“Scotty’s a good friend. He writes a daily journal, and he was telling me about how much it helped him focus on his goals, what he wanted to achieve, and how regularly writing things down for yourself forces you to be honest and accountable.
“I started one myself to see if it would make a difference, and it definitely has. I’m being honest with myself and it’s for my thoughts and my eyes only, and it’s something I look back on. It could be something as simple as ‘how did I feel today?’, ‘how did I feel how I felt about that race?’ and so on, and then going back and trying to understand why.
“It’s just me and my thoughts, and it has definitely given me some clarity. I never sit down with a plan of what to write, but in the writing process you answer questions you may have about something, and that’s really useful for me.”
Ricciardo’s season eventually recovered to some degree from its stuttering start, and while ninth place in the championship didn’t get his pulse racing after a pair of top-three finishes with Red Bull in 2014 and 2016, he comprehensively out-performed the driver in the sister Renault, German Nico Hulkenberg, and achieved the team’s best result with a storming drive to fourth in Italy in September.
A strong finish to the year gave the 30-year-old reason to be optimistic about the 2020 campaign set to start in Melbourne next weekend, but it’s a season he realises comes with questions he can, so far, only take an educated guess at answering.
Ricciardo’s knowns for 2020 are few, yet indisputable. One, he’s in the second and final year of a deal with Renault that hasn’t yet delivered on its considerable promise. And two, there’s little chance the West Australian will see the view from any step of a Formula One podium given drivers from Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari have annexed the top three positions in all but six races over the past four years.
Can Renault show enough progress that he’d consider re-signing? Might Mercedes or Ferrari, both of whom have driver vacancies next year, remember Ricciardo’s recent past in a race-winning team and come calling? And what of 2021, where a significant shake-up of F1’s rulebook could completely change the sport’s pecking order, as Ricciardo discovered the hard way the last time the regulations were rebooted seven years ago?
“This year definitely carries more weight than most,” Ricciardo admits.
“The chaos that surrounded my move from Red Bull to Renault, I don’t expect it to be anything like that. But there’s a lot happening. I’m 30, so whatever I do, it’s a case of ‘how many more contracts will I sign?’
“The easiest decision would be that if my year is going well [at Renault], then I’d feel like we were only going to get better and I wouldn’t even think about the what-ifs or maybes elsewhere. Even though next year is going to be a new car, I think if we were able to make some big gains this year with Renault, that would give me enough confidence that whatever happens in the future would be good, but you never know how these things will play out.
“I certainly see myself in the sport for at least five more years, but every year I’m one step closer to when my career might end. You’re not thinking like a 20-year-old anymore.”
While Renault’s preference is to retain their combination of an established race-winner in Ricciardo and French youngster Esteban Ocon for the first season of F1’s rule reset, chances to drive for Mercedes, the dominant team of the past six seasons, and Ferrari, still the sport’s biggest name despite not winning a drivers’ title since 2007, are rare.
When the lights go out at Albert Park, Charles Leclerc will be the only driver among the sport’s two biggest teams to have a contract beyond this year, the 22-year-old Monegasque inking a deal with Ferrari until 2024.
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton’s retention by Mercedes appears a formality, but the futures of 2019 Australian Grand Prix winner Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) are murkier, particularly with Ferrari banking its future on Leclerc with such a long-term investment.
Ricciardo openly expresses his admiration for what Mercedes, who won a record sixth consecutive constructors’ championship last season, have achieved since the advent of the sport’s V6 turbo hybrid engine era in 2014, which brought down the curtain on a reign of dominance by a Vettel-led Red Bull as Ricciardo joined the team that same season.
Mercedes debuted a revolutionary dual-axis steering (DAS) system at February’s first pre-season test in Barcelona, a hydraulically powered innovation that allows their drivers to adjust the angle of the front wheels to gain lap time by pushing or pulling the steering wheel while the car is in motion.
Rival outfits were blindsided by the DAS concept when it was unveiled, Renault’s sporting director Alan Permane commenting the team was “wide-eyed” about something Mercedes admitted they had been hatching in secret for a year, but Ricciardo says Mercedes’ relentless pursuit of progress should be lauded.
“Hats off to them because they have been dominant this whole turbo era, yet they are still the ones pushing everyone else,” he says.
“They’re not getting complacent, and I think that’s why they’ve been so dominant. They’re setting an example right now and as a competitor, I certainly respect that.”
Further clouding any picture Ricciardo paints of what 2021 may look like are rule changes that will make the grid that appears for next year’s race in Melbourne almost unrecognisable from next Sunday’s starting line-up. The next generation of cars will feature significantly different bodywork and low-profile tyres on larger, 18-inch wheels, while a cost cap, set at US$175 million ($A263 million) per team per annum, will halve the budgets of the sport’s biggest spenders at the flip of a calendar, creating, in theory, a more level playing field.
The sweeping changes have the potential to make more of an impact than the implementation of the current iteration of rules in 2014, which propelled Mercedes from the midfield to a team that has won more than 80 per cent of grands prix since.
Pre-season testing threw up enough clues to suggest Mercedes, who never really showed their true pace in Barcelona, may just demolish the field again from Melbourne onwards. Should that happen, and with little carryover between this year’s rules and next, expect their rivals to switch their focus to 2021 early.
Driver market intrigue, short of Leclerc and Max Verstappen, who is contracted to Red Bull until 2023, will be the narrative of the season, and Ricciardo will be in the middle of it.