Month: March 2018

Ricciardo did it all, but podium is still elusive

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo was due some Australian Grand Prix luck. Four years ago, the Australian finished a remarkable second on his debut for Red Bull Racing, only to be disqualified after the race when his car was deemed to have breached the sport’s fuel-flow regulations. Until Sunday, his fortunes hadn’t improved much since.

Last year, his car broke down before it even got to the starting grid, while in Friday practice for the 2018 season-opener, he was penalised three grid positions after failing to slow down sufficiently when the circuit was under red flag conditions.

While Sunday’s fourth place fell just short of the 28-year-old becoming the first Australian driver to finish on the podium at his home Grand Prix, Ricciardo was buoyed by the speed of his car after a troubled weekend when he could never match the pace of teammate Max Verstappen until race day, and happy that his poor fortune in his home race took a back seat.

Ricciardo started from eighth on the grid, but benefitted from the retirements of Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who went no further after their pit stops on lap 22 and 24 respectively after the American team failed to affix tyres correctly to their cars.

Ricciardo had been bottled up behind the Haas pair for the opening stint of the race, and with a safety car deployed to remove Grosjean’s smouldering car from the circuit, pitted for tyres and emerged in the wheeltracks of third-place Kimi Raikkonen, a podium place in his home race tantalisingly within reach.

Ricciardo attacked the Finn relentlessly in the final stages, setting the fastest lap of the race (1min 25.945secs) on lap 54 of 58, but the Ferrari driver didn’t blink, Ricciardo finishing seven-tenths of a second shy of a podium visit that looked to be a pipedream after his Friday penalty.

“It was good – we were fast at the end,” he said.

“I obviously tried to do all I could with Kimi, but it’s a tight track and tricky to overtake. But we set the fastest lap, so really good signs of things to come in the next few weeks.

“We’re very close to Ferrari’s pace, and I think we were one of the quickest cars on track today. Hopefully that’s representative going forward. We’ve still got to find pace on one lap (in qualifying), but the race pace is good.”

Ricciardo’s home Grand Prix this season came against a backdrop of speculation as to where he might drive next year, the Red Bull driver’s contract expiring at the conclusion of the 21-race campaign. As the face of the Melbourne race, he looked harried after a non-stop schedule of promotional appearances on Wednesday, sounded hoarse after a media onslaught on Thursday, and was enraged by his penalty on Friday, his team principal Christian Horner admitting that he’d never seen his typically affable driver so incensed.

That fury had barely subsided after qualifying on Saturday, and while he was pleased to get his 2018 season off the mark, the “bitter” taste from his grid penalty left him wondering what might have been.

“I was always going to leave here happy today just to race, just to get that first one over,” Ricciardo said

“It’s been a long time coming, and I feel the lead-up to that first race is so dragged out that it’s hard to try to enjoy the week leading up to it.

“I could see and touch (the podium) today and I tried to make something happen, but in the end … it would have been nice to have started further up the front.”

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Vettel exploits Mercedes miscalculation

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Once again, Lewis Hamilton was Formula One’s fastest man in Melbourne. But once again, Mercedes’ four-time world champion saw an Australian Grand Prix win slip through his fingers, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel riding his luck and making the most of a Mercedes miscalculation to take a second successive win at Albert Park on Sunday.

Hamilton had set the fastest lap in Melbourne’s 23-year F1 history in qualifying on Saturday and led for the first half of Sunday’s race, but a mid-race safety car – and quick thinking by Ferrari – saw his run of Australian outs continue.

The Briton has been on pole five years in a row for the season-opening race, but only once in that period, in 2015, has he converted Saturday speed into Sunday silverware, as Vettel won for the third time in Australia.

On pole by a whopping six-tenths of a second after his record lap in qualifying, Hamilton had the 58-lap race under control until it was turned upside down on lap 26, when a virtual safety car period was called to retrieve the stricken Haas of French driver Romain Grosjean, which had been released from its pit stop with a wheel incorrectly affixed and crawled to a halt at the exit of turn two.

The virtual safety car mandates drivers lap the track at a much slower mandatory speed, but that speed restriction doesn’t apply to the pit lane. With Mercedes miscalculating the pace Hamilton could carry under safety car conditions, Ferrari pounced.

Vettel, who had yet to make his tyre stop after running in third in the early laps, leapt into pit lane, changed tyres and was on his way before Hamilton traversed the start-finish straight.

