Month: February 2018

The Dan Diaries: Back to work

In his first driver column of 2018, Daniel Ricciardo gets set for the first test in Spain, offers his thoughts on the halo, and reveals why Red Bull will be ready to charge from day one.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

So how was your break from Formula One? Mine – pretty good. Really good. I was definitely pretty tired when last year ended, so the break was great – maybe I would have just stayed in Oz if I’d already won a world championship and never come back … no, just kidding. Now that I’m back in Europe, there’s some energy back and things are about to get busy. Which I’m looking forward to.

I spent December and most of January between Perth, some time in New Zealand to go to Brendon Hartley’s wedding and see some of the North Island for the first time (go if you haven’t been before, I really enjoyed it over there), and then to what’s becoming my favourite place away from home, California. Did about 10 days in NZ and the US, and then it was back to work, sort of. Being back in Europe after summer in Oz was the usual shock, but I was able to get to Milton Keynes to get into the factory nice and early.

But back to that break, while I’m hanging onto the memories of it … We’re racing until late November now and we have commitments through the early part of December, but I’m able to switch off pretty quickly afterwards as soon as I get on the plane to head back to Perth. The time zone is what makes that work; instantly I’m in a space where when Europe is asleep, I’m awake, and the reverse when Europe is up.

The physical distance is one thing, and the time of day the other. I’m pretty adamant that my phone goes off at night anyway, so I can’t be disturbed even if people want to disturb me. And then not being on a timetable is what makes me relax. Especially on a race weekend – time is so valuable that the day is literally broken down into 10-minute blocks where you’re doing something or being somewhere. So waking up in the morning in Perth and not knowing what you’ll be doing for the rest of the day – and not caring either – is what helps me to recover the energy the travel and everything else takes out of you.

That extends to my training too. For all of December, I’ve found that, for me, it works best that I give myself a break from the training I do all year. There’ll be some incidental exercise when you’re out riding dirt bikes or whatever and being active, but nothing structured. It means I can hit things hard in January when I get back to it and have the enthusiasm to get after it again. Once the calendar flips, it’s time to get into it. So that feeling of being a bit weightless, for lack of a better description, and completely switching off for a few weeks is nice.

There’s always plenty to do before we officially launch the car, and I was able to get ahead of things a bit with some days in the simulator, my seat fit and all of those things. And, of course, getting used to the halo, which of course will be a big talking point when we all rock up for testing, and then even more once we get to Melbourne.

So what’s the initial verdict on the halo? You know, I think it’s going to be alright. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the look of it, but I think it’ll be fine and we’ll have other things to talk about pretty quickly, especially once the racing starts and we have the championship beginning to take shape. One thing that’s become obvious already is that getting into the car is going to take some getting used to, because it’s very different. I might need to do some yoga or something to become more flexible! But as far as how it looks, I think people are going to get used to the halo pretty quickly and we won’t talk about it for too long. Remember back in 2009, the year that Brawn won the championship, and the cars that year looked so different with the small rear wings, almost like F3 cars? People threw their hands up and talked about it a lot at the start, but then we all got used to it and just moved on. I reckon the 2009 look was more dramatic than the halo and how long it’ll take people to get used to it.

The first pre-season test is coming up in Barcelona in a few days, and from our side, it feels like we’re more ready than we’ve been in the past few years – and there’s a reason for that. This year, the team is consciously making sure the car is ready before we head there and, if you like, not getting too greedy with using every last second we have beforehand to get more and more things on the car, and then get to the track less prepared than we’d like.

We’ve had some pretty slow pre-seasons the past few years where we haven’t got off to great starts, so the focus has been more on making sure the car is ready before we go to the test so we can make sure we know the car is going to run, and that we can tick a lot more boxes before we get out on track. We have a week between our launch of RB14 and the filming day we had at Silverstone on Monday before we get out there in Barcelona, so that’ll help us be even more ready.

