Ricciardo’s race over before it started

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER.

Disappointment in Melbourne is nothing new for Daniel Ricciardo; what should have been the Red Bull racer’s finest hour, a second place on his debut for the team at the Australian Grand Prix in 2014, turned to dust when his first career podium was taken away, his car disqualified for a breach of the technical regulations.

Ricciardo at least got to stand on the podium that day, soaking up the adulation of his home fans before learning of his exclusion on a lonely drive back to his city hotel that night. On Sunday at Albert Park, Ricciardo’s quest to become the first Australian to stand – legitimately – on his home podium was over before it started.

A rare crash in qualifying on Saturday left Ricciardo in 10th place on the grid, a subsequent five-place grid penalty for the team changing his damaged gearbox overnight adding salt to his wounds.

But if he thought that was bad, worse was to come on Sunday when his car ground to a halt in sixth gear with an electrical sensor failure as he made his way to the starting grid on the formation lap. The Australian sat in disbelief in his car on the run to Turn 13, his team frantically trying to come up with a solution from the garage to get his RB13 machine started. The car was brought back into pit lane, feverishly worked on while the other 19 cars in the field took the start, and was released into the fray with Ricciardo two laps down and plumb last.

Ricciardo’s only chance of sneaking into the top 10 points-paying positions rested on a safety car or heavy attrition for his rivals; such was his luck on Sunday that the former never materialised, and of the seven cars not running at the finish, his was one, an engine failure seeing him park up at Turn 3 on lap 29.

If Ricciardo shunts are uncommon – his crash in qualifying on Saturday was just his third in three seasons, none of which have come in a race – non-finishes by the Australian are as much of a rarity. Ricciardo’s third place in last year’s world championship was achieved partly through his speed and race craft, and partly by his unerring consistency, the Australian one of just two drivers to finish all 21 Grands Prix, 20 of them inside the top 10.

Sunday’s non-finish was his first since the 2015 Russian Grand Prix – a span of 26 races – and continued his wretched luck at home. Of the circuits that have featured in every season of his six-year career to date, only Japan and Brazil have produced fewer points, and more heartache.

“The car just switched off, it was instant,” a despondent Ricciardo said afterwards. “There was nothing, no procedure I could do to stay out there. I was lapping a few laps down, but I was getting some information, which was better than nothing. The more laps we get with this car, the more we’re learning. It was still valuable track time.

“It just snowballed from yesterday. The five-place grid penalty sounded bad enough, but then we had other issues. I feel like crap, but I feel for the fans too.”

Red Bull’s reliability woes in Melbourne have become an unwanted trend; Ricciardo pulling over before the race even started on Sunday came after his then-teammate, Russian Daniil Kvyat, didn’t manage a racing lap for the past two years at Albert Park after breaking down on the way to the grid.

With Ricciardo’s 2017 teammate Max Verstappen qualifying over a second behind Mercedes pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on Saturday and finishing more than half a minute behind race-winner Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari 24 hours later, Red Bull needs to swiftly find both reliability and pace if it’s to retain its second place in last year’s constructors’ championship.

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