THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER
More often than not, Daniel Ricciardo is a panel-beaters nightmare. Quick, clean and precise, the Australian kept his nose clean and qualified inside the top 10 in all 21 Grands Prix last season, the perfect launching pad for 20 points finishes and a third place in the drivers’ championship. But on Saturday at Albert Park, an uncustomary crash started his season on the back foot, and given Red Bull’s deficit to the front of the grid, was a slip-up he and his team could ill-afford.
Four minutes into Saturday’s final 12-minute shootout for pole position, Ricciardo asked more of his RB13 machine than it had to give, losing control at the medium-speed Turn 14 and slithering off into the gravel, backing the car hard into the outside wall. As a collective groan went up around Albert Park, Ricciardo assured his team that he wasn’t hurt – and then began a long ride back to the pits, avoiding the prying eyes of the world’s media as his helmet stayed tightly on until he reached the safe confines of the Red Bull garage, his fury obvious.
Ricciardo slip-ups are rare; other than Japan two years ago when he crashed at the final corner in practice, and Azerbaijan last season when he clouted the wall before qualifying at the brand-new Baku circuit, the Australian had barely put a scratch on his machinery for the past two seasons. With Red Bull a distant third in the early-season pecking order behind the rampant Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and a Ferrari that has clearly gained speed with Sebastian Vettel at the controls, perhaps Ricciardo was striving for something that simply isn’t there, at least in this early stage of the season.
All weekend, Red Bull has stumbled down one blind alley into another as it tweaked its set-up to compete with, let alone combat, the speed of the Silver Arrows and the Prancing Horse. So far at least, nothing has closed the chasm. Ricciardo’s teammate Max Verstappen was a lacklustre fifth in qualifying, 1.2 seconds behind Hamilton’s Albert Park record pole time, an eternity in F1 terms.
“It happened quickly, I could feel rear was starting to come around,” Ricciardo said of his smash.
“I tried to catch it but it came around, and as the result of more downforce and more grip, when you lose it it’s a lot more violent and aggressive, so it caught me out.
“I would have loved to be top five rather than 10th.”
Worse could be yet to come for Ricciardo; the whack with the Turn 14 barriers looked to have caused significant rear suspension damage, and may yet necessitate a change of gearbox for Sunday’s race, which would carry a five-place grid penalty. The chances of Ricciardo improving on last year’s fourth place for Red Bull, the equal-best result by an Australian at their home Grand Prix, now appear remote.
Asked if he was hoping for a mid-race safety car to bring him back into contention on Sunday, Ricciardo’s signature smile made a brief re-appearance.
“I’m hoping for a lot tomorrow,” he laughed.
“There is a chance I might be worse than 10th tomorrow – the guys are checking the car – so if I do have to take a gearbox penalty, that puts me back five more places. Tenth or 15th, both aren’t ideal.
“I didn’t use two sets of ultrasoft (tyres) in Q2, so that means I’ve got a new set of ultrasofts for the race. So if I did do a two-stop, then that would work in my favour, and a safety car would make that a bit more nice. Maybe a safety car with about 15 laps to go would be the dream scenario.”