give your 21-year-old self one piece of advice what would it be?
Relax! I remember my first race at Silverstone and I was trying to do too much. To be fair though, I was thrown to the wolves because I was only told a week beforehand that I’d be racing. I wore myself out trying to do too much. It wasn’t the perfect preparation. You’ve only got so many hours in a day and I was trying to take in as much information as I could in a short space of time. I was trying to be a hero when, really, the key was to just get the basics right.
I think I was pretty overwhelmed by it all at first. I had watched F1 from a young age and then when I finally got there, mentally, I wasn’t prepared. You aspire to get to F1, so you kind of put it on a pedestal, but then you’re there on the grid with the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso – guys I watched battle wheel-to-wheel when I was growing up – and suddenly you’ve got to race against them.
I would definitely tell my younger self to relax – everyone’s started out from a similar point in karts and they’ve all had similar feelings when they were in your shoes. And then I would say to try to enjoy it as much as possible, don’t stress yourself out too much. By my third race I had built some confidence and started to believe that I belonged in F1, but for those first two races I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
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