Try as he might, the Briton couldn’t peg the gap to the Ferrari driver, running wide at turn nine with 11 laps to go and allowing Vettel the breathing space to escape to a five-second win.

“We got a bit lucky with the safety car,” Vettel admitted after his 100th F1 podium finish.

“My start didn’t really work, I lost my connection to Lewis and Kimi (Raikkonen). I was struggling with my tyres, I was praying for a safety car.”

Hamilton was crestfallen after the result, the Briton lingering in his car after returning to the pits, coming to terms with a familiar feeling of Australian déjà vu.

“We have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

“We had pace, but it’s so hard to overtake here.”

Vettel’s teammate Raikkonen, who had started alongside Hamilton on the front row of the grid, rounded out the podium, the Finnish veteran narrowly repelling the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, who missed out by seven-tenths of a second from becoming the first home driver to stand on the Australian Grand Prix rostrum.

Ricciardo’s teammate Max Verstappen, who had the measure of the Australian in every on-track session before Sunday’s race, finished behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in sixth place, the Dutchman damaging his car when he spun wildly at the first corner on lap 10 and dropped three places. He finished 21 seconds behind Ricciardo after looking set to challenge for the podium all weekend.

Penalised three grid places for a red flag infringement on Friday, Ricciardo started from eighth and made little headway in the early stages. Like Vettel, he was a beneficiary of pitting under safety car conditions, Grosjean’s retirement coming after teammate Kevin Magnussen suffered the same fate after his own pit stop, the third-year American team throwing away a significant haul of points after showing impressive speed all weekend.

With Raikkonen in his sights, Ricciardo vowed to “not let him breathe” as he closed in on the 2007 world champion in the final laps, and despite setting the fastest lap of the race with five laps remaining, he had to be content with matching his fourth place from two years ago for his best result at his home race.

Fifth was a significant result for Alonso and McLaren in its first race with Renault power after a disastrous three-year association with Honda engines, while Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, the second McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne and Hulkenberg’s teammate Carlos Sainz rounded out the top 10, Sainz struggling with nausea in the closing stages.

What happened at the Australian Grand Prix?

Ferrari gets fortunate, Mercedes makes a mess and Ricciardo nearly nabs that elusive podium – here’s what you need to know about what went down in Melbourne.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The build-up

Mercedes looked to have been saving something in reserve for the opening race of the season after pre-season testing; the only question was how much? Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton answered that emphatically in qualifying by taking pole with the fastest-ever lap around Albert Park (1min 21.164secs), which showed the gains the team has made in 12 months – he smashed his own circuit benchmark from last year by over a second. Ferrari duo Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were next, but their deficit to the front (six-tenths of a second) was sobering. Max Verstappen (fourth) was the best of the Red Bulls, local hero Daniel Ricciardo copping a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently under red flags in Friday practice (a sanction he summed up as “shithouse”) that turned his fifth in qualifying into an eighth-place start. His predicament was at least better than Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, who shunted heavily in qualifying and had to start from the back.

The race in exactly 69 words*

Hamilton had the race under control after bolting from pole, but a mid-race virtual safety car to retrieve the stricken Haas of Romain Grosjean sent his afternoon awry. Vettel made his sole pit stop and emerged ahead of the Briton, Mercedes admitting afterwards it has miscalculated how fast its driver could lap under VSC conditions. The Ferrari held sway to the flag, while teammate Raikkonen rounded out the podium.

(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

What the result means

For the second straight season, Hamilton dominated Albert Park until it really mattered, the four-time world champion’s mastery of Melbourne not reflected in his result. Vettel’s second consecutive success in Australia owed itself to cunning strategy and a smattering of luck, but nobody left the circuit on Sunday night under any illusions as to who has the fastest car on the grid. Given the opportunity to pounce, Vettel grabbed it and didn’t dare let go.

Ricciardo recap

The Australian was seven-tenths of a second behind Raikkonen at the finish for a fourth-place result, one which saw him – ever so narrowly – fail to become the first local driver to make the podium in Melbourne. Ricciardo’s race pace was mighty as the laps ticked down – he set the fastest lap overall with five laps remaining – and while 12 points to kick-start 2018 were nice, he couldn’t help but think of the penalty that so incensed him on Friday night. “I could see and touch (the podium) today and I tried to make something happen,” he said. “But in the end, it would have been nice to have started further up the front …”

For historical purposes …

Hamilton’s seventh Australian pole was a record, eclipsing the previous marker held by his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna. That was the good; what wasn’t was that five poles in as many years in Melbourne have produced just one win, back in 2015.

