Daniel Ricciardo has listed his five most underrated opponents that reached Formula 1, and believes Charles Leclerc is emulating what Jules Bianchi could have done at Ferrari.
During the enforced lockdown period due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ricciardo is posting a diary on social media that includes some thoughts on his racing career so far. In the first entry, he lists his five most underrated opponents, highlighting Bianchi — who died following a crash in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix — as a driver who would have been winning races for Ferrari.
“It wasn’t like Jules was underrated, but we never got to see him in a top car, so maybe people didn’t appreciate how good he was going to be,” Ricciardo (pictured at left with Bianchi, above, in 2014) wrote. “You think of his drive in that Marussia in Monaco in 2014, the team’s first points… Monaco is like Macau in that there’s no way to fluke a result there, it was absolutely on merit.
“As a junior through karting, Jules was the guy. We met training at Formula Medicine in Viareggio in Italy and everyone — even at that age when we were all 17 — everyone treated him like he was an F1 driver already. I got to know him and we became friends, and I quickly got to know who he was and what he’d done before I arrived in Europe.
“It’s part of what makes his story so sad, because he would have been in a top team and a race winner by now for sure. In some ways, I feel Charles is doing now what Jules would have been doing. It’s like Charles is the delayed version of what Jules would have done with the success he’s having.”
As well as Bianchi, Ricciardo picks out Marcus Ericsson as one of the drivers that crossed paths with Leclerc and had shown stunning speed in his junior career.
“Marcus was properly quick when we were coming through. Putting it on pole in Macau in 2009 in F3 when we were both there… you’re no Sunday driver to put it on pole there, and six of us on the grid that year eventually made it to F1. As a junior Marcus was very highly rated and I felt like that reputation didn’t really last when he was in Formula 1. The speed though, that was definitely there.
“With the 2018 season at Alfa Romeo you could see that at the start of the year against Charles but as the season went on Charles was obviously getting better as a rookie, and since then he’s proved that he’s an absolutely top-tier driver. But Marcus’ speed, I felt, was probably a bit underrated.”
The other drivers Ricciardo picks out are former Marussia driver Roberto Merhi — who he felt struggled to adapt his driving style to F1’s delicate tires — and his first F1 teammate at HRT in Tonio Liuzzi, who was a standout talent through the karting ranks.
A perhaps surprising entrant was 2009 world champion Jenson Button, who Ricciardo doesn’t believe gets the credit he deserves for the way he went toe-to-toe with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren.
“How can a world champion be underrated? Hear me out … Jenson had some big years in F1, but I think 2011 when he was teammates with Lewis at McLaren and beat Lewis fair and square — that’s no easy feat as we all know — was what gets him onto my list. He beat him on ‘real’ circuits like Suzuka and his race pace that year … he was at his best in 2011, I reckon.”