Daniel Ricciardo is flying high in the world's most expensive sport

Just getting Daniel Ricciardo on the other end of a phone is a tricky thing. Months of calls and emails have finally yielded a precious 30 minutes with Australia's fastest man.

It's weeks before the start of the season and just about every minute of every day is accounted for. But, hey, bosses expect plenty when you're reportedly earning upwards of $8 million and competing at the pinnacle of one of the world's most expensive sports.

A year to look forward to

It's arguably the most important year of Ricciardo's career. He's out of contract at the end of 2018 and is leaving his options open pending the performance of his Red Bull team and its Renault engine, something that has sporadically let him down in recent years.

When we finally catch up he is in between "sim sessions", the all-important virtual blasts on an advanced computer simulator that's been coded with the precise details of his 2018 racer.

Before the first wheel was turned on his RB14 at the Barcelona test session late in February there was no shortage of things to pack into the comparatively short lead up to the opening race; fitness sessions, seat fittings, schmoozing sponsors, attending photo sessions and experiencing his new car without leaving the workshop.

The car makes the man

As well as refreshing his memory of F1 tracks and sharpening his reactions, the simulator gives him a crucial early insight into the car he'll be piloting on the streets of Melbourne for the opening qualifying session at midday on 23 March.

"The car feels just like an evolution of where we finished," he says almost casually, seemingly more focused on his performance than worrying about the high tech carbon fibre machinery he will be tasked with driving at upwards of 300km/h.

F1 is one of those rare sports where it's often more about the equipment than the person in charge of it. Sure, great drivers make a difference, but even the best struggle in an underperforming car, as witnessed by dual world champion Fernando Alonso.

"It's going to be a bit quicker, for sure," says Ricciardo. "The aerodynamics of it have improved, fast corners are now even faster."

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Breaking from the pack

He's clearly in a good state mentally, the trademark light-hearted humour resonating down the line. Yet despite the frenzy that is the lead up to an F1 season, Ricciardo is a man who likes switching off.

The cool down process started once the chequered flag fell in the final race at Abu Dhabi last November. Or, at least, once he had got over the disappointment of his sixth DNF of what was a trying season peppered with reliability issues and the occasional bingle, including the qualifying crash in Melbourne and being taken out by hot shot teammate Max Verstappen on the opening lap at Hungary. He finished the season fifth, well off his career-best thirds in 2014 and 2016. There was no wild partying afterwards. Not even a quiet drink with the team. "I went to the hotel, I ordered room service and a glass of red wine and I watched a movie by myself," he says, almost embarrassed, apologetic.

It's in contrast to the larrikin attitude that oozes from the man who loves a Champagne slurp from his sweaty race boot on the podium, the now famous "shoey" that surely can't do anything to the oak-matured Carbon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Millésime liberally sprayed on the dais. "I was knackered, it had been a long season and a long week, we had quite a busy week in Abu Dhabi and we had testing, too, after the race. I was happy just to have a bit of peace and quiet that night."

It set the scene for the biggest holiday he gets during the year. Over the Christmas break the Perth native heads home to catch up with family and friends, one of which is Big Bash cricketer Marcus Stoinis. Ricciardo loves the Australian cricket season and keeps in touch with the Big Bash remotely when he's not in town. During home time he'd rather regale bat and ball than turbocharged engines and slick tyres.

Escaping the dreariness of his team's home base in Milton Keynes for a rare visit to his birth country, Ricciardo is given a strict body weight he must adhere to as well as an expected level of fitness on his return, but otherwise he's free to be the WA boy he once was.

Banned topics

High on his agenda is topping up on vitamin D and escaping from the hustle of his temporary home in Monaco. "It's zero F1 talk. I talk enough F1 during the year," says Ricciardo of the catch ups with his Aussie mates. He goes out of his way to avoid articles and scuttlebutt rife on what is one of the world's highest profile sports.

His mates naturally take an interest in his high stakes career, but during down time they know he needs to clear his head, so it's more what happens off the track rather than on. "They might talk about parties or girls – but no technical F1 talk."

Fresh from a life of parties, glamour and big buck budgets Ricciardo effortlessly settles in to the simple things, experiencing life as so many Australians do over summer. It's a rare chance to get back to normality, away from the cameras, carefully monitored diets and data that dominate his life for the rest of the year.

"Just hanging out with mates, having mates over or going to their house, just having a few beers and talking a bit of crap really," he says of the break.

The boy out of Perth

He also loves hot weather. "I'm a summer boy, I love the heat and the outdoors," he says, something that ties in nicely for his latest collaboration with luxury resort wear brand Orlebar Brown. Its latest arrival is a limited run of three pairs of board shorts, including the "Bulldog Monaco" replete with an aerial image of his home town with the famous track he almost certainly would have won at in 2016 had it not been for a clumsy pit stop from his team.

"They do really cool stuff, I like it," he says of the brand behind the swim shorts he helped create, reinforcing his love of a hot summer. "I wouldn't do too well representing a winter brand!".

Much of Ricciardo's appeal is not just his raw pace and on-track maturity, but his easy-going nature out of a car. The public persona is one of fun, smiling, jokes and the occasional prank, like the time he de-freshened the air in a post-race press conference, prompting rivals Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas to momentarily forget talk of undercuts and lap times as they descended into laughter.

Beneath the banter

But there's an intensely serious side to Daniel Ricciardo. It kicks in when he slides on his helmet, the one with a picture of a honey badger – reinforcing his nickname – on the back.

"The switch is pretty natural and I make it pretty easily. Once the helmet's on I can get pretty serious pretty quickly."

And the smile, it's not forced, he insists, and comes naturally. Regularly. "There is always inevitably going to be pressure because it's a top tier sport and there's a lot of money involved," he says. "But the smile's not a cover up … I think the smile probably makes it easier to deal with."

Before long, my 30 minutes is up (it turned out to be 31, but who's counting …) and Ricciardo is ready to return to the simulator and what is shaping up to be another frantic year at top speed. One Ricciardo hopes can yield his F1 dream.