The team has made a point of being ready earlier this year, so we can potentially get more out of Barcelona, and then get more out of the first few flyaways. If that gives us a stronger pre-season and we can take that into the first four races and not feel like we’re playing catch-up or chasing ourselves because we left things so late, then that’s a move in the right direction, I think.

It’s always a good feeling to get back into the car for the first time in a long while – I’ve not driven since the test after Abu Dhabi, which was about 12 weeks ago – and so there’s the excitement of being in a new car and that curiosity of how that new car feels, and how your body pulls up after that first day when you’re naturally going to be a bit sore from readjusting. That’s cool, but it’s fleeting – once you’ve done the first day in testing, your eyes and body are back into it, and there’s always a part of me that wishes I could snap my fingers and be on the grid on Sunday in Melbourne … Driving is nice, sure, but I’m ready for some competition pretty quickly.

Before I go, I wanted to say a few words on the passing of Australian Grand Prix chairman Ron Walker last month, and everything he did for the sport back home. Even having the race in Melbourne … everything he did to even make that happen will be one of his many legacies.

Australia opening the calendar as we do, you can’t underestimate how big of a deal that is for our country and our sport to have that, and he’s a huge part of why we have it. He was so well respected by everyone in F1 through all age groups – drivers, managers, team bosses, everyone who comes down to Oz – and was always a presence, someone who’d come over to chat, someone who’d be active with what was happening on race weekend. He helped our sport in Australia massively.

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Thai takeaways: what the riders thought of MotoGP’s new track

Marquez, Rossi, Pedrosa, Miller and more weigh in on the newest circuit to join the MotoGP calendar in Buriram.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s been a while since we had a completely new circuit join the MotoGP calendar – the Red Bull Ring in Austria re-joined the world championship in 2016, while the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina came on stream two years earlier.

So it was with much anticipation (and plenty of cold water) that MotoGP arrived in steaming hot Thailand last week for a three-day test at the Chang International Circuit, located at Buriram, a little over 400 kilometres northeast of the country’s capital, Bangkok.

The 4.6km track, which has played host to World Superbikes for the past three years, will hold its first world championship Grands Prix in October this year, meaning riders and teams were keen to bank as much knowledge as they could over three days of running, and to familiarise themselves with the 12-turn layout. “I’ve adapted to it pretty quickly, and the circuit itself is very fast,” said Alma Pramac Ducati’s Jack Miller after the second day of the test, adding “it’s a little bit like Austria, minus the elevation changes.” We’re presuming he meant minus snow-capped mountains, lush green fields and a giant bull statue, as well …

The comparisons between Austria and Buriram are valid – the Thailand circuit is 300m longer, has two more corners and is just as wide (12m) as the Red Bull Ring – but while Austria has been Ducati territory for the past two seasons, Buriram was all about Honda, factory rider Dani Pedrosa setting the fastest time of the test (a lap of 1min 29.781secs on the final day), and becoming the third Honda to top the timesheets after Cal Crutchlow led day one, and Pedrosa’s teammate and reigning world champion Marc Marquez set the day two benchmark.

Pre-season testing times should be taken with a grain of salt – who would have thought Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo would struggle so much after dominating the Malaysian test just two weeks previously? – but the timesheets can tell us that Johann Zarco is plainly the fastest man on a Yamaha, factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales have a lot of head-scratching to do between now and the final test in Qatar in a fortnight’s time, and Miller and Ducati appear to be the perfect marriage, the Aussie backing up his strong showing at Sepang by finishing sixth overall – and the fastest Ducati rider – in Buriram.

That’s what the stopwatch says, but what did the riders themselves think of the new circuit? Here’s what they had to say, and where they finished after three days of sweltering action in front of grandstands that were routinely packed, the locals showing their love for all things two wheels before racing starts in earnest in eight months’ time.

Dani Pedrosa
Repsol Honda Team (1:29.781, 1st overall)
“The circuit is quite narrow, so it’s important to use the right lines and carry speed. We’re working to find the best balance in order to be quick in both the fast sectors and the more twisty ones.”

