NASHVILLE, TN — Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t seem to contain his signature Cheshire cat grin while at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row.
The second floor of the Nashville gastropub had been transformed into Ricciardo’s very own honky tonk. Local artists rotated on stage, photos of Ricciardo in a cowboy hat and captions like “hay girl hay” covered the walls, an occasional honey badger graphic would pop onto the screen behind the stage, and there was plenty of Red Bull to go around. People packed the room and waited to catch a glimpse at Formula One’s own Honey Badger. But little did they know they’d be serenaded by Ricciardo as he sang ‘Wagon Wheel’ on stage Friday night.
The scene was a stark contrast to how the eight-time grand prix winner seemed a year ago. After a disappointing 2022 season, Ricciardo parted ways with McLaren and endured an eight-month hiatus before jumping into the AlphaTauri midseason when he replaced Nyck de Vries — only to last two races before suffering a broken metacarpal in his left hand during a Dutch Grand Prix practice session. But while some may label the injury and subsequent surgery a setback, Ricciardo said he refused to call it that — the injury was another obstacle he’d need to overcome.
Now, after missing five grands prix, Ricciardo said, “I’m back.”
He’s been on the simulator and hopped into the RB7 — the 2011 world championship-winning car — for Red Bull’s showruns, an opportunity for the team to showcase one of its cars. For Ricciardo, it meant driving the RB7 down Lower Broadway.
As he worked to bounce back from the injury so he could participate in the Nashville showrun and be back in time for the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, what Ricciardo did during his time away from the grid largely shaped his mentality to stay positive despite the obstacles in front of him.
“I didn’t want it to be anyone else’s wish for me to return (after my hiatus). I wanted it to be fully on my own terms,” Ricciardo told The Athletic in Nashville. “And that’s why I think it did help with this (injury) … It’s like, f—, but equally, I got myself to such a good place that I was able to overcome something like this with a much better mindset.”
The power of switching off
It’s an understatement to say last season proved challenging for Ricciardo.
He rarely finished in the points, and post-race frustration became a regular occurrence. With one year left on his McLaren contract, he and the team mutually agreed to split. “Eight months ago, I probably disliked (racing) maybe more than I ever have,” Ricciardo said Friday.
Taking a year or so off from F1 isn’t unusual — Alain Prost and Fernando Alonso both took breaks. And it’s not like Ricciardo was completely away from the grid either. Three days after his last grand prix with McLaren, he joined Red Bull as its third driver — returning home. The role includes a variety of jobs like simulator work, commercial activities and testing.
For two months after he got out of the McLaren cockpit for the final time, Ricciardo focused on being “a normal person.” He spent a majority of the time at home in Australia, hanging out with his friendss. “I also wanted to do that to really understand where I was at. So I just kind of wanted some normality.” He barely trained, let alone thought about racing.
But after those two months, he had a realization. “I don’t really want to do this the rest of my life. I don’t want to just kind of fade away, so to speak. I just got to the point where I was like, ‘No, f— this, I want to train again, I want to see where I’m at and be hungry and healthy.’”
Come February 2023, he flew to Phoenix and watched the Kansas City Chiefs narrowly beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. “Seeing top tier athletes on the biggest stage as well I think that really got the drive again,” Ricciardo said. He began training himself but opted against using a program. Instead, he wanted to wake up and choose workouts he felt like doing.
“It turned into a bit of an obsession again.”
When asked if he needed to find himself to fall back in love with racing, Ricciardo didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, absolutely.”
Looking back on his eight-month hiatus, the 34-year-old is glad he didn’t force his return. “That’s why I didn’t want really anyone around me, dragging me out of bed, because that’s someone else’s wish, you know? If I really want this again, I’m gonna wake up one day and be like ‘I’m f—— ready.’”
F1’s Honey Badger is back
Ricciardo looked at home when he made it on stage during the honky tonk.
His eyes seemed to light up while looking at the different posters scattered around the venue. At times while singing ‘Wagon Wheel’ with the MC, Ricciardo appeared to get caught up in the audience singing along, pausing as a smile crept onto his face once again.
Music is therapy for him, Ricciardo said. “I love listening to music when I’m happy, when I’m down. And it just kind of takes me to a place (where) I feel a lot of (confidence).” In another life, being a musician is something “I probably wish I could do.”
And music played a big role in Ricciardo finding his way back to F1.
“If I wrote on a whiteboard ‘What does Daniel want to get back to this year,’ it would have been ‘Take me back to where it all started,’” Ricciardo said. “I want to feel that hunger again. I want to get rid of everything else and just try to be that kid again. That’s putting myself in the position to be the best driver. So that went down to the music I used to listen to.”
Enter Shikari, a British rock band, is an example of what he began listening to again. When Ricciardo first moved to England as a teenage and tried to motivate himself to run on winter mornings, several of Enter Shikari’s songs like ‘Gap in the Fence’ were part of his rotation. That song in particular repeats the line ‘I’ve gotta get out of here,” which Ricciardo described as motivational for himself.
“‘Getting out of here’ was just me getting to the next level and getting to the next level. And getting, ultimately, to the place where I wanted to go,” he continued. “I got back to some of that stuff, which was actually really cool for me. I listen to that song, and I can picture myself running past this pub that I used to run past listening to that in the morning when it was still kind of dark.”
Being self-motivated is something Ricciardo is particularly proud of, especially in this new chapter of his life. F1 is a team sport — and he says he does “love team and all those values that come with it.” But he enjoys “doing certain things on my own. That’s where I’m at now. I’m back to the beginning, trying to blaze a little bit of my own trail. And I’m enjoying it.”
Come Saturday’s showrun, Ricciardo looked to be back in his comfort zone, flinging the RB7 up and down Nashville’s Lower Broadway and executing thrilling donuts.
His hand is good enough to get him back on the grid, and the timing’s opportune: Austin is one of Ricciardo’s favorite races. Both in terms of his injury and him as a person, it’s safe to say F1’s Honey Badger is back.
“This will heal,” Ricciardo said Friday night at Whiskey Row as country music blared a floor below, “and until then, I’ll still kick ass.”
(Lead image: Courtesy of Red Bull)