The number to know

12: the points scored by McLaren duo Fernando Alonso (fifth) and Stoffel Vandoorne (ninth), more than the team scored in any single Grand Prix for all of last year. Related: Melbourne was McLaren’s first race in its new alignment with Renault, its troubled three-year association with Honda engines coming to a conclusion in Abu Dhabi last season.

Under-the-radar winner(s)

Vettel was the big winner at the sharp end of the field, and McLaren’s season couldn’t have begun much better, especially when you consider both cars qualified outside of the top 10. A double-points finish for Renault duo Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz deserves praise too, especially as the latter struggled late in the race with nausea after the water pump in his car failed in the opening 15 laps.

The naughty corner

Eighth for Bottas in a car that had race-winning speed capped off a difficult weekend where he looked nowhere near Hamilton’s pace and was ragged to boot, while Toro Rosso’s start to life with Honda was a rough one, Brendon Hartley finishing 15th and last of the classified runners, and teammate Pierre Gasly retiring with – cough – an engine problem 13 laps in. But the biggest losers – given what they lost – in Melbourne were Haas, with Grosjean and teammate Kevin Magnussen both running in the top five on merit before both retired soon after their pit stops with wheels not attached correctly. A significant haul of points went begging, and the team was fined $10,000 for the pair of unsafe pit releases. Ouch, and double-ouch.

What’s next?

While the pre-season guesswork about Formula One’s pecking order now has some substance, we wait for the next two rounds, a back-to-back set in Bahrain (April 8) and China (April 15). Vettel took the honours at Sakhir last year, while Shanghai has been Mercedes territory, Hamilton winning there three years out of the past four, and a record five times in all.

The driving force behind Daniel Ricciardo

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo had no intention of talking about it. ‘It’ was an enormous tattoo that took up the entirety of his right thigh, a long-considered piece of personal artwork he’d had done in October 2013. It was something the Australian Formula One racer wanted to keep to himself – which, in a sport where little stays secret for long, he’d miraculously managed for the best part of a year.

A sultry Suzuka evening at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix blew his cover. Long after most of the inhabitants of the F1 paddock had cleared out for the night, a relaxed Ricciardo sat – in shorts – chatting after a run of the track. Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner had stayed late at the circuit for a meeting, saw his driver, and did a double-take. “How long has that been there?” enquired Horner, astonished to learn that Ricciardo had spent 12 months sweltering in long pants in public to keep his artwork private as the F1 circus criss-crossed the globe.

Ricciardo was a three-time Formula One race-winner by then, his brilliant first season at Red Bull overshadowing the results of teammate and reigning four-time champion Sebastian Vettel as the Australian made the leap from promising prospect to bona fide F1 star. But discussing the plotting of his life’s path in permanency on his body was, then, harder than taking on and beating the world’s best drivers.

“Back in 2013, when I got the tattoo done before the Indian Grand Prix that year, I was driving for Toro Rosso and still making a name for myself in F1,” he remembers.

“I just didn’t want people talking about it, ‘he thinks he’s cool now’ and all of that. I wanted to keep it private. It was about me and for me, nobody else.”

The design was complex, elaborate and a reflection of Ricciardo’s state of mind at the time, as he came to terms with what being a top-line F1 driver really meant. A tall ship, signifying the journey the one-time “reluctant traveller” he’d taken to traverse the world after venturing to Europe by himself soon after finishing school. A lighthouse, “so I’m always close to home”. A bird, taking flight to see the world from new horizons. And the two phrases he lived his life by: ‘No Regrets’ because he never wanted his F1 career to have any, ‘Only Memories’ inspired by a favourite song by British hardcore band Heart in Hand.

“I’m a Perth boy, and my heart was still close to home; I didn’t want to forget where I’d come from, but I wanted to make the most of the journey,” he says now.

“I’d left home and sacrificed a bit, so I wanted to do it properly, with no regrets and take away a lot of memories of the travel. That was the time I was starting to see more of the world and actually appreciate what it is, and how I fit into it.”