Marc Marquez
Repsol Honda Team (+0.188secs, 3rd)
“Regarding the track layout, it seemed quite fast to me when I lapped it on a scooter yesterday, but today riding my bike, I realised it was slower that I was expecting, with many second- or third-gear corners. Still, there are some hard acceleration and braking points, and it will probably be challenging to manage tyre life, so we’ll work on that as well.”

Jack Miller
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.404secs, 6th)
“The layout of the circuit is fascinating. I expected it to be more dirty, especially in the morning, but I had the feeling of having a good grip right away. It’s a fast track and it’s nice to race here. To do the best lap time you have to be patient and you have to give up a bit in braking to get the acceleration, especially on the Ducati. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that at the moment. But being patient isn’t one of my strong points …”

Andrea Dovizioso
Ducati Team (+0.411secs, 7th)
“The Buriram track is very unusual and it wasn’t easy to get used to its layout. There are three corners which are virtually hairpins and then the rest is quite a pretty straightforward run. It’s quite a slow track for our bike, but it’s always interesting to try new circuits.”

Maverick Vinales
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.493secs, 8th)
“I like the track a lot, it fits my riding style quite well with these flowing corners.”

Danilo Petrucci
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.586secs, 9th)
“I liked the track right away. We were expecting to find a circuit with a lot of aggressive braking but many curves turned out to be fast.”

Tito Rabat
Reale Avintia Racing (+0.695secs, 11th)
“I like the circuit and I had a lot of fun. It has several parts that reminded me of Qatar, others of Texas… it has some long straights and the asphalt is okay, although at the beginning of the day it was a little bit dirty. But the first impression was very good.”

Valentino Rossi
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.730secs, 12th)
“First of all, the feeling with the track is not too bad, I expect worse, but first of all the track is in a good condition. It’s clean and the asphalt has good grip. This is very important. And also the layout. I remembered [this track to be] more similar to Austria, so I was very worried. But when you ride maybe it is more similar to Argentina. It’s good to ride, you have a good feeling, you enjoy. The track is not very difficult but anyway it’s fun. Technically it’s quite easy, but it’s not boring.”

Aleix Espargaro
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini (+0.920secs, 14th)
“To be honest, the track surprised me. I had more fun than I thought I would. The first part is not particularly interesting with all the straights connected by braking sections, but overall it is a nice track.”

Alvaro Bautista
Angel Nieto Team (+1.102secs, 17th)
“It’s a track that has a couple of good points like Turn 4, where you go into it very fast and you have to go down a couple of gears and enter quickly. The circuit reminds me a little of Austria; it’s varied and fun. I thought it looked easier, on paper, but riding a MotoGP bike complicates everything a bit more. The last two sectors are critical; they are narrow and you have to clearly choose the line because otherwise you can lose a lot of time.”

Jack Miller’s 2018 season in a snapshot

On a new machine and with a new lease of life – is this the year the Aussie MotoGP hard-charger takes a big leap?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Time is always in short supply in any MotoGP pre-season, and up and down the pit lane, you’ll hear teams and riders wishing they had more of it before the lights go out on the first race of the year in Qatar on March 18. Jack Miller? He’d probably gladly line up at Losail tomorrow if you asked him. And it’s not because the 23-year-old lacks the necessary patience to persist with the pre-season grind – he’s ready to get racing for something real right now. And it’s easy to see why.

Miller has had a spring in his step ever since he stepped off a Honda and onto a Ducati with Alma Pramac Racing for the first time in last year’s late-season test in Valencia, and sported a smile to go with it after three days of testing in Malaysia late last month, finishing fifth on the overall timesheets while coming nowhere close to his potential as rider and machine get better acquainted.

“I don’t feel like I have to go crazy or ride over the edge to get a lap time out of it, which is a huge positive,” he said of the Ducati GP17 after Sepang, and he’s looking forward to this week’s second pre-season outing at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand to confirm that early promise was real a month out from the season start.

Looking further ahead than Thailand, what does 2018 as a whole have in store for Miller? What’s on his mind ahead of the 19-race campaign? And what does our crystal ball tell us about his fourth season in the top flight, and where he’ll be at the end of it?

