“Hi guys! Long time no see,” Ricciardo said to the group of his fellow drivers when he walked into Thursday’s news conference.
“I’m very happy to be back. The hand feels good,” Ricciardo said, adding that the bone break that required surgery was worse than initially expected.
“(Recovery) was tougher than I thought. But I’m probably a bit of a wuss as well,” he said.
Ricciardo has often turned the Circuit of the Americas outside Texas’ capital city into a bit of a personal playground. He has been known to enter the paddock riding a horse, to mimic a Western accent in interviews, and wear a University of Texas Longhorns basketball jersey in the pre-race driver parade.
Eventually, there will have to be a serious side to the racing, which has not been so good for Ricciardo in recent years. At times it has been painful, both emotionally and physically.
“First and foremost, I see myself as a race car driver, not an entertainer,” he said. “I want to go racing ... make sure I am seen as a race car driver who is still hungry and determined and not just here for a good time.”
Ricciardo’s best racing years were with Red Bull, where he claimed seven of his eight career victories and twice finished on the podium in Austin in 2014 and 2016. Then came a winless two-year stint with Renault before another move to McLaren.
The drive with McLaren produced the team’s first win in a decade. But it was otherwise disappointing as he was routinely outraced by teammate Lando Norris.
The smile was fading and then gone when Ricciardo and McLaren split with a buyout of the final year of his contract.
Red Bull brought Ricciardo back as a reserve driver for 2023. That got him back in the paddock, but it also simultaneously elevated his frustration that he was watching others race. Then came the break that could yet revive his career.
AlphaTauri cut loose rookie Nyck De Vries after 10 races and gave the seat to Ricciardo. He finished 13th in Hungary and 16th in Belgium, then broke his hand at the Dutch Grand Prix.
He was once again stuck watching while New Zealand’s Liam Lawson drove in his place five races and was good enough to earn a reserve slot with AlphaTauri for next season.
“He’s young. It’s not like he’s at the end of his career,” Ricciardo said of Lawson. “Keep assisting, keep your head down. If he keeps on that course, his time will come.”
Ricciardo got to climb back into his car Thursday morning and quickly showed his toothy grin. He said he is fit and ready for the bumpy ride around the Austin racetrack.
“It does beat you up,” Ricciardo said. “But I think I like that.”
The FIA, which governs the racing side of F1, on Thursday raised the potential fines race stewards can impose on drivers from a maximum of 250,000 euros ($264,000) to 1 million euros ($1.06 million).
That stunned a few drivers who wondered what kind of infraction could draw such a huge fine.
“Maybe crossing the track?” Red Bull’s season champion Max Verstappen. He was teasing Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who was fined 50,000 euros ($53,000) for walking across the racetrack after a crash with teammate George Russell at the Qatar Grand Prix two weeks ago.
The FIA’s announcement did not say what kind of incident could draw such a fine. But it noted that the 250,000 euro maximum had not been raised in 12 years, and said it “does not reflect the current needs of motor sport.”
“(One million) is a huge amount. I don’t know what deserves that. Some drivers are making less than that!” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said.
“Charles could give his watch,” Haas F1’s Kevin Magnussen said.
Hamilton struck a more serious tone.
“If they are going to be fining 1 million, let’s be sure 100% of that goes to a proper cause. There’s a lot of money in this industry ... so many causes around the world,” Hamilton said. “That’s the only way they’ll get that money from me.”
Many of the drivers complained after Qatar of a grueling drive in the scorching desert heat. Williams’ Logan Sargeant had to retire early. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll said he felt dizzy. Alpine’s Estebon Ocon admitted after the race he threw up in his helmet.
All of that prompted the FIA to announce it would consider ways to aid drivers in extreme conditions.
And what do they get this week? Another blast of Texas heat with temperatures expected above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius).
None of the drivers seemed worried the Texas heat will be as miserable.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Sargeant said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like I did in Qatar.”
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