Sometimes, things just seem to come full circle in life. A happy coincidence it may be, but this weekend is one such example. A week ago, we sat down with Daniil to chat about the first podium of his Formula 1 career, achieved in Hungary in 2015. Four years on, it’s now less than seven days since his last.
Before that stunning drive in Hockenheim, we asked him if he thought he could step on an F1 podium again anytime soon, to which Daniil replied: “That’s the target, that’s what I want. I need to be patient and I’m working hard for it now and hopefully this hard work will pay off.”
Back in the paddock at the Hungaroring a few days later, the Russian admits there was more than an element of professionalism about his original answer…
“I didn’t totally believe it, I was just talking rubbish! OK, I wasn’t really talking rubbish, but I was just saying it to say it. We work hard, we want to be on the podium, but the team has worked so hard for 11 years and not been on the podium. The team has existed for 14 years and I feel so great to be part of this achievement. It was fantastic for me to see the joy in the faces of all the team members. It was priceless.”
Life moves pretty fast, and with another race to prepare for - and more rain hitting Friday practice - Daniil is reluctant to focus too much on his latest achievement for too long.
“Let’s not ask too much from life all at once! Let’s live it day-by-day and not get greedy. Let’s just enjoy this moment but we are already in Hungary and here who knows what can happen? Apparently if it rains there are always opportunities which we need to grab, so we will try but normally we are not podium contenders. The Red Bull yes, but us, we really grabbed the opportunity so well. The car and the engine were very competitive in the race, so it was great.”
But the first podium, in 2015, well that’s special. As a Red Bull driver, Daniil had enjoyed a good start to the weekend and ended FP2 in the top three. So when he qualified seventh, he didn’t feel like it was going to be the weekend that yielded his first trophy in F1.
“I think Friday was strong, then on Saturday something went wrong in qualifying and I wasn’t happy with the car. I think I made a couple of mistakes on my qualifying laps, so I think Daniel (Ricciardo) was fourth and I was seventh, a few tenths behind him and I wasn’t happy with that because I was usually quicker than him at that time of the year. I wasn’t happy that he managed to be ahead. On Saturday it was like that but then on Sunday it turned around to be a great race.”
A great race it was, but much like his latest podium, Daniil’s day wasn’t going smoothly early on. After a strong start, he dropped back to sixth place and his prospects didn’t look great.
“I think if I had to drive it again now I would have fought for the win in that weekend. It’s always like that with your first podium. It was a difficult race for me, especially the beginning. The second part was quite good, but at the beginning I flat-spotted my tyres so we had to box early and it compromised my race a lot.
“I was actually running about P6 or P5 in that race and then there were a few incidents ahead that brought out the Safety Car and my race came alive again. “I was right behind Nico (Hulkenberg) when his front wing failed. I was really close to him trying to overtake him but they were so fast in the straights those guys. That year the deficit between engines was huge. The Mercedes engine was just flying on the straight and it was so hard to overtake him.
“Then the stints after the Safety Car were quite good. I pulled quite a good overtake on Lewis (Hamilton) and Valtteri (Bottas), that was really cool, and it was quite a cool moment. For your first podium, many thoughts run through your head during those last laps, and I think now because I have already been there I would probably be able to challenge more to be closer to Sebastian (Vettel).”
While Vettel won by over five seconds on the road - extended to 15 by a track limits penalty - Daniil admits the thoughts that he was having in the closing stages had not been in his head for long.
“Until the Safety Car I was quite far away from the podium positions. My race clicked just when the Safety Car came out because it brought everyone closer together, I had extra motivation to attack and push harder because I could see it was all quite close and I just went for it. It was cool.
“In a way it’s the moment that you’ve been working so hard for many years at that time. So it’s one page of your book basically ending and you’re turning to the next one. Then you’ll want a win, and it was that sort of feeling. The first podium was like that, it was cool emotions.
“At the time it was a huge sense of relief when you cross the finish line and you think about what you’ve been doing and what you’re doing is so great.”
Securing a first podium meant the first time going through a different procedure after the race, but Daniil reveals the result was tempered slightly by a missed personal target.
“It’s something you always see on TV and then you’re part of this thing. It was an incredible feeling. And like I said a huge sense of relief and achievement at that time.
“I think I missed out on being the youngest podium finisher by a couple of weeks to Sebastian, so I was a bit disappointed about that! I knew about it, it was something I’d looked at. I shouldn’t have, but it was a target. I wanted to reach that and I just missed it by a couple of weeks.”
The fact that Daniil references a perceived failing shows just how strongly he follows the Honda philosophy of constantly striving for improvement, and he sees the driver who secured his latest podium as more rounded than the one who achieved the first.
“I think I’m a bit mentally stronger compared to that period. It was sometimes a bit tricky for me to accept things or work hard or consistently all through the weekend, weekend after weekend. Now I feel this consistency every weekend, my job and my approach doesn’t change whereas that time was a bit different.
“I think I was still finding myself at that time, as a driver and as a person. Sometimes I wasn’t sure why I was doing things right and why I was doing things wrong, but now I have a much clearer picture. So it helps a lot.
“It’s small things in the end. It’s not about the driving talent because it’s always the same pretty much, it’s about how you make use of it and how you make good use of it at the right moments.”
Sharing the Honda philosophy is also something that the 25-year-old is relishing this year, returning to F1 to work with us for the first time in his career.
“I really enjoy it,” Daniil admits. “They’re hard workers, they always have some good ideas. The track engineers are always good to talk with and easy-going. What never lies is the results on track and Honda has been making such great progress over the last couple of years so we hope to continue on with that trend.”
All this talk of work brings us nicely onto the topic of the summer break, with the Hungarian Grand Prix leading into a four-week gap in races. But for Daniil, the podium in Germany came within 24 hours of the birth of his first child that could mean the word ‘break’ is not entirely accurate…
“That’s true! But I think I’ll find this out as we go. Plenty of things to learn there. I don’t know how we will do but I am sure we can be good parents together with my girlfriend Kelly, so hopefully we will enjoy it. And hopefully I’ll still get some sleep!”