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Last Saturday, Daniel Ricciardo went through what might best be described as a long, dark night of the soul.
Following the death of Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Renault driver went back to his hotel and questioned whether it was all worth it. The answer did not come easily, but in the end the Australian raced at Spa on Sunday.
Four days on, he sits down with BBC Sport at the start of the Italian Grand Prix weekend, and delves deep into what it takes for a racing driver to confront his fears and race on in such difficult circumstances.
“I certainly questioned it,” the 30-year-old Australian says. “The reality is, weirdly, I do love it too much. Racing did feel right in the end. Even though I didn’t really want to, once I did it, it was like, OK, this actually feels right and normal.”
For a long time over last weekend, though, it felt anything but normal.
“When you’re a kid and you see it on TV, and you’re not present or not part of it,” Ricciardo says, “it still seems like there is some form of distance, or a disconnection to what’s happened.
“But when you’re there and it happens to one of your colleagues, or it’s in the same race, it seems more real, and it’s like: ‘OK, this actually can happen to anyone, and it’s here, it’s present right now.’
“The realisation of us not being invincible does set in. I know my parents stress enough for me already – you know, watching me race and travel the world and being on a plane every few days. You just question it: is it really worth putting not only myself but family under the same amount of stress?”
The aftermath of the accident
The night of the accident, Ricciardo says, he “didn’t get much sleep, and for sure you’re asking yourself questions, probably just fighting a little bit with some anger and some frustration of ‘why,’ you know?
“And then also fighting with a few of the emotions of should I actually get up and race tomorrow? Is it the right thing to do morally? Is it the right thing to do for me?
“And I kind of did also think: ‘Let’s see how I feel by lunchtime, and if I’m still having some doubts then maybe the safest thing for me is not to race.’
“I kind of wanted to play it by ear. Just running through all these scenarios: ‘What if I feel like this? What if that?’
“By Sunday morning, I had a bit more clarity. I did manage to sleep a little bit and wake up preparing myself for race day. But it still felt cold and weird. It didn’t feel right to be excited to race, just to be happy to be there. It felt like, tick off the minutes and get the job done.
“The lead-up to the race, I’d probably just describe it as not very fun in terms of just it was tough to try and go through the motions and go through a routine when that has happened less than 24 hours ago. And, you know, drivers’ parade and all that, you’re waving to fans, but you don’t feel right smiling or being happy, I guess.
“It was difficult, just trying to get into the zone, just trying to find any form of rhythm.
“Getting in the car on Sunday was not easy, but it was more of a sadness than a fear and I think it was important I established that. If I had been getting in the car with a pure level of fear, then it wouldn’t have been smart for me to race. I did understand that it was just a sadness.”
‘Just go as fast as possible’
“Once we kind of got going, it actually felt like pretty good release. It felt like a de-stress, just racing and competing. Just going at those speeds, it was like flushing out the system and that felt good.
“After the race, for sure I was still glad it was done but I did feel better than I did two hours before that.
“I’ll be honest, the race was fun. It was good to be out there. And as much as I was looking forward to seeing the chequered flag, I did enjoy a pure race on Sunday.”
The race, he says, acted as a form of catharsis.
“When something happens, you’ve just go to dive back into it, and that’s the best way of overcoming it. And I think that’s what the race was for us. I told myself little things as well: ‘Just go fast as soon as possible. Leave the pits and just go, and try to get into that mode already. Don’t tip-toe around. Don’t over-think certain places on the track.’
“I remember I got out of the pits, drifted out, and forced myself to get into that mindset straight away.”
This is a reference to his thoughts about going through Raidillon, where Hubert had his crash. It is part of the infamous Eau Rouge swerves, a left-hander over the brow of a hill taken flat out at more than 180mph.
“I told myself: ‘Go full throttle, and just don’t over-think this corner, don’t over-think any of it.’ Out of the pits… held it full. That was a relief but it felt good to get out there and do that. And that also told me that I was ready to go.
“I think if I was, big lift and scared, then that would be a sign that maybe I shouldn’t be on the track right now. I guess I wanted to do that to test myself and then it all felt right.”
Did he talk to the other drivers about it?
“I got to speak to a few. I only met Anthoine this year. The Renault Academy boys obviously spent a lot of time with him and I saw them Sunday morning. I spoke to a couple of them Saturday night as well, just over text.
“They had done training camps together. They’re a little family. They’re younger as well. That’s where I felt I could try and be a little bit of, in some ways, a father figure to them and comfort them. I was feeling it, but they were more so. We basically gave each other all a hug on Sunday morning. We tried to chat over it a little bit.
“And then with the other drivers, I spoke to a few of them, but before the race you could see everyone kind of wanted to be on their own.
