It's difficult not to be impressed by Daniel Ricciardo. Not only in person, as we found out recently when the affable Australian visited Alpinestars' European HQ in Italy, but in performance as well, with some stunning displays in this, his debut season for the current Formula 1® World Champions, Infiniti Red Bull Racing.
One podium, his maiden, in Barcelona; two fourth-place finishes in China and Bahrain; a great run in Malaysia before hitting mechanical problems and, of course, the much talked about podium-that-never-was in Australia. Not a bad start...
It's the start that has team bosses purring about the Perth-born boy who came over to Europe looking for his big break as a 17-year-old. Just ask Team Principal Christian Horner who recently said this of Daniel. "He has done a great job this year and he is so calm in the car. He continues to impress with his speed and his approach. I cannot speak highly enough of what Daniel has done in the first five races."
One of the first things you notice about Daniel in person is his quiet confidence. Many a young driver might have been overwhelmed with the step up to the 'Big League' alongside Sebastian Vettel at Infiniti Red Bull Racing. But not Daniel. Many a young driver might have had their enthusiasm blunted after the disappointment of Australia. But not Daniel.
"After the immediate, post-race disappointment of Australia I took many positives. If anything it just made me even hungrier to get back on the podium," he says, calmly. "Deep down I proved to myself I can be up there. Obviously, technical issues took the podium away from me, but deep down I believed that I earned it. So I took a lot of confidence from that."
He adds: "Everything revolves around self-belief; how much you believe in yourself, deep down. Around this kind of belief comes other key things: decisiveness, conviction, etc., but these things all channel into what we call self-belief."
It's exactly this kind of bitumen Buddha-type belief that fuels Daniel. His performances this season, of which only the dominant Mercedes cars can claim superiority, may have come as a surprise to some observers. But not to this guy.
"Without sounding overly confident or arrogant, deep down I believe a lot in myself. I knew that this year, with the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team behind and around me, I could produce top results. I knew if I did everything right that I'd get a podium this year."
That podium came in a thrilling Spanish F1® Grand Prix, with Daniel in his RBR 10 tucking in behind Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg for his (official) maiden visit to the box, and a taste of things to come. "I was obviously overjoyed and, in a way, relieved. This is something I wanted so much for so long. You picture yourself being up there one day so it's a relief to actually experience it. It's a reward. I want to stay on the top step so getting the podium was awesome. But I know there's more to come."
Staying at the top, of course, is easier said than done. But Daniel thrives on the constant pressure placed on him to be the best he can be. "Coming into this championship-winning team, everyone told me that there would be more weight on my shoulders, but it's a good sort of pressure," he says. "All of a sudden you're surrounded by winners and people who have that winning mentality … they are not going to be jumping up and down if they don't win. At the end of the day I want to win and having people around me who want that as much as me is only going to help."
Pressure does not equal stress in Daniel's world and that calmness that Horner so rightly praised extends far beyond the car and into every facet of Daniel's being. When asked about the pressure of joining such a high-profile team he leans back on the chair and says: "I haven't really thought much about it. Even the podium in Barcelona, I haven't really thought much about it all. I'm just going along with it all and riding the waves. Maybe when I retire one day I'll look back and be overwhelmed by it all. I've chosen not to look into it too much."
Fresh approach that. Chilled. Keeping things in perspective. Perhaps it's an Aussie thing. For example, Daniel says that one piece of advice his Australian predecessor, Mark Webber, gave him on taking up the seat was: "'Go in there and don't be overwhelmed by it. Do what you have been doing.'"
With the sixth race of the exciting F1® season in Monaco this weekend, Daniel is buoyed. He adores street circuits and has enjoyed great success in the Principality before, winning there in the Formula Renault Series in 2010 and 11.
"Monaco is always a big one. It's a track where the driver can carry his car a bit further. I think if I can pull off a great result in Monaco it'll go a long way, not only for my confidence but my future. If anyone still has a few little doubts [about my abilities] this will change things. It's a real drivers' track, where you need a lot of courage."
Street circuits such as Albert Park, Monaco and Montreal, bring out another side to Daniel, more aggressive and primordial, which cannot quite hide his love of cut and thrust of racing and top level competition.
"Montreal requires an aggressive style of driving as it has some really nice, fast chicanes where you can even drop a wheel on the grass. All us drivers love good kerbs on a track, so you can throw the car around. It gives you a sense of 'Yeh, I'm owning it!' These are the tracks where you are driving the car rather than the car driving you - that is a good feeling."
Only a select few Australians have raced in Formula 1. I'm proud to say I'm the first from Western Australia. For the start of the 2014 season I will be the second Australian to drive for Red Bull Racing alongside Sebastian Vettel.
I am looking forward to my third year in Formula 1. Having completed 53 Grand Prix races I am now a more confident person and driver and I am ready to reinforce my determination to succeed and become one of the elite drivers on the F1 circuit.