Newly confirmed Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo has been told he has half a season to start putting pressure on Sebastian Vettel – so what is in his armoury that will help him take on the challenge?
After Mark Webber handed in his resignation letter, the decision to pick Ricciardo as team-mate to Vettel for 2014 was a pretty simple one.
Fernando Alonso was surely never really a genuine target while Kimi Raikkonen would have been expensive and lacked the commitment to the amount of PR work the team will need to please its owners. We all speculated, of course, but in truth there was only ever one conclusion.
It would be easy to see Ricciardo as an ideal number two, a laid-back personality who can soak up all the off-track duties and play strong in support as Vettel focuses on chasing down what in all likelihood would be a fifth consecutive world championship crown.
But the easy-going Australian is not a pushover, and there are plenty of reasons to suggest he will be able to fight a good fight.
Ricciardo’s laid-back attitude has had some critics suggest he is not determined enough to fight at the top, but ask him about how to deal with a team-mate and he reveals a very different character.
“We're all well aware of how Formula 1 works,” he has said. “I guess you must respect your rivals; you can't take things for granted and you can't be silly out there. We (team-mates) talk to each other a little, but we know that under a thin layer of skin we see fire.”
Having been in F1 since 2010 – when he was in and around the paddock just taking it all in – the buzz of simply being in the sport has now worn off.
The little thrills that being in F1 offers, like being able to play as himself on the F1 computer game - “it’s actually supercool” – are no longer exciting and he now needs top results to keep that buzz going.
However, like Webber, Ricciardo has brains, patience, humility and determination, and that should stand him in good stead as he tries to cope with racing alongside one of the best, if not the best, of a generation.
Ricciardo has never qualified higher than fifth – at Silverstone this year – and his best finish is seventh – in China this year – but racing at the front is really only the final part of developing F1 experience.
There is a lot to learn before you get right in the spotlight, like understanding how the weekend works, how to deal with the press, how to engineer out problems in the garage and how to manage disappointment on track.
The clever thing about Red Bull’s driver development is the balance of pressure it puts on its young drivers.
Right from the lower levels, it’s an intense and punishing programme. If you don’t fit, you’re out. If you don’t perform, you’re out. If you don’t show potential, you need to up your game or move to a different ladder. Just getting through this teaches young drivers key values.
And then, their entry into F1 is massaged and cosseted. The Red Bull PR and marketing machine is demanding, but very protective. There is always someone on hand to make sure no mistakes are made, and that makes that side of the job much easier.
Ricciardo has been in this bubble since 2009, when he tested for Red Bull Racing at Jerez then joined the team at the races and tested again in Yas Marina in 2010.
In early 2011 he got to run on Fridays for Toro Rosso, which helped him learn tracks and get a feel for working with the engineers. Then he stepped up to a race drive, at the back of the field with HRT.
There, away even from the spotlight of Toro Rosso, he got to learn his F1 race craft under the guidance of former Red Bull man Geoff Willis, and by the time he stepped in at Toro Rosso in 2011, he was already perfectly comfortable playing the F1 game for real.
“In 2010 it was great watching over everything and seeing how it all works, but getting the Fridays was really good,” recalled Ricciardo in his first season of F1. “
It gave me much more experience with the car and took a bit of pressure off as well, and as the weekends have gone on I have got a bit more used to it.”
It is this extra little bit of experience, coupled with his cool but calculated attitude, that helped him get the edge on Vergne, whose more intense character added to his personal pressure.
That is what put him in the hot seat at Red Bull Racing for next year, and that is what he must now build on to step up another level.
In terms of pure pace, Ricciardo has shown he is a step above the average – albeit in a veiled way, masked by an inferior car.
In his first year with Toro Rosso, he qualified sixth in Bahrain in a car that shouldn’t have been there – he was second fastest in first qualifying while Vergne was knocked out in 19th, more than two seconds slower.
He also made the top 10 this year in China, Silverstone, Germany and Hungary, demonstrating on each occasion an ability to get the absolute maximum out of the equipment he has.
Granted, that’s not happened in every race, but it’s a start.
Doing this is exactly what Vettel has excelled at during his career, so it will be interesting to see what Ricciardo can do when he gets the same equipment.
But the important thing is Ricciardo is not like Jarno Trulli, who was a legend on one lap but rarely excelled over a race distance.
His race pace compared to Vergne has been brought into question during his time in F1, but that is unfair, given he is often starting from a higher level on the grid.
What is important for next year is that Ricciardo has shown both the ability to capitalise on opportunities and the ability to learn from his racing mistakes.
His impressive qualifying performance in Bahrain last year turned to disaster when he dropped from sixth to 16th in the opening lap. When he mentions it now, he does so with a half-smile – because while it displayed an embarrassing lack of experience and loss of confidence, it is taught him a massive lesson in composure.
Later in the season, he used that composure to impressively hold off Michael Schumacher and score a point in the Japanese Grand Prix, racing intelligently and out-thinking Schumacher’s moves.
Add in the opportune move in Melbourne in 2012, when he overtook three cars, including Vergne, to grab the final point on the last lap, and it is clear Ricciardo has a good balance between aggression and self-control.
“I like high-speed corners, I am quite a smooth driver and not too erratic,” he has said of his driving style. “I think I drive with quite a lot of finesse. I guess that is what has got me here. Now I have to find a little bit more and be different from the others.”
He knows what he’s got to do. But if Adrian Newey does the business again for 2014, Ricciardo can forget about the others.
There’s only one man he needs to do a little bit more than: the man on the other side of the garage. And it does seem like he has the ingredients to have a damn good go at it...