By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Daniel Ricciardo reckons Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc could beat four times world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel over the course of the season, just as he himself did five years ago at Red Bull.
In 2014 the smiling Australian rocked up as Vettel’s team mate and beat the older German, who moved to Ferrari the following year.
“It’s a very similar situation,” Ricciardo, now at Renault, told Reuters at the Spanish Grand Prix. “I see a very similar opportunity for Charles.
“He can really make his name this year off the situation he’s in with Seb because Seb’s got all the credentials.
“It’s a bit like me. I was relatively a nobody coming in that year with Red Bull and I made my name because, OK I won races, but I beat a four time world champion and Charles can do the same now.”
Ricciardo finished third overall in 2014, the best of the rest behind Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and 71 points ahead of Vettel, who had won the previous four titles.
Vettel is facing a real challenge in Leclerc, who seized pole position in Bahrain and would have won but for an engine problem while leading.
The Monegasque, third that day and with the fastest lap, has drawn plenty of praise since then while the 31-year-old German has come in for criticism.
“If he beats a four time world champion, his name is created,” said Ricciardo, who suggested Vettel could be susceptible to mistakes as the frustration creeps in, while the newcomer had all to gain.
“It’s a difficult position Seb was in with me, and is in with Charles,” added the Australian.
“The pressure’s on Seb, the pressure’s not on Charles. No-one expects a four times world champ to be beaten by a young driver. Seb’s got all the pressure.”
Ricciardo has also been on the receiving end too, joined at Red Bull in 2016 by Dutch sensation Max Verstappen who promptly became the sport’s youngest race winner at 18 years old.
The Australian finished ahead in the standings in 2016 and 2017 but Verstappen scored 79 points more last season, and Red Bull were clear about who represented their future hopes.
Ricciardo’s move to Renault still came as a surprise, with Red Bull confident he had decided to stay.
Their motorsport consultant Helmut Marko was quoted this week suggesting Ricciardo had simply believed what Renault, now seventh to Red Bull’s third, told him about their potential for improvement.
The Australian, who has finished only once so far this season, said he had no regrets.
“I’m just super-positive and optimistic about where this season can still go,” he said. “I don’t regret the move or anything.
“Honestly, no disrespect to Red Bull or anything, but if I’d stayed at Red Bull I’m finishing fourth places again. Like I’m doing everything I’d done the last five years.
“I don’t see myself necessarily growing in that situation whereas here, even though we’re having these ups and downs and challenges, through it all I’m actually growing and learning more.”
Ricciardo starts Sunday’s race with a three place grid penalty after reversing into Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in Baku after trying to overtake the Russian and then going down the run-off area.
At the time he blamed the lapse on a moment of panic but he said the mistake looked more understandable now.
“When it happened, I obviously felt terrible and stupid and whatever. I was disappointed. But I think once the guys saw the onboard (footage) they had a little bit more understanding of the mistake,” he said.
“Originally I thought I just panicked and went straight into reverse and didn’t look. But I actually did look, and it made sense what I did in terms of where I looked.
“I thought Dani had continued, so I had no idea he was there. I looked in my right mirror because the racing line is down the right of the track. And I didn’t see anyone so I was reversing. Dani was on my left.
“I think the outcome looked a lot worse. It was still obviously embarrassing.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Keith Weir)