Friday, 25 July 2014 | MYT 9:18 PM

Ricciardo happy to show the steel behind the smile

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Daniel Ricciardo may come across as a bit of a softie but behind that smiling exterior there lurks an Aussie hard man up for a fight.

No Formula One driver has a broader, or more permanent, smile than the 25-year-old Perth native who has seized his opportunity at champions Red Bull with both hands this season.

Ricciardo is third in the world championship and, going into Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, has scored 106 points compared to quadruple world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel's more modest haul of 82.

His first victory in Canada makes him the only driver, apart from the dominant Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, to have won a race this season.

The Australian has been nothing short of a revelation and in Germany last weekend his duels with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso drew rare praise from Spain's double world champion.

He told reporters that Ricciardo was doing an "unbelievable" job, attacking hard and braking late and fighting all the way cleanly and fairly.

Ricciardo, ever polite, thanked him for the compliment.

"It is nice to get that respect from someone like that, and it is nice to know that what I have learned in my years has certainly served me well," he told reporters. "It makes me want to have more battles."

Respect, said Ricciardo, was always important for any driver and particularly for one whose appearances might sometimes be deceptive.

"Obviously we all have a lot of pride in ourselves, but it is cannot get pushed around in anything you do," he said.

"Because I smile a lot and seem like the friendly guy, a lot of people if they see my actions, or my face, they probably think I am a little bit soft, I am nice and wouldn’t hurt anyone.

"But it is nice for me to demonstrate this year that I can race hard – and I am definitely not intimidated by anything or anyone on the track."

Ricciardo has earned his opportunity, starting out at now-defunct HRT in 2011 before graduating to Red Bull's sister team Toro Rosso in 2012 and then making sure of his current seat after compatriot Mark Webber retired last year.

Webber's Twitter handle is @Aussiegrit, and the no-nonsense Aussie sometimes had the look of a bloke ready to burn the stubble off his chin with a blowtorch.

Ricciardo, who uses just his name next to a picture of himself sitting and smiling on a pristine beach (although he spends most of his downtime in and around the team's Milton Keynes factory), also has some of that tough guy quality.

"I think even when Red Bull signed me last year, this was still a question mark for them," he said of his character.

"I had had some good races, but I wasn’t really consistently showing a high level of aggression or commitment to overtaking, but I think that has definitely changed this year and that is good. I am enjoying it. I am growing up."

Red Bull have no illusions or doubts now about what their new boy can do.

"The great thing to watch from our perspective was that Daniel did not give up and you could see the fighting spirit within him," team principal Christian Horner said after Hockenheim.

"The passes were Nigel Mansell-esque in many respects."

(Editing by Tony Goodson)


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