Now, Ricciardo laughs at the thought of his considered concealment – “even though it was only four years ago, there weren’t many tattoos in our sport back then,” he shrugs. While his ink-adding days are “probably done”, the next steps of the 28-year-old’s journey, short, medium and long-term, will see him in the headlines for much of this year as F1 embarks on a 21-race campaign, the longest season in the sport’s history. It’s a season that shapes as the most crucial of his career to date.

On the immediate horizon is Sunday’s season-opener at Albert Park, a circuit that has been a graveyard for Australians striving for success in their own backyard. Ricciardo’s compatriot and predecessor at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber, never unlocked the secret to conquering his home race; in a 215-race career, Melbourne was the only Grand Prix that featured for Webber’s entire 12-year F1 tenure where he never made the podium.

For Ricciardo, who makes his 130th F1 start on Sunday, Melbourne hasn’t been much better. Only Brazil (just 13 points in seven appearances) has produced a worse record than Australia (22 points in six), while his one moment in the sun, when he crossed the line second on his Red Bull debut back in 2014, was scuppered by his car being excluded for breaching the sport’s fuel flow regulations, a crestfallen Ricciardo having to hand back the second-place trophy he’d hoisted in front of a delirious crowd only hours earlier.

No Australian has ever made their home podium in 33 races between Adelaide and Albert Park. If Ricciardo is to buck that trend this weekend, he’ll likely need to repel the Ferrari of former teammate Vettel, keep pace with the all-conquering Mercedes of four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, and combat the rising tide of Dutch teammate Max Verstappen, the sport’s most exciting youngster at age 20 and the first F1 teammate who has matched – and beaten – Ricciardo on pace in equal equipment.

While Ricciardo has outscored Verstappen in the two seasons they’ve been together at Red Bull, the Dutchman out-qualified Ricciardo 13-7 in the 20 races last year, his searing one-lap speed seeing the Australian regularly sport an atypically furrowed brow on Saturdays, and starting behind him for the Grands Prix on Sundays.

Verstappen is eight years younger than Ricciardo and, last year, re-signed with Red Bull until the end of the 2020 season. It was a long-term commitment to a racer barely out of his teens that put pressure on Ricciardo, out of contract at season’s end, to raise his game to combat a driver seen as a generational talent the likes of which F1 hasn’t seen since Hamilton and Vettel debuted a decade ago.

Employing a longer lens, Verstappen’s ascension and potential, and Ricciardo’s pending free agency, has given rise to talk of a move away from Red Bull, the company that provided a financial pathway to F1 in order to make his world championship dream a reality. Before the cars had turned a wheel at Albert Park this week, Ricciardo’s voice was almost shot, a result of countless interviews answering “5000 questions” about his future, and he was relieved to strap himself into Red Bull’s RB14 machine for practice on Friday, “because it’s hard to ask me too much in there”.

The Australian won’t be lacking for options for 2019 and beyond, but the clock is ticking. On Friday, Horner said Red Bull “want to continue with him”, but added “the door is open, but it won’t stay open forever”.

If not Red Bull, where could Ricciardo go? The potential for him to become the first Australian to drive in F1 for Ferrari is a possibility, with Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen turning 39 in October and not having won a race for five years, his lack of contribution contributing to Ferrari enduring a constructors’ championship drought that stretches a decade. Vettel fuelled the fire in the Albert Park pre-race press conference when asked about a reprisal of his Red Bull partnership of 2014 with Ricciardo, saying “we get along (and) I wouldn’t mind if we get together again in the future, but I don’t know what his plans are.”

At Mercedes, which has won a staggering 63 of the 79 races since F1 dumped normally-aspirated V8 engines for V6 turbo hybrid power plants in 2014, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas has been retained for 2018 after a debut season with the team last year that produced three victories, but a third-place finish in the drivers’ championship behind Vettel in a car that was demonstrably better than the Ferrari.

Bottas, like Ricciardo, is driving to confirm his F1 future in the first half of this season, and while Mercedes has promising junior drivers like Force India’s Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings, the 21-year-old Frenchman doesn’t – yet – look ready for a seat at the sport’s benchmark team after one season in the top flight in 2017.

Ricciardo is relishing his first chance to test the F1 contract waters – “I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box,” he said late last year – but wants to shut down chatter over his future as his 2018 season takes its first fledgling steps this weekend. The early races of the season, from Sunday in Melbourne onwards, will paint a clearer picture.

“I’m going to put all those talks on hold for a while,” he says, acknowledging that will do little to quell the speculation about what’s next.

“Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful – races, championships – that’s the absolute priority.”

Wherever Ricciardo lands – and there are compelling arguments for him to return to Melbourne in 12 months’ time in any one of the sport’s three standout teams – it’ll be much harder to keep a secret this time. From Horner or anyone else.

Hamilton’s good timing stuns pit lane

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Right through Formula One’s eight days of winter testing in Spain earlier this month, Mercedes was conspicuous in its absence from the sharp end of the timesheets, world champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas rarely showing the speed most of their rivals figured they had in reserve.

In qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Saturday afternoon, Hamilton let the cat out of the bag – and it was 81 seconds that sent shudders the length of the pit lane as the Briton took his fifth pole in Melbourne in succession, and a record seventh in Australia, surpassing the tally of his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna.

Hamilton’s pole position lap of 1min 21.124secs was staggering 1.064 seconds than his circuit-record lap set at the same stage of last year’s Australian Grand Prix, and more worryingly for his rivals, six-tenths of a second faster than second-placed Kimi Raikkonen, the Finnish veteran surprisingly emerging as the fastest Ferrari qualifier, teammate Sebastian Vettel in third.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo, consigned to a three-place grid penalty from wherever he qualified after a red flag infringement in Friday practice, will start Sunday’s 58-lap race from eighth place, the 28-year-old continuing a subdued season-opening weekend at home as he finished 0.273secs slower than Red Bull Racing teammate, Max Verstappen.

Persistent rain on Saturday looked to be the one potential spanner in Hamilton’s quest for the Australian pole record, but as the skies cleared enough for qualifying to be held on a dry track, the Briton took provisional pole on his first flying lap of the final 10 minutes of qualifying despite making mistakes at three of the final four corners.

On his second lap as the chequered flag flew, Hamilton unleashed the full power of the W09 that had been kept under wraps, lopping six-tenths of a second off his best time by the halfway point and improving by eight-tenths of a second overall to leave the field in his wake.

“I’m always striving for perfection, and that’s as close as I can get,” a beaming Hamilton said.

“You would think that with the results that we’ve had over the years that this would be the norm, but it was just as intense, my heart is racing.”

While there were smiles on one side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas’ mechanics faced a long night ahead after the Finn crashed heavily at the second corner on his first lap of the top-10 shootout, backing his car into the fence on the inside of the circuit and damaging the chassis so heavily that a five-place penalty for a gearbox change – at the very least – will take him out of contention for Sunday’s race win. The Finn, retained at Mercedes on a one-year deal after an inconsistent 2017, couldn’t have had a worst start to a crucial season in a year where several top-line drivers, Ricciardo included, come off contract at its conclusion.

While Red Bull were no match for Mercedes and Ferrari over one lap in qualifying, the team showed its strategic hand by indicating it will start Sunday’s race on the more durable supersoft Pirelli tyres, which Ricciardo and Verstappen used in the second phase of qualifying. While Hamilton and the Ferrari duo will start on ultrasoft tyres and likely be quicker at the start of the race, the Red Bull pair will elect to run the faster, less durable rubber for the closing stages, banking on taking track position early when their rivals pit and being on the faster rubber at the end on a circuit where passing opportunities against a car on similar tyres are few and far between.

Ricciardo was enraged when his penalty, which came after he was found to be driving too quickly in Friday practice when a timing cable had come loose on the start-finish straight, was handed out, and the normally affable Australian hadn’t cooled down when he arrived at the circuit on Saturday ahead of qualifying.

“I think it’s shithouse, I’m pissed to say the least,” he fumed, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later commenting that he’d never seen the Australian so angry in his four years with the team.

“Yesterday’s news has been pretty bitter for me. I made a mistake, no doubt about it, but is that mistake worth a grid penalty in a practice session when no car is on track, no-one’s upside down? It was a cable on the track. I didn’t pass the incident … common sense should have prevailed.”

Ricciardo has struggled to match Verstappen’s pace in the sister Red Bull all weekend, and while he should be able to dispatch the likes of Haas pair Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who were elevated on the grid because of his penalty, with ease, his chances of a maiden podium at his home race appear slim unless Red Bull’s tyre gamble pays big dividends.

Ricciardo hit with grid penalty

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of a breakthrough first podium finish at his home Formula One race nosedived late last night, with the Red Bull driver handed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after a driving infringement in the second practice session at Albert Park.