Here’s our 10-point preview for Ducati’s Townsville tearaway.

What happened last year
Miller’s 2017 campaign had more rises and falls than a lap of the Sachsenring. Fortunately those falls weren’t of the 2016 variety, when he missed five races with assorted injuries from high-speed tumbles, but he started up (three top-10 finishes in the first three Grands Prix), flattened off (just three points in four races between Germany and Great Britain), missed a race (Japan) after breaking his right tibia in a training accident, and then finished with a three-race flourish while compromised physically in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia, the high point coming at Phillip Island when he qualified an equal career-best fifth and led his home race for the first time. The pre-season goal of a top-10 finish in the championship just went begging (he was 11th, just two points behind Yamaha’s Jonas Folger), but it was his most convincing season to date, even taking into account that he won his first MotoGP race at Assen a year earlier.

Miller’s MotoGP seasons
2017: 82pts (11th), 2016: 57pts (18th), 2015: 17pts (19th).

2017: in his own words
“These guys (Marc VDS) have been great for me, and to know I was the rider who gave them that first MotoGP win last year at Assen, that’s pretty special. They’ve done a lot for me and helped me grow up as a rider … I’ll always be thankful for that. The year I spent with my engineer Ramon (Aurin) this year has been huge for me, he’s a done a lot to make me a smarter rider and his experience has been great for a rider like me. He’s someone I’ll definitely miss working with day by day.”
– Miller, writing for redbull.com on his two years with Marc VDS Honda before heading to Ducati

2017: an expert’s view
“The irony of Honda not renewing Miller’s factory contract this year is that the straight-talking Aussie enjoyed his most impressive campaign in his third season in the premier class. Even if there was no repeat of his 2016 Dutch TT victory, Miller was much more consistent, finishing inside the top 10 on nine occasions despite the limitations of his machinery. Forced to miss Motegi with a broken leg, he excelled when he returned at Phillip Island, leading the opening laps – and in the final two races he beat the man who took his HRC contract for 2018, Cal Crutchlow.”
– Miller’s review in Autosport’s Top 10 MotoGP riders of 2017, where he ranked 10th.

Home pressure? What home pressure?
While Assen is the circuit where Miller has scored more of his MotoGP points than any other courtesy of that 2016 victory, Phillip Island is, statistically, his strongest track. Three MotoGP races, three points finishes, 16 points in all (a tally matched in Malaysia) and his two best qualifying performances (fifth in 2016 and again last year) means Miller has more love for the Island than most.

On the flip side …
For all of that positivity, we have to acknowledge the bogey tracks, and for Miller there’s two, Silverstone and Jerez. After three starts at each, he’s yet to score a MotoGP point …

Still a young gun
Miller may be about to start his fourth MotoGP season, but only Suzuki’s Alex Rins (22 years old) is younger than the Aussie in the 24-rider field.

The burning question
There’s no such thing as a small year in MotoGP, but when you’ve lost your Honda factory backing and signed up on a one-year deal to ride a satellite Ducati for 2018, the pressure is on Miller to deliver. With teammate Danilo Petrucci looking for a factory ride (at Ducati or elsewhere) for 2019, Miller has a golden opportunity to impress this year on a bike Petrucci took to four podium finishes a year ago, three of them coming in the wet. Miller, as we know, isn’t averse to a pinch of precipitation himself (filed under ‘Assen 2016’). Can he step onto the rostrum if the opportunity presents itself? It’s not critical for his MotoGP future, but it can certainly help.

Miller’s outlook
“Last year I set my goal of finishing inside the top 10 for the season and didn’t quite make it, but it’s hard to factor in things like injuries and whatnot. So staying injury-free is a goal, and breaking 100 points for the season for the first time is too. Whatever happens after that, I’ll take it.”
– Miller after the Malaysia pre-season test

We’re predicting …
We chickened out on getting too bullish on Miller’s 2017 season in this space last year, which we’ll admit with the caveat that he spent plenty of the previous season hurting himself (or recovering from hurting himself), which made pre-season prognostications difficult. So we’ll stick our neck out this time; all signs point to that top-10 championship finish Miller craves, and we’d not be surprised in the slightest with a couple of podiums before the year is out, and not necessarily in wet races.

