As Red Bull Racing closed its doors on Friday for Formula One’s mandatory summer holiday, the team's rookie racer Daniel Ricciardo clocked off on a high.
The Australian with the grin as wide as the Sydney Harbor Bridge has plenty of reasons to smile after his surprise star turn in the first half of the 2014 season.
The unassuming 25-year-old has asserted himself as the best of the rest, with two stylish victories and third place in the drivers’ championship.
Preseason favorite Mercedes, with its mighty engine, has dominated the first 11 races of 2014 as drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have won nine grands prix between them in a scintillating duel for the world title.
But the real surprise this year is that just one other driver has dimmed Mercedes’ dominance – and that man is Ricciardo.
The secret to his success? Well, behind his happy-go-lucky demeanor lies a core of steely determination.
“You see me happy and easygoing but there is definitely a ruthless side to me,” Ricciardo explained to CNN at the start of the season.
“I do get peed off, I do love competition and I hate losing - I always have. As a kid, I had fights with friends over losing video games.”
When Ricciardo was picked to replace the retiring Mark Webber as Sebastian Vettel’s teammate, there had only been glimpses of this inner steel.
In two seasons with Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso he’d done a decent job, claiming 13 top-10 race finishes and showing an aptitude for dragging pace out of the car in qualifying.
But there was skepticism among F1’s inner circles that he had done enough to earn the most-wanted seat in F1 – a drive that world champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen had made inquiries about.
“The team noticed a bit more of a confidence about me," Ricciardo told CNN. "I’m coming with a very hungry mentality.”
That hunger and confidence quickly translated on track. On home turf at the opening race of the season in Melbourne, Ricciardo finished second, only to be disqualified because of a fuel-flow irregularity beyond his control.
He finally got his champagne moment with wins in Canada and Hungary, and he remains the only non-Mercedes driver to take the checkered flag in 2014.
His latest win at the Hungaroring last weekend was a brilliant illustration of his skills. It was a complex race which relied on clear strategic thinking and racing instinct on a wet-dry track.
“I’ve been surprised at how quickly he got to grips with the RB10,” his race engineer Simon Rennie told the Red Bull Racing website in Hungary.
“He’s also impressed me with how well he can instinctively find the performance limit of the car very quickly.”
And so to the second Ricciardo revelation of 2014.
He has defied expectations to put his illustrious, and seemingly invincible, teammate Vettel in the shade.
It is easy to forget that not all of Vettel’s four back-to-back world titles have been won easily but, since the last major rule changes in 2009, the German has at least always understood the car at his fingertips.
This season, the 27-year-old has struggled with the feel of the RB10, particularly under braking. The end of the era of blown diffusers – which affects the car’s rear downforce – has also been another challenging adaption.
Ricciardo has a 6-5 qualifying advantage over Vettel and a 9-2 lead in race position (including his Australian GP result before the disqualification).
“I genuinely want to see if I have what it takes, if I am the best in the world,” Ricciardo explained. “And I’ve got the best guy to measure myself to.”
There is one more surprise in the new-look Red Bull rivalry – the drivers on either side of the garage still like each other!
Spending time in the same room as them, it’s clear they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and, in particular, share the same sense of humor.
“I think we have a lot of similarities,” Ricciardo said. “Like our personalities. His doesn’t always come across on TV but if you get him one-on-one he does like a joke and he does smile a lot.
“But then again, when the helmet is on he’s ruthless and competitive and doesn’t like losing either. So some things we definitely agree on!”
The duo's friendly banter may be warmer than the frosty rivalry between Vettel and Webber, but the four-time world champion won’t want to be left out in the cold for long. He has a reputation – and commercial value – to protect.
When Red Bull returns to work on August 18, Vettel will be intent on surprising his teammate in the remaining eight races, while Ricciardo is eager to burnish his brilliant season.
Mercedes may be motoring to the titles, but Red Bull and Ricciardo are still putting the fizz into F1.