Ricciardo must be ranked next to Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel
DANIEL Ricciardo's remarkable Monaco Grand Prix victory in a Red Bull that was seriously compromised for about 65 per cent of the distance underlined yet again that this is no ordinary driver.
He has been operating as one of the elite - absolutely of comparable calibre to Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel - for years. But the perception outside of the paddock has yet to catch up with that reality. Because only results are recognised and he's not been in a car sufficiently competitive to rubber stamp what is glaringly obvious close-up.
His deep and broad skill set has been demonstrated time and again as extraordinary: relentlessly fast, unerringly effective at finetuning the car around him, fantastic with the tyres, incredible fast corner speed, insensitive to a variety of handling traits, intensely competitive but within a sunny personality that wins everyone over and absolutely the best overtaker in the business.
His Alonso-like broad bandwidth adaptation to a car that was trying to break down on him at Monaco was just another telltale of a guy that is operating in very rarefied air.
Because he joined the senior Red Bull team in 2014 just as the hybrid formula lost it its previous pacesetting status, his achievement in instantly outperforming the incumbent quadruple world champion Vettel had nowhere near the impact it would have had if the cars had still been running at the front.
Instead, excuses tended to be made on Vettel's behalf - he was tired after those title campaigns, he was trying to make sure he didn't finish too far up so that he could go to Ferrari, that particular car didn't suit him etc - that did not stand up to any sort of scrutiny.
To his great credit, Vettel never tried to claim anything of the sort. He has always been remarkably honest in his assessments. He wasn't comprehensively outperformed by Ricciardo - and it wasn't always, and it wasn't to the extent that the race results show (because of safety cars etc) - but it was decisive. Whatever measure was used, Ricciardo arrived and outperformed Vettel in a situation where Vettel should theoretically have held an advantageous position.
When we asked Seb about it part-way through that 2014 season, he was candid. "When I was alongside Mark [Webber] he would tend to be faster than me through the quick corners, and I learned things from him, but overall I tended to have an advantage through all the other types of corners. It meant that occasionally he could beat me, but not over the season. With Daniel, he's usually just a little bit quicker everywhere."
Ricciardo's never been one to make public capital out of things like this and prefers just to let the results do the talking while he masks his intensity by way of the grinning clown. But, when pushed about whether he ever reflected upon how it might've been had he joined Red Bull a few years earlier, he grinned the grin and said, "I think Seb was a lucky boy to have those cars when he did." That was said not as a put-down of Vettel and his incredible achievements, but with the inner confidence of a driver who knew just how good he was.
The high-profile arrival of Max Verstappen into the senior team early in 2016 offered another perspective on Ricciardo. The way he reacted to that was masterful, just keeping a low profile and then delivering explosive performances that initially shaded the hyper-talented youngster.
This was not at all like Ricciardo's instant outpacing of Vettel. But Verstappen, as his experience and familiarity built, began to more consistently challenge Ricciardo and in the second half of last year had a small but decisive edge over him. Ultimately, he may be even faster than Ricciardo - but by no more than a tenth or so. That's a measure of the depth of talent around which everything else is built.
The other qualities built around that are the talent's breadth - and Ricciardo's is massive. He's used that breadth to great effect while Verstappen has responded by trying to dig deeper - doing the same, but more - and that's currently backfiring upon him and increasing Ricciardo's advantage. The events of Monaco encapsulated this dynamic perfectly.
And still he doesn't have a contract for next year. Don't be surprised to see one being signed soon.