Jack Miller talks testing, 2018 and life at Ducati

The all-action Aussie MotoGP rider has a big year ahead of him – and if testing tells us anything, he’s on the right track.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

If consistency is the key to success, Jack Miller is on the right road.

The Townsville 23-year-old, along with the rest of the grid, assembled in Malaysia last week for the first of three pre-season MotoGP tests, and expectations were modest for Miller as he bedded himself in with his new team, Alma Pramac Racing, and on a Ducati GP17 after three years of riding for Honda. And while the post-test headlines focused on the fledgling days of Marc Marquez’s title defence and the progress of Yamaha with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales, Miller certainly turned heads at the Sepang International Circuit.

Fifth on the timesheets on all three days, his best-ever lap of the challenging Sepang layout that was well inside the magical two-minute mark (1min 59.346secs on the final day) and 123 laps (more than six Grand Prix distances) in all gave Miller plenty of cause for optimism after the first official hit-out of 2018. As he sees it, Sepang was a good start, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and those gains are already within touching distance as gets more familiar with riding a Ducati.

“The main difference for me is that I feel more in control of this bike than I ever did with the Honda, because the Honda felt like it was on a knife-edge the whole time,” he says, making the most of a break in the pre-season schedule to scurry back to the Miller family home just outside of Townsville.

“Most of the time on the Honda for the last couple of years I didn’t feel like I had much margin to play with and maybe be able to use to get that last little bit of lap time out, but on this bike I’m more controlling it, you could say. The way to get those last tenths (of a second) off seems like it’s more in my hands, and the better lap times are coming more easily to me in some ways. I don’t feel like I have to go crazy or ride over the edge to get a lap time out of it, which is a huge positive.

“The Honda was pretty good in the change of direction stuff, but would always want to pop the front wheel coming out of the slow-speed corners. The Ducati seems to handle those a lot easier, so I’m having to change my approach on how to ride, but that’s a good thing.”

After three years across two Honda teams, Miller’s Ducati move sees him partnered with Italian Danilo Petrucci, who impressed with four podium finishes last year riding the GP17 bike Miller will campaign this season. Petrucci will ride a GP18 to provide development support and feedback to Ducati factory riders Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso, and coming into a new set-up where he’s already friendly with the rider on the other side of the garage has only helped what has been a smooth transition.

“It’s only been a short time with the new team, but it feels pretty comfy already,” Miller says of the satellite Ducati operation.

“Working with the team, getting to know how they want to work and them understanding me a bit more day by day, it’s going well and the fit seems to be pretty good. They’ve welcomed me in and made sure I had everything I needed, and they’re a team of real racers who want to do well as a team, so that’s made it a fairly easy adjustment.

“(Race engineer) Cristhian Pupulin has been at Ducati for a very long time and he’s been really good for me so far, and they’ve had Aussies through there in the past, so it’s been pretty seamless.”

After spending time at home in Australia over Christmas, Miller packed up and headed to California in January, loading up on pre-season fitness work to ensure he’d hit the ground running in steamy Sepang, and to prepare his body for the 19-race season to come, a season where he’ll carry a reminder of last year wherever he goes.

Miller’s right leg still features a prominent scar, a legacy of the broken tibia he suffered in a training accident in his European base of Andorra late last year, and he’ll complete the entire 2018 season with eight screws and a plate in his leg before they’re removed in December. He feels the work done in the off-season paid dividends at “a bloody scorching” Sepang, and that extra fitness is sure to be put to the test in Thailand next week, when the MotoGP grid samples the Chang International Circuit for the first time ahead of Thailand’s debut GP in October.

For Miller, it’s all about leaving no stone unturned ahead of what shapes as a crucial year for him, and plenty of other riders besides. At 23 and out of contract at the end of the season, Miller knows this is the most critical year of his world championship tenure to date.

