F1's Daniel Ricciardo Talks His 'Killer Instinct' and Catching a Pass (on a Boat) from Tom Brady
"I think a lot of people took me as a little bit soft, because I don't think they saw that killer instinct in me. But I knew deep down I had it, I always had it," Daniel Ricciardo tells PEOPLE
While Tom Brady went viral for throwing the Lombardi Trophy trophy to a teammate during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl boat parade in February, it wasn't the first time the seven-time champion has made a tight pass over water.
"I wouldn't say I was beaming with confidence, but I had a bit of confidence when Tom released the ball," Formula 1 star Daniel Ricciardo tells PEOPLE of when Brady threw him a pass while they both stood on separate yachts off the shores of Monaco in 2018.
"Tom was awesome. He was a really nice guy," Ricciardo, 31, says while smiling. "Yeah. I mean, to tell my mates that I caught a ball from Brady in Monaco from boat to boat, like, it was pretty cool. And he was awesome about it."
Making the catch may have served as a good omen for Australian-born Ricciardo, who went on to win the famed Monaco Grand Prix that weekend.
Known for his skills on the track, as well as his humor and charm, Ricciardo has established himself as one of F1's preeminent drivers since his debut in 2011 (he's recorded 31 podiums and seven wins to date). This, naturally, made him one of the most interesting stars in Netflix's hit docuseries, Drive to Survive, which premiered its third season in March.
The series goes behind F1's 10 teams, revealing the business, strategy and unforgiving pressure that comes with being a part of the world's most popular motorsport — which is now becoming more widespread now that it's reaching new audiences, particularly in the United States. Ricciardo's felt a measurable difference in attention since the show released its first season in 2019.
"It's really going to countries that you've never really felt had much of an F1 presence," he says. "After the first season of the Drive To Survive, I'll go to places even in the States, like in L.A. or something, and people would yell out across the street, like, 'Hey, that's Ricciardo!' One guy got out of his car at the traffic lights and came up to get a photo — that wasn't happening before the show. So it certainly changed it, and certainly spread it across the globe much more. The impact's been bigger than I feel it would, actually.
"Ten years ago, no one would have thought F1 would have a show like this," he adds. "So it's pretty wild, but I think it's really cool to let some people in and give them an understanding of everything we go through."
During the 10 years he's been in F1, Ricciardo raced for HRT, Toro Rosso, Red Bull, and Renault, before landing with McLaren for the 2021 season. The team, the winner of eight Constructor Championships in its history, is one of the most storied organizations in the sport.
Some of F1's greatest drivers have raced for McLaren, including Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, James Hunt and Alain Prost. Ricciardo aims to add to that legacy.
"They've obviously got the history, so many trophies in their cabinets, from drivers going way back," he explains. "I've yet to earn one of my own in there, so I want to have at least one in there by the end of this year with my name on it."
With three races completed so far in the 2021 season, Ricciardo is holding his own behind the wheel of his new car. While he hasn't yet earned a podium, he's earned McLaren 16 points toward the Constructors Championship. When added with those of his teammate, Lando Norris, McLaren currently has 53 points to start the season, which puts them in third place behind Mercedes and Red Bull.
With 20 races to go, McLaren is very much in competitive form.
Looking back, Ricciardo says his path to F1 began as a child, fueled by his fascination with the speed and noise generated by their cars.
"They would scream, they sounded like a fighter jet and it was so kind of intimidating," he recalls of the V12 engines that used to rumble in the heart of F1's machines (the cars have gone through a number of changes in recent decades, with F1 adopting V6 engines in 2014). But Ricciardo's ambitions were also sparked by his inherent desire for speed.
"I knew from a young age, I liked to go fast, whether it was on a pushbike or whatever, you find the biggest hill you could find and go down," the driver recalls. "And that feeling, that rush it would give me, was like no other, and that's where it initially started."
While becoming an F1 driver was his childhood dream, Ricciardo was "in love with all forms of motorsport," from motorcycle racing to NASCAR, he says. It was through watching NASCAR that a young Ricciardo discovered Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who quickly became one of his inspirations.
"Dale Earnhardt certainly caught my attention because, I pretty much fell in love with his nickname, The Intimidator," Ricciardo recalls of the legendary NASCAR driver who died in a crash at Daytona in 2001. "He had the black number three, and it had a Dark Knight kind of vibe. That in itself was intimidating, with his iconic black paint scheme."
"Behind the wheel, he had such a kind of ruthless, whatever it takes attitude, and I certainly respected that," he says of Earnhardt. "Yet he was loved by so many. He had a ruthlessness on the track, but was also a likable human and a good person, a good character. Being able to flip that switch, I certainly admired."
Because Earnhardt's car number was 3, Ricciardo has used it during his karting and professional career as a tribute to the NASCAR Hall of Famer.
"Back in 2014, when we were allowed to choose what number that we wanted, I selected No. 3 and I got it," he recalls. "I was always like, all right, Intimidator attitude, that's what I got to do."
Like Earnhardt's Intimidator, Ricciardo has developed an interesting nickname of his own. "The Honey Badger," he says, was adopted after he saw a video about the animal that went viral nearly a decade ago. In it, a narrator humorously lists the "badass" qualities of a honey badger, such as its ability to "take what it wants" and "not give a s—."
"One of my old trainers who spent a lot of the time on the road with me in the early days of F1, Stuart, showed me one of the first YouTube videos about the honey badger," Ricciardo says. "At first it was a bit of a laugh, but then he goes, 'I think you actually carry some of these traits. I think everyone sees you for the likable character. And obviously, you look relatively harmless, but when your back's up against a wall when someone takes what you feel is rightfully yours, you flip the switch.' "
The comparison resonated with him.
"I was always known to be like the smiley guy, and I think a lot of people took me as a little bit soft, because I don't think they saw that killer instinct in me," Ricciardo says. "But I knew deep down I had it, I always had it since I was a young kid.
"I think 2014 was when I really established myself as that character, so to speak," he adds of his Honey Badger moniker, before beaming his famous smile one more time. "They don't take me lightly anymore."
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