Daniel Ricciardo: A star is born, and not a moment too soon

Daniel Ricciardo: A star is born, and not a moment too soon
By: Steven Cole Smith
Jun 9, 2014, 12:56 AM

NASCAR couldn't have scripted a better outcome

When did NASCAR take over Formula One? Because today’s Canadian Grand Prix had all those elements that conspiracy theorists like to lay at NASCAR’s doorstep, such as too-good-to-be-true competition and feel-good finishes that send the crowd home cheering.

Oh, Canada. It’s almost like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won today! Oh, wait, he did. But his victory at Pocono was a snoozer compared to Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo’s win in Montreal.

With the troublingly sour Lewis Hamilton sent out of contention because of a peculiar braking issue, and his plucky Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg trying to nurse his ailing car across the finish line first to maintain the team’s perfect season, the stage was set for a fascinating finish. Earlier, Rosberg and Hamilton threatened to stink up the show completely, so far ahead were they that the camera suggested that there were only two cars in the race. Which, essentially, there were.

Then, almost simultaneously, both Mercedes began to suffer from problems, and the miracle race began. So here comes Red Bull teammates Ricciardo and Vettel, and – can this be right? -- Sergio Perez of Force India, and Felipe Massa in the plain-white-wrapper Williams inserting themselves into the mix?

And in the closing stages, Ricciardo squeezes by Rosberg, and Perez and Massa get tangled up and crash, hard. Officials blamed Perez but that seems a bit of a stretch. Seeing both drivers exit their battered cars was a blessing that had it been otherwise, would have tainted a spectacular race.

Which brings us to Daniel Ricciardo, the grinning, personable Italian-from-Australia whose countenance and personality recall no one so much as Helio Castroneves, and that is a compliment. At 24, Ricciardo has the bearing and the ability to become a global superstar, and even Vettel – who has never looked so happy to finish third – did not seem to begrudge his teammate a first victory.

Ricciardo came up properly through the Red Bull system, dutifully serving apprenticeships in various capacities, including a stint with HRT and Toro Rosso, until he was ready to replace the departing Mark Webber at Infiniti Red Bull. Few companies know more about generating positive publicity than Red Bull, so you can be certain that Ricciardo has been schooled by the best in public relations, a crew that obviously knows the value of having a driver maintain a large slice of personality – take a lesson, NASCAR.

Finally, for all this to occur in North America, on network television -- on a day when NASCAR was relegated to TNT cable TV, and at a race track that is often and unfortunately regarded as a schedule-filler – well, Formula One couldn’t ask for more. Likely Gene Haas, owner of the U.S.-based F1 team that is scheduled to debut in 2016, is wishing that his plans to go racing in 2015 had panned out to ride this wave of good news. Similarly, it’s a good bet that the staff of Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas – though busy this weekend with the X Games Austin – will notice a boost in ticket sales for their F1 race late this year.

Bottom line: No, America still has no F1 driver, but we have in Ricciardo an Australian – which is the next best thing to being an American, in terms of their ability to answer questions in English, and for their inherent understanding of the U.S. – who could be the ambassador F1 has so long lacked in making the sport viable here. That’s a heavy load to put on anyone’s shoulders, but Ricciardo’s shoulders seemed quite broad today indeed.

At the end of the broadcast, commentator David Hobbs hoped aloud that Ricciardo’s sunny personality wouldn’t succumb to “Formula One-itis,” when a previously pleasant driver like (pick one, the list is long) gets so full of himself that he becomes insufferable. Helio Castroneves proved that you can achieve superstardom – on the track, and with the fame the “Dancing with the Stars” win delivered – and still be approachable. You need a role model, Daniel? That’s a pretty good one.

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2014 Canadian Grand Prix post-race press conference

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