The 2018 Formula One season looks set to be a pivotal nine months in Daniel Ricciardo's career. After four years driving for Red Bull without challenging for a title, the early indications suggest the former world champions have rediscovered their mojo over the winter. During pre-season testing the new RB14 looked devastatingly quick in the corners and with a healthy boost of power from engine-supplier Renault it could be among the best cars on the grid in Melbourne.
Of course, testing can be misleading and the picture can easily shift as updates arrive in rival garages ahead of this weekend's Australian Grand Prix. But even if 2018 proves to be another false dawn, Ricciardo's long-standing contract with the team is finally coming to an end this year. As a result, he will be free to explore options with the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari for 2019 if Red Bull fails to deliver for a fifth season in a row.
So is the Australian excited about the upcoming season?
"Yeah," he answers with that trademark grin spreading across his face, "you should feel my nipples!"
Given that we're sat in a packed Red Bull motorhome during the second week of testing, I politely decline his offer. Today is Ricciardo's 'day off', which means he's sat inside talking to ESPN while teammate Max Verstappen thrashes the new RB14 around the Circuit de Catalunya. That may sound like the short straw, but the man from Perth is still full of energy after a series of solid days behind the wheel of his new car.
"I probably haven't had too many reasons to get excited in the years before," Ricciardo says with a nod to Red Bull's patchy performance during winter testing in recent years. "But it feels like we are in a better place than we have been the last few seasons. We seem solid. Soon we'll know on one-lap pace where we are, but I don't think we are far off."
Will Renault deliver?
At the end of the two weeks of testing in Barcelona, the RB14 may not have held the new track record at the Circuit de Catalunya -- that honour went to Ferrari -- but it was consistently registering the fastest apex speeds according to the GPS data of rival teams. That suggests Red Bull has finally overcome the teething issues it experienced with last year's RB13 and may have produced one of the best cars on the 2018 grid.
But Red Bull's ability to produce a good a chassis has never really been in doubt. The question has always been -- and still remains -- what engine supplier Renault can produce to power it.
Ricciardo retired from three races last year with engine-related problems and amassed 70-places-worth of grid penalties due to power unit component changes beyond his allocation for the season. This year each driver is limited to just three engines per year instead of four, meaning the onus is on Renault to up its game not just in terms of outright power but also reliability.
"We're certainly relying on the reliability to improve, and we have made a pretty good step with that," Ricciardo says. "I'm just going to go on those things for now, and once we are confident with that we are going to want performance.
"I think we are obviously still not going to be on Mercedes' level. There is nothing that they [Renault] have changed to get another 40 horsepower. But in any case, to win a championship you need to be finishing races -- let alone winning, you need to be finishing. Once we can finish we can start taking points away and do our thing."
But let's assume the Red Bull-Renault package does deliver on its pre-season promise. Let's assume it gets within 0.3s of the fastest car, whether that be a Mercedes or a Ferrari. Would Ricciardo fancy his chances of challenging for a championship then?
"Look, if the top three teams are within 0.3s then for sure the driver can still make a difference. Even if you don't have the outright pace you can be more aggressive at the start to gain a position and block for the rest of the race. You can muscle your way through.
"If we're in the hunt, I believe I can make the difference."
The threat from within
Yet the greatest challenge to Ricciardo's championship campaign might not come from a rival team but from within Red Bull. In Verstappen, Ricciardo faces one of the most prodigious talents of the current generation and a driver that is still improving at a remarkable rate.
Last year the Australian outscored the young Dutchman on points, but in qualifying Verstappen beat Ricciardo 13-7 with an average advantage of 0.128s per lap. Reliability issues clouded the competitive picture between the two teammates over the course of the year, but most observers gave Verstappen the nod over Ricciardo in their end-of-season rankings.
"I think last year Max got on with it a bit earlier," Ricciardo explains. "He also had a good end to the season, but I probably didn't get on with it as quickly in terms of the new car and all that. Finding the sweetspot -- it was quite a difficult car to drive at the beginning of the season -- and I was probably just too caught up in trying to make it better when I probably just should have just accepted what it was and just got on with it.
"I was probably too busy trying to find out how to fine tune it rather than just driving better. Maybe through having less experience he was just like, 'alright, this is what is I'll just figure it out'. So that probably helped him out a little bit.
"Qualifying, yeah I made a few mistakes and probably didn't get on with it as well initially. And then it was something weird, like in Austin I was quick in qualifying and then we went to Mexico and I was a second off or something despite having a good Friday. It was weird.
"As far as consistency goes and understanding the car, I would say Max had a better understanding last year, but on outright pace I still think we both had our days.
"I've learnt from some of things I did last year and the way I approach it, so given the same situation I think I would handle it better."
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Red Bull's 2018 season is how its two drivers will react if they find themselves in the hunt for the title. History has shown the atmosphere can grow toxic between two evenly-matched teammates when a title is on the line, and there's no evidence to suggest either Red Bull driver will be happy to settle for a No.2 role this year. So does Ricciardo think Verstappen may try to swing things his way with a bit of psychological warfare if the car is capable of challenging for the championship?
"To be honest, yes. But it's not only Max."
"I think any of us who really believes we can win has that in us. You need that in a way and it's not being a bad sport, it's not cheating; it's just that ruthless streak that every winner has in them. I think Max, Seb, Lewis, Fernando -- all the top guys in the sport have that in them.
"I wouldn't put it past him if the situation comes up; maybe things will change, maybe there will be some fireworks. But if I'm prepared for it -- at least it's not a surprise if it does happen. It's not like I'm expecting it, but I'll be prepared if it happens."
A free agent
The big question mark hanging over all of the above is Ricciardo's contractual situation beyond the end of this year. After being snapped up by Red Bull's junior programme in 2008, the Australian has been guided through the ranks by the energy drinks company over the past ten years. One decade on and he's finally free to make his own choices about where he drives in 2019, which is a tantalising prospect given the contracts of Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari are also due to expire at the end of the year.
"It's exciting," Ricciardo says. "It's particularly exciting if I drive well. If I'm not driving well then maybe it's much less exciting and I'm not wanted by anyone!
"It's nice to be in a position to plan my next two or three years to see what I want in the sport and where I plan on pitching it. It will be interesting, I will go through some conversations that will be new to me and I'm kind of looking forward to that experience.
"I think I will grow from that as a life experience to have these talks and sit down with Red Bull and speak openly with them -- see what our desires are and all that. That will be fun.
"I think they are keen to keep me, obviously they've got Max but I think they are keen to keep me and Max together. But yeah, we'll see. I don't want to get ahead of myself and think that everyone wants me, but I think Red Bull likes us as a pair -- so that's encouraging."
Whatever happens in 2018, it will be a pivotal year in Ricciardo's career. If he has a lousy season it could see him struggle to find a top seat for 2019 and possibly the rest of his time in F1, but perform well and he could finish 2018 as world champion with his pick of the top seats for the following year. It sounds like an awful lot of pressure to deal with, but this is the challenge Ricciardo has been waiting for his whole life.
"I think for me the pressure is a chance -- and this is going to sound arrogant but it's not -- it's a chance to show off when the spotlight is on me. If you deep down believe in yourself then it's your chance now to show everyone how good you really are.
"So I think the pressure can create that little bit of adrenaline, excitement and confidence -- so I like it. Sure I feel it, but for me it's a positive. It makes you feel alive and I enjoy it. At the end of the day I try not to think too much about the big picture, I know what I've got to do so I just execute what I believe I can do. Then it will be easy, right?"