“Waiting for the driver parade, we were all just standing there. There were a few handshakes or hugs but you could kind of tell everyone was just trying to prepare for the race and it was a tough one. After the race, I spoke to mainly the French drivers, who I knew were closest to Anthoine.”
The Bianchi factor
Hubert is not the first driver Ricciardo has known who has been killed. The last F1 driver to lose his life was the Frenchman Jules Bianchi, who suffered fatal head injuries in a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Ricciardo had come up through the ranks with Bianchi and they were close friends.
“Jules’ [death] hit me very hard,” Ricciardo says. “In a way, not disrespecting it, I was quite surprised how hard it hit me. I didn’t expect it to hit me so hard and for it to last so long – the sadness and the hurt from that extended over some period.
“With last weekend, you think time kind of cures everything, and it was like, OK, nothing’s happened for a while and with good reason. The sport’s got safer and we’re in a good place. And then it happens. And it’s a shock.
“It’s an anger that it has happened again. We thought we’d moved on from all this. It’s when it’s refreshed in your mind again and it’s there in front of you, it’s hard not to take it with difficulty.”
Has it changed his perspective on racing?
“Initially, it did change. Time does cure it. Those intense initial emotions did slowly fizzle out.
“With the Jules one, I felt like my purpose and intent after that was, ‘OK, if we are going to strap ourselves into these cars, and if we’re all aware of the risk, it doesn’t make sense to go in half-heartedly. If we’re going to do it, go all in, and make it worthwhile.’
“I felt like Jules’ passing kind of made me embrace the racer even more so. And to be honest this will probably end up having the same effect.
“I didn’t have that kind of fear in the race. And until that fear steps in, I’ll just use it as a form of motivation. However many years I do it, at least I can say I did it right.”
‘I surprised myself’ or how do drivers do it?
It can be hard to comprehend how a racing driver can compartmentalise their fears in this way, or the uniqueness of the sort of character required to do a job that they know can kill them, but to go ahead and do it anyway because they love it so much that they can’t stop.
Can Ricciardo explain what makes F1 drivers able to live with that contradiction?
He pauses for a few seconds.
“Actually I get goosebumps,” he says, “because I don’t actually know why or how.
“On Saturday night, I felt in no place to drive a race car on the same track the next day. But then even getting out of the pits and going through Raidillon and all that, it was weird how normal and natural it felt. And I can’t explain that.
“It’s probably just when you have a deep passion and love for something, that’s the result. To be honest, I surprised myself. And we probably all did on Sunday.
“I didn’t expect to enjoy any part of the race, no matter where I finished. But I did enjoy being back out there, and that rush of racing. Yes, it was still in your mind, of course. But how we’re able to put it to one side for a moment, I can’t explain why or how. It does surprise me.”
The approach to mortality
Ricciardo is known for his gung-ho style, and his attacking victories, often made possible by on-the-edge overtaking moves in which he throws the car down the inside of an opponent from an impossible distance back. How does he rationalise the risks, carry on knowing that an injury is always a possibility?
“You’ve got to always control the controllables,” he says. “In my case, I guess never get reckless.
“After the race or at times you may see me give a driver the finger or show my kind of anger. But I’ve always tried to teach myself to not let the emotion take over the driver in the race and get reckless, basically.
“Yes, I’ve tried some late overtakes in my time and I’ve done some moves that might seem risky, but there’s always a level of control and calculation in that and it’s never done purely on emotion.
“So I’ll not let myself get reckless or put myself in a position I don’t need to be in. Yes, I want to take risks and be on that fine line. But be sensible enough not to over-step it and I think I am able to do that.
“From that point of view, I am comfortable hopping in the car. There’s obviously the thing of failures and technical stuff that can go wrong. That’s an uncontrollable from my side. Can’t really think about those actually. And even if you know they’re there and present at times, once you put the helmet on and get going, you don’t think about it.
“It’s one of those things that if it happens in the wrong place or the wrong corner, then what do you do? You’ve got to put that rationale in your head that it could have happened on the way to the circuit, it could have happened on the road.”
It’s rare for racing drivers to discuss danger and the risk of death so openly.
Safety is discussed every weekend in F1, but it’s normally on an abstract level – what can we do about this gravel trap, or that barrier?
Hubert’s death has brought it front and centre. Is it hard is it to talk about it?
“Of course it is tough to address something that’s real and has happened,” Ricciardo says, “but it does help to talk about it. Having the comfort of everyone else last weekend and being on the grid together, and talking to some of the other drivers… yeah, it’s not fun talking about it, but it also helps relieve any feelings or emotions.
“I think just knowing that you’re in the same boat with someone else, knowing that you’re not alone feeling the way you do, that helps.
“So being part of a group or a community. That was where you realise, there are rivalries or whatever, but a rivalry on track doesn’t express how much we all have in common and how much we do actually care and feel for each other.
“It’s tough but it does feel nice to get some of it off your chest.”
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