“There’s no excuses for me this year,” he says.

“It’s my fourth year now so none of this is new, I’m in a different team and on a different bike, and there’s a lot of the grid out of contract at the end of this year, including me. So it’s a big one for me to get right. I feel it’s started well and the getting used to the new bike couldn’t have gone much smoother, so definitely a case of so far, so good.

“Last year I set my goal of finishing inside the top 10 for the season and didn’t quite make it, but it’s hard to factor in things like injuries and whatnot, and I had to miss one race with the broken leg and wasn’t 100 per cent for a few of the others.

“So staying injury-free is the first goal, and breaking 100 points for the season for the first time is one too. Whatever happens after that, I’ll take it.”

Daniel Ricciardo’s 2018 season in a snapshot

The Aussie F1 ace is facing his biggest year yet – so what does the past tell us about his future?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’re six weeks from the start of the Formula One season in Melbourne, but for Daniel Ricciardo, 2018 can’t come soon enough. There’s a world championship reset to get his teeth into, and bad memories of a spluttering end to last season – he managed just eight points in the final four races to be edged for fourth overall by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen at the year’s last race in Abu Dhabi – to banish.

Out of contract at the end of the year and with a fast and feisty Red Bull Racing teammate in Max Verstappen to contend with, this season shapes as the most crucial of Ricciardo’s eight-year F1 tenure to date.

What did the 28-year-old Australian think of his 2017 campaign? What’s on his mind ahead of 2018? And what does our crystal ball tell us about the 21-race season to come, and where he’ll be at the end of it?

Here’s our preview for the Perth-born pilot.

What happened last year
The afore-mentioned end to last year was a fizzer for Ricciardo, especially compared to what came before it. In a season where Mercedes ran roughshod over the rest (again), the Red Bull ace was always there to extract the maximum possible result out of any situation, and his win in Azerbaijan after qualifying 10th was an opportunistic masterstroke, especially when mixed in with what was undoubtedly the best overtake of the season …

Ricciardo’s fifth career win in Baku was in the middle of a rich run of form, five podiums in a row coming between Spain and Austria, where he memorably held off Lewis Hamilton’s late-race charge for the rostrum. That, and finally breaking his Japan podium duck in October, were the high points, but those three retirements in the final four races (all from mechanical failures) left the season feeling a little flat.

Ricciardo’s past five seasons
2017: 200pts (5th), 2016: 256pts (3rd), 2015: 92pts (8th), 2014: 238pts (3rd), 2013: 20pts (14th).

2017: in his own words
“It was a pretty grisly way to end the season, and when it finishes like that with no decent results from the last few, there’s a tendency to think it was average. But I went back through all the races in my head … and it was pretty good in parts, really strong at some stages. I won a race, I had runs of five and three podiums in a row … there was some good stuff there.”

– Ricciardo, writing for redbull.com in December.

2017: an expert’s view
“Based purely on his peak results, 2017 was Ricciardo’s best season yet in Formula One, but he will probably be the first to admit 2017 has not been his finest year. Yes, he won a race and fell just five points shy of beating Raikkonen to fourth in the world championship, but this is the first season Ricciardo has been comfortably out-performed by a Red Bull teammate. That will hurt. Ricciardo is a conqueror of
Sebastian Vettel, and has fostered a deserved reputation for being one of F1’s best qualifiers, and classiest racers. But Ricciardo struggled to consistently hit the RB13’s sweet-spot in qualifying this year, and occasionally over-reached trying to make up for that.”

– Ricciardo’s review in Autosport’s Top 50 drivers of 2017 across all four-wheel motorsport categories, where he was ranked seventh.

