TRIUMPH AT THE HUNGARORING: Daniel Ricciardo poses in front of third-place Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton after winning the 2014 Hungarian GP. Image: AP/Darko Vojinovic
MELBOURNE, Australia - Put "baby-faced assassin" Daniel Ricciardo behind the wheel of a Mercedes and there's no doubt he would take the Formula 1 title race to the wire, said compatriot Alan Jones, Australia's most recent Formula 1 champion.
Ricciardo is the only driver in 2014 to have beaten the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to the top of the podium. He won a dramatic 2014 Hungarian GP on Sunday (July 27) to seal his second victory of the season.
His performance at the Hungaroring circuit underlined his class as he continues to beat Red Bull team mate Sebastian Vettel.
NEXT OZ TITLE-WINNER?
Ricciardo's success has raised Australian hopes of a first F1 title-holder since Jones's 1980 triumph and the former Williams driver said the expectation was justified.
Jones said: "He's a contender, there's no doubt about it. He's not a contender this year because Mercedes has the jump on everybody. Get him a good car next year. If you put that (Mercedes engine) in that bloody Red Bull, he would be a contender. Or get him a Mercedes, because he's proved he can qualify consistently in the top four.
"He can run up there with the best of them. He doesn't pile up the road or have any accidents."
After a two-year apprenticeship with feeder team Toro Rosso, Ricciardo has proved a revelation in 2014, mounting the podium five times, including a maiden win at the 2014 Canadian GP in June.
Ricciardo’s win at the Hungaroring put him third in the standings behind the Mercedes pair, 71 points behind Rosberg and 60 behind Hamilton with eight races remaining.
While Ricciardo benefited from pace-car interventions races that he won his calm in a frenetic finish in Hungary, in which the top four drivers were separated by a little more than six seconds, left few in doubt he belongs in the A-grade.
Ricciardo has also had to vie for top honours with a Renault engine, which remains well off the pace of the Mercedes power unit, according to team boss Christian Horner.
Jones continued: "I think Daniel's drive was exemplary. He did a really super job in looking after his tyres, displayed a lot of maturity and I think he's well and truly cemented himself in the team.
"Daniel took a fantastic overtaking manoeuvre on (Fernando Alonso) to get the job done. There was some speculation in Canada that he got it handed to him to a certain degree but this one he well and truly earned. He just drove really well."
TAKING OVER FROM WEBBER
Ricciardo took his Red Bull seat from hard-bitten compatriot Mark Webber, who came close to breaking Australia's championship drought in 2010, only to blow his chance late in the season with a crash in South Korea.
In contrast to the straight-talking Webber, who sometimes wore a face of thunder at post-race media conferences, Ricciardo is rarely seen without a big toothy grin and has tried in vain to convince fans a cold-blooded competitor lurks within.
"Don't be fooled by the sunshine exterior," Ricciardo wrote on his blog in 2013, explaining why he has an image of a honey badger, one of the animal kingdom's most ferocious fighters, on the back of his helmet.
"Press the right buttons and I can be a very dark individual. Very angry. No, honestly I can be. Stop laughing."
Jones added that although the youngster already has the toughness to step out of quadruple champion Vettel's shadow at Red Bull, he also had the temperament to deal with the pressure of being his country's motorsport standard-bearer in the post-Webber era.
RICCIARDO – A ‘BABY FACED ASSASSIN’
Jones said: "I call him a baby-faced assassin. He hasn't got that honey badger on the back of his helmet for nothing. He's very affable, he's a terrific kid, and he's always smiling but he grows horns when it counts, when he's got his bum in the car."
Though lavishing praise on Ricciardo, Jones said he could see little of himself in the young driver: "No, he's too nice. I know I couldn't race F1in this day and age. There's too much corporate bloody pressure on you and you've got to be nice with everybody, you've got to watch your Ps and Qs.
"You've got to be half a bloody politician."