The Australian was penalised for driving too quickly after the session had been red-flagged for a timing cable that had come loose on the start-finish straight. The red flag came as Ricciardo was completing his qualifying simulation run, his lap halted after two of the three sectors of the Albert Park circuit.

At best, Ricciardo will start Sunday’s race from fourth on the grid, should he take a second career pole in 130 starts in Friday’s qualifying.

Before the penalty it had been a quiet start to the Australian Grand Prix for Ricciardo, who was in sixth place in opening practice before spending a significant amount of time in the garage in the second session as the team changed his car’s suspension. The five-time grand prix winner finished in seventh place.

The Australian’s true pace remains a mystery after he wasn’t able to complete a low-fuel qualifying simulation run Friday afternoon, getting halfway through his best lap of the session when it was red-flagged because of the loose timing cable.

With rain forecast for Saturday’s qualifying, Ricciardo, speaking before being penalised, spied an opportunity to leap up the order.

‘‘We always enjoy some wet weather. I think it just evens everything out,’’ he said.

‘‘Today in the dry we didn’t look too bad, but the wet will give us potentially more of a chance. The last wet qualifying here was 2014 [when he qualified second]. That wasn’t too bad, so we’ll try to do that again.’’

Formula One world champions Mercedes chose to use pre-season testing in Spain this month to build bullet-proof reliability into their new W09 chassis, eschewing the temptation of chasing headline-grabbing times and leaving open the question of whether Formula One’s fastest were faster.

Was that question answered Friday at Albert Park? Yes, and no. Yes, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off last year by topping both practice sessions, but the chasing pack, led by Ricciardo’s Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, was much closer than anticipated.

Hamilton’s fastest time, a lap of one minute 23.931 seconds set midway through the 90-minute second session, was 0.127 seconds quicker than Verstappen, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas next, a further tenth of a second adrift.

Ferrari teammates Kimi Raikkonen and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel rounded out the top five, the German a deflating half a second slower than Hamilton as the Scuderia’s championship charge started with a splutter.

While Mercedes’ Bottas had several off-track excursions on an occasionally ragged day for the Finnish driver, teammate Hamilton seemed to have plenty in reserve, storming through the final sector on his fastest lap to cement top spot.

The 33-year-old Briton, who will Saturday be chasing his fifth consecutive pole position in Melbourne, went faster than his best time of last year’s first practice session with half an hour remaining Friday afternoon, mildly annoyed that he’d had ‘‘a lot of traffic on that lap’’.

While Mercedes had gone under the radar on the pre-season timesheets, it was a throwaway line by the team’s technical director James Allison after the conclusion of testing that was ominous, Allison suggesting last year’s Mercedes would be ‘‘utterly hopeless’’ compared with the W09.

Bearing in mind that last year’s car, used by Hamilton to win his fourth world title, won 60 per cent of the races and took 75 per cent of pole positions while winning the constructors’ championship in a landslide, it was a bold statement, but one Mercedes looks capable of backing up.

Mercedes looked mighty through Albert Park’s one fearsome corner combination of note, the Turn 11-12 chicane.

The Dan Diaries: All roads lead to Sunday

In his latest driver column, Daniel Ricciardo lifts the lid on how he prepares for the Australian Grand Prix – and how he makes every minute count in the lead-up to lights out.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

G’day. Had a good week? Mine’s been pretty busy, but you probably knew that already. The first race of the year is always full-on, but add in the fact it’s my home race, I’ve been asked (give or take) about 5000 times about my contract for next year, people are excited because we’ve looked good in testing … it’s been an intense few days. But we’ve had heaps of fun too. The highlight: probably the drifting I got to do with Mad Mike Whiddett at the track on Wednesday. Now that was cool. I’ve done a fair few laps of Albert Park but never as sideways and with as much smoke as that. Awesome.

You’ve obviously seen a lot of what I get up to before we hit the track, but I wanted to pull back the curtain a bit to show you what happens once a weekend starts and we’re not in the car. Obviously, everything in F1 runs to the minute and everything is on such a precise time schedule, but you all know that already. Off the track? Everyone prepares differently, but I know what works for me.

Take Saturday, after qualifying for example. The race will be 22 hours away at that stage, but I can already tell you – pretty much exactly – what I’ll do between getting out of the car in parc ferme on Saturday and the lights going out on Sunday.