Home isn’t so sweet …
Brazil (where Ricciardo has managed just 13 points in seven races) is a well-known graveyard for the Aussie, but his home race in Melbourne hasn’t been a lot letter – in six appearances at Albert Park, the home hero has scored just 22 points, retired twice, and been disqualified after finishing on the podium on his Red Bull debut in 2014. A turnaround in fortune is due …

But a second ‘home’ race is
Ricciardo has finished on the podium at 13 of the 21 Grands Prix on this year’s calendar; Singapore (71 points and four podiums in a row) is his strongest track, and not much further away from his home city of Perth than Melbourne is …

Top of the team
Ricciardo has had six F1 teammates (Narain Karthikeyan, Tonio Liuzzi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Vettel, Daniil Kvyat and Verstappen) across his 129-race career, and has only been beaten by two of them at the end of a season (Vergne by six points in 2012, Kvyat by three points in 2015).

The burning question
Forget Verstappen and pegging that qualifying deficit to his teammate from last year, forget ending his home hoodoo and forget any talk of titles; until Ricciardo’s contract for 2019 and beyond is sorted out, he’ll continue to be the focus of the F1 silly season until he decides whether he’s staying or going. With Ferrari looking to have answered the question of whether Raikkonen will be retained after this year by placing 20-year-old Ferrari-backed F2 champion Charles Leclerc at Sauber, Ricciardo is the biggest domino to fall in the driver market, and what he does will dictate other moves up and down the grid. Watch this space.

Ricciardo’s outlook
“I’ll use some people close to me as a sounding board and kick it around with some friends just to have the conversation, but I don’t like to have too many people getting involved. It has to come from me, I’m the one who has to live it. I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box, if you like. Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful – races, championships – that’s the absolute priority.”

– Ricciardo on his future

We’re predicting …
We’ll admit it: we were too optimistic in this space last year when we pegged Ricciardo as our 2017 runner-up; Red Bull’s reliability woes (Ricciardo and Verstappen retired 13 times between them last year compared to Ferrari’s combined five DNF’s and Mercedes’ one) put paid to that. From that base, a title looks a bridge too far, but a top-three title finish is in play. What happens in 2019 and beyond? Your guess is as good as ours …

What we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

The 2018 Ducati is a rocket, Honda is lurking, Miller’s pace is real, and other takeaways from three sweltering days in Kuala Lumpur.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

MotoGP, oh how we’ve missed you. The months (well, month and a bit) of silence as 2017 became 2018 were finally broken when Yamaha’s Johann Zarco became the first man to hit the track at Sepang in Kuala Lumpur last week to start the first official pre-season test of the year, and that sweet sound of 260-horsepower MotoGP engines soon filled the air as we quickly forgot about last year.

We have 19 races ahead of us between now and November, but there’s plenty that can be learned – and plenty of head-scratching as we try to decipher what’s real from what isn’t – from three days of testing at one of the world’s toughest tracks for man and machinery.

Riders sweltered, new parts were tried and tweaked, timesheets were scrutinised and conclusions were arrived at – so to that end, what did we really learn from the initial sparring that is the ‘phoney war’ of testing?

Plenty, but there were as many questions as answers as MotoGP packed up to head to Thailand for pre-season test number two from February 16-18.

1. Who looks good?

Assessing pre-season testing pace isn’t as simple as scanning a timesheet to see who’s on top and who’s not; unless you’re on the inside of a team, judging such variables as fuel loads, tyre age, how much a rider is really pushing and how much they’re leaving in the tank and a million other variables becomes a matter of joining the dots without ever knowing the full story.

The timesheets, for what they’re worth, showed us that Ducati are plenty fast – so fast in fact that Jorge Lorenzo’s final-day session-topping lap time (1min 58.830secs) was the fastest-ever lap of Sepang on two wheels, and over two-tenths of a second faster than Dani Pedrosa’s circuit-best lap on a Honda set in 2015. The long straights of Sepang play perfectly to the Ducati’s preference for tracks where straight-line grunt gets the greatest reward, and while Lorenzo was quick to temper any commentary with the usual caveat of “it’s only testing”, he couldn’t hide his delight after suffering through a winless campaign in his first year in Ducati red last season.

“The bike turns better and I can open the throttle before (earlier),” he told reporters after the final day.

