By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Put "baby-faced assassin" Daniel Ricciardo behind the wheel of a Mercedes and there would be no doubt he would take the Formula One title race to the wire, according to compatriot Alan Jones, Australia's last world champion.
The only driver to have beaten Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to the top of the podium this campaign, Ricciardo won a dramatic Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday to seal his second victory of the season, underlining his class with a high-quality drive and further shading Red Bull team mate Sebastian Vettel.
Ricciardo's success has raised Australian hopes of a first F1 title-holder since Jones's 1980 triumph and the former Williams driver said the expectation was justified.
"He's a contender, there's no doubt about it," the 67-year-old told Reuters in a phone interview.
"He's not a contender this year obviously because Mercedes have got the jump on everyone. Get him a good car next year. If you put that (Mercedes engine) in that bloody Red Bull, he would be a contender.
"Or get him a Mercedes, because he's proven he can qualify consistently in the top four. He can run up there with the best of them. He doesn't pile up the road or have any accidents."
After a two-year apprenticeship with feeder team Toro Rosso, Ricciardo has proved a revelation this season, mounting the podium five times, including a maiden win in Canada last month.
Sunday's win at Hungaroring put him third in the standings behind the Mercedes pair, 71 points adrift of Rosberg and 60 below Hamilton with eight races remaining.
While Ricciardo has benefited from safety car interventions in both victories, his calm in a frenetic finish in Hungary, in which the top four drivers were separated by a little more than six seconds, left few in doubt he belongs in the A-grade.
Ricciardo has also had to vie for top honors with a Renault engine, which remains well off the pace of the Mercedes power unit, according to team principal Christian Horner.
"I think Daniel's drive was exemplary," Jones said. "He did a really super job in looking after his tires, displayed a lot of maturity and I think he's well and truly cemented himself in the team now.
"Daniel took a fantastic overtaking maneuver on (Fernando Alonso) to get the job done," Jones added, referring to the two-time world championship winning Ferrari driver.
"There was some speculation that in Canada that he got it handed to him to a certain degree but this one he well and truly earned. He just drove really well."
Ricciardo took his Red Bull seat from hard-bitten compatriot Mark Webber, who came close to breaking Australia's championship drought in 2010, only to blow his chance late in the season with a crash in South Korea.
In contrast to the straight-talking Webber, who sometimes wore a face of thunder at post-race media conferences, Ricciardo is rarely seen without a big toothy grin and has tried in vain to convince fans a cold-blooded competitor lurks within.
"Don't be fooled by the sunshine exterior," Ricciardo wrote last year on his blog, explaining why he has an image of a honey badger, one of the animal kingdom's most ferocious fighters, on the back of his helmet.
"Press the right buttons and I can be a very dark individual. Very angry. No, honestly I can be. Stop laughing."
Already boasting the toughness to step out of quadruple world champion Vettel's shadow at Red Bull, Ricciardo also had the temperament to deal with the pressure of being his country's motor sport standard-bearer in the post-Webber era, said Jones.
"I call him a baby-faced assassin. He hasn't got that honey badger on the back of his helmet for nothing," he added. "He's very affable, he's a terrific kid and he's always smiling but he grows horns when it counts, when he's got his bum in the car."
Though lavishing praise on Ricciardo, Jones said he could see little of himself in the young driver.
"No, he's too nice. I know I couldn't race Formula One in this day and age," he said.
"There's too much corporate bloody pressure on you and you've got to be nice with everybody, you've got to watch your Ps and Qs. You've got to be half a bloody politician."
(Editing by John O'Brien)