A few minutes after we’ve finished qualy on Saturday, there’s press commitments to do, and then it’s straight into an engineering debrief. During that time I’m always hungry because you’ve been managing your food intake before qualifying, so I’ll usually eat then. I get fairly particular as to what I want to eat too – I don’t want anything that will take energy away, something I’ll be tempted to eat too much of, something that will stop me feeling hungry but not put weight on or leave me feeling a bit sluggish. Later in the season, when it gets easier to manage the weight and I’m, say, more race-fit, then I can relax a bit more on that. But I don’t want anything too heavy that’s going to affect my sleep, for example. Maybe being that specific isn’t for everyone, but I’ve learned over the years what works for me, so I stick to it.

During that post-qualy debrief, we talk a little bit of strategy for Sunday so I can begin to get my head around how we might approach the race, pit stops, tyres and so on. It’s that stage that you start to distance yourself mentally from qualifying. By then, it’s done, there’s no point celebrating a good result or beating yourself up for a bad one – there’s no points for that, and the focus needs to switch to Sunday pretty quickly. I’ll get into some long-run data we’ve collected over the weekend and get my head set into race mode. After the weekend, I might have more of a look back at my qualifying lap, but on Saturday, no.

When I leave the circuit, I’ll do anything I can to get my head out of racing and F1 generally for the rest of the night. Sometimes I’ll drive from the track to the hotel, but sometimes my trainer Michael does. A big circuit-breaker for me either way is that I control the music in the car – that’s a non-negotiable! I’m trying to get better at not spending too much time buried in my phone other than maybe a social media post. I’ll sleep better if I don’t, so let’s say I’m working on that. I’m not reading articles about F1 either – ‘Ricciardo did a sick lap’ or ‘Ricciardo sucked at qualifying’ or whatever. I prefer to keep things quiet. Back to the hotel, and then I’ll talk about anything other than F1, maybe watch a movie, just to switch off. That’ll help me sleep.

Melbourne can be a tricky race as it starts at roughly 4pm, so that’s a long time to be awake from Sunday morning and trying to time your energy levels to peak at the right time. I generally sleep relatively well (see, the technology ban is kinda working) but there’s the temptation to get up too early, which I definitely did in the past. Now, I’ll force myself to lay in bed for a bit even if I’m not sleeping, sort of letting my thoughts drift. You get so little time to yourself on race day when your time really is your time, so I tend to take some early on in my day. I’m big on stretching when I do get up, because you’ll always be a bit stiff from the day before, especially the way these cars are now with the higher corner speeds.

When you get to the track, you have to make sure you have some energy to expend with everything that’s going on, but being careful at the same time to keep a lid on it. You have sponsor appearances, some media, maybe an autograph session … there’s a lot going on. Three hours from race start, we have our strategy meeting, and that’s the start of the final phase of my preparation and getting my brain in the right space.

The final part comes from the drivers’ parade, which is 90 minutes before the race starts. From here, what I do is literally scripted into five-minute blocks, making sure I time that spike in energy that I want for the start of the race. It’s not 90 minutes of preparation though, because you need 15 minutes to do the parade, and then the pit lane opens 30 minutes before the race. You have about 35 minutes to yourself. It’s the part of the weekend I get very particular about.

It’ll be just me and my trainer in my drivers’ room, doors closed, no outside people at all. I’ll do a stretch, some warm-up exercises, and I have specific music for specific situations. I don’t have a set pre-race playlist that I dive into, but I’ll start slow and then build it up to something more intense before I get in the car. And then it’s time to go get it!

I’m a sponge with what other people do to prepare for their sports, and that has definitely shaped how I prepare for mine. Everyone knows I love UFC and I always get fascinated with how those guys prepare, because you can take the completely opposite approach to achieve the same goal. Some of them go the macho face and really hyper, and others will be more chilled, laugh and keep it light. I always notice things like that and am happy to try a few; some have worked, some haven’t.

Regardless of how I prepare, I’ll always take a moment to myself on the grid to soak it up, take in the crowd, the atmosphere, the intensity of it all. It’s so, so cool. Those final 10 minutes when you’re on the grid, everyone’s ready, the heart rate is rising – they’re the most intense 10 minutes of the whole weekend, and that never gets old for me. As intense as that moment is, it’s also beautiful.

So that’s how I prepare for Sunday. What will happen after Sunday if I get a good result? Even a win? C’mon, some things have to stay behind closed doors …