“If the bike itself turns better and you can open the throttle better, you can be faster. Let’s say that during the last year, I made 80 per cent (of the difference), and now during this winter to this test, as I predicted, Ducati made the difference this time.”

What of the other manufacturers? Pedrosa topped the timesheets on day one and was just 0.179secs adrift of Lorenzo on the final day as Honda appeared to be both fast and reliable, and while Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez finished seventh overall on all three days, don’t expect the four-time and reigning world champion to be anywhere near that spot once the racing starts for real in Qatar in March, especially with LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow doing so much donkey work testing new parts for the factory.

Yamaha? Maverick Vinales led the standings after day two, and while he and factory teammate Valentino Rossi felt the 2018 version of the TZR-M1 was better than the 2017 model that proved hard to fathom, both riders knew they had plenty to do in the coming tests. One Yamaha rider who has already set out his stall for 2018 is Tech 3’s Zarco, the Frenchman confirming he’ll continue to race the 2016 Yamaha he performed on so superbly during his rookie campaign last year, opting for the greater grip offered by the ’16 bike than the extra feedback he gleaned from the ’17 model.

The other manufacturers (Suzuki, Aprilia, KTM) still look some way off the top three, but what order that top three find themselves in after the first test (and will do after the first race) remains something of a mystery.

What is more clear? The award for the hardest-working rider in Sepang, which was Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Bradley Smith. The Briton logged 77 laps on the final day alone – the equivalent of nearly four race distances – and produced his best lap of the day on the 71st of them. A big tick to his off-season fitness regimen, then.

2. There’s no going back for noses, is there?

It appears not, if some of the aerodynamic devices fitted onto the front of various bikes over the three days are any indication …

Ugly? Perhaps. But as any engineer or rider will tell you, the only truly beautiful bike is a fast one …

3. Is Jack Miller’s pace real?

It certainly appears to be. The Aussie made the switch from Marc VDS Honda to the newly-named Alma Pramac Racing squad to ride a Ducati GP17 this season, and while teammate Danilo Petrucci rode a full-factory GP18 machine to provide technical back-up for Ducati factory riders Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso at Sepang, Miller flew on the ‘old’ machine, finishing inside the top five on all three days and producing his first-ever sub two-minute lap of the circuit on day two (1:59.509), a time he lowered by another 0.163 seconds on the last day.

He had a small tip-off early on the final day, but just went faster and faster. “When we put a new tyre in I’m able to improve more and more, taking a few risks here and there but still feeling pretty much in control,” ‘Jackass’ said after the test wrapped up.

“The more I ride the bike, the more I understand it and get the feel for it.” Exciting times for the Aussie, who turned 23 in the lead-up to the test.

4. Can you push too far in testing?

Absolutely yes. There’s an old adage that you’ll never know where the limit is unless you push past it from time to time, but KTM’s Pol Espargaro might have taken that a little too far with a crash on day two that saw him rendered a spectator for the final day, leaving test rider Mika Kallio to do much of the heavy lifting for the Austrian squad. Still, to hear the Spaniard describe his off, it could have been much, much worse …

“Honestly I feel lucky … I crashed before T4 (Turn 4) under braking and hit the outside wall with plus-250km/h. Seems nothing is broken, but I feel pain,” he said.

Little wonder. The good news? He’ll be back for Thailand in a fortnight’s time, and thanking his lucky stars …

5. Is Sepang a useful testing venue?

On balance, you’d have to say yes – after all, there’s not too many circuits in chilly late-winter Europe in late January/early February that could provide track temperatures of 54 degrees …

Pre-season venues are always a compromise for teams – one of the criticisms, if you could call it that, of using Phillip Island the past two pre-seasons was that its balls-out fast and flowing layout was so atypical to the rest of the tracks on the calendar that teams left Australia wondering whether their bikes could get stopped and power out of slow-speed corners, of which the Island has precisely two.

Sepang, with its long straights leading into hairpins at the first and final corners, and its twisty middle sector where a nimble bike can make up huge slabs of time, is as good of a compromise as it gets. Even if the weather can turn upside-down in an instant.