Australian Grand Prix

Bottas almost speechless after ‘race of my life’

After a year where he was an afterthought at Mercedes, an off-season of introspection saw Valtteri Bottas return to Melbourne as a new man.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

For most of 2018, Valtteri Bottas was the ‘other’ guy at Mercedes as the German Formula One giant stormed to its fifth consecutive world championship. Where teammate Lewis Hamilton won 11 Grands Prix and annexed a fifth world title, Bottas failed to take a single race victory to add to the three he won in his first season at Mercedes in 2017, and seemed set for another campaign as Hamilton’s wingman after qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Saturday.

Fast-forward 24 hours, and a season-opener that defied all logic from pre-season testing, where Ferrari looked to have Mercedes’ measure, took another unexpected twist after Bottas blitzed pole-sitter Hamilton off the line into the first corner and wasn’t seen for dust thereafter, the Finn winning his fourth F1 race by 20.8 seconds, leaving Hamilton and the rest of the field in his wake.

The victory margin was greater than in any other Grand Prix last year, and with the lead Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel finishing fourth and a whopping 57 seconds adrift, was the full stop on a season start that ripped the form book to shreds.

Bottas is something of an anomaly compared to his Finnish compatriots who have come before him in F1; the loquacious 29-year-old doesn’t speak in monosyllables like two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen, or the similarly-taciturn Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen. But after Sunday’s race, Bottas was at a loss to find the right words to explain his dominance, where he wrapped up 25 points for the win and a bonus point for the fastest lap of the race, set on the 57th lap of the 58-lap distance.

“We saw the raw pace in qualifying as a team with the big margin to Ferrari, but today the race pace was strong, a lot stronger than what we expected coming into this weekend,” Bottas said.

“I don’t know what to say … I don’t know what happened. It’s definitely the best race I’ve had in my life. The car was feeling so good today and it was truly enjoyable.”

“When you are on it, it feels so easy, even if it’s not.”

Last year was anything but easy for Bottas, who was comprehensively out-performed by Hamilton in equal machinery after his season had a stuttering start in Melbourne, a crash in qualifying getting his campaign off on the wrong foot. An unlucky puncture in sight of a race win in Azerbaijan in round four took the wind out of his sails, and by season’s end, he scored just 247 points to Hamilton’s 408, finished on the podium eight times to his teammate’s 17, and only managed to out-perform the Briton in qualifying six times in 21 races.

That lop-sided suite of statistics prompted an off-season of soul-searching for the Finn, and the early returns on that introspection are positive.

“It’s difficult to explain what has been going on here inside my head last winter; something changed in terms of the way I feel about things, in life in general and in racing,” he said.

“Every year you learn as a person about yourself, what works for you, what doesn’t work for you.

“How you rest, how you spend your free time, how you do the training and how much, those kinds of things. You just try to optimise everything for this year, try to maximise every single thing that is possible.”

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Home race curse strikes Ricciardo again

Within metres of his first start for Renault, the Australian’s chances of a strong showing at his home race had been scuppered.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

The opening lap of the Australian Grand Prix is typically one of the more fraught moments of any Formula One season; with drivers rusty from not having started a race for four months, a tight entry into the first corner and rookies mixed in with experienced rivals in the midfield, Albert Park’s first turn contains trapdoors and trip wires ready to ruin a driver’s start to their year. “Everyone’s going to be keen down into turn one,” Daniel Ricciardo said on Saturday, working out where best to attack the first corner of the year from 12th on the grid. Thanks to a launch that was almost too good, Ricciardo didn’t even get there before his home race curse struck again.

For the past five years of his career, Red Bull gave Ricciardo wings; in his Renault debut on Sunday, the 29-year-old lost his within seconds of the lights going out to start the season, squeezed onto the trackside grass by a slow-starting Sergio Perez (Racing Point) in front of him and running over a service road at the pit lane exit, launching his car briefly skywards, ripping off its front wing and forcing him to limp back to the pits for a replacement. Within seconds, a race that had been highly anticipated since Ricciardo dropped the bombshell last August that he’d be leaving Red Bull for Renault was effectively over.

With the right-hand side of his car heavily damaged from his wild ride across the grass, Ricciardo persevered for 30 laps before the team retired his car for precautionary reasons, broken bargeboards on the right-hand side of his Renault reducing the downforce levels and causing excessive tyre wear.

Ricciardo, who quickly retreated into Renault’s hospitality area after the race as he attempted to hide his disappointment, said the non-finish left him “flat” after a hectic build-up to his home race.

“I feel like it’s hard to get things going well here, but today I feel that was pretty unlucky,” he said.

“I put two wheels in (the grass), and next thing there’s a massive gutter ditch there. Sergio’s start wasn’t great, and I had a bit of a run. He made a little flinch, you see him move so I moved, and the next thing I’m on the grass. Because he was still in front at the time, you just follow his initial reaction. When I touched the grass, I wasn’t too concerned because I thought I’d just drive through it. But then the ditch was there, and that was it.”

The non-finish continues Ricciardo’s wretched record at his home race, where the wait continues for an Australian to finish on the podium. Sunday’s retirement was his third in eight starts in Melbourne, while his one result of note, when he finished second on his Red Bull debut in 2014, ended in heartbreak after his car was disqualified from second place following the podium ceremony for breaching the sport’s fuel-flow regulations. A pair of fourth-place finishes, in 2016 and 2018, remain the best of a bad lot.

Ricciardo’s move away from Red Bull, where he won seven Grands Prix in 100 races with the four-time world champion team, to Renault pitched the Australian into a midfield pack he’s barely seen since he drove for Toro Rosso in 2011-12. Only once in the past five Albert Park races had Ricciardo started from outside the top 10 before Sunday; after missing the top-10 shootout for pole position by 0.038secs on Saturday, he learned first-hand the perils of the midfield 24 hours later, his hopes of a strong first race for Renault quashed within seconds.

Ricciardo being at the back of the pack so early in the race gave the new rules for 2019 designed to aid overtaking – namely wider and less complex front wings and larger rear wings to allow cars behind to trail the opponent in front more easily – an instant test, but even with an undamaged car, his chances of making big inroads towards the top 10 were always going to be limited at a track that featured only five on-track passes in 58 laps a year ago.

Ricciardo is renowned as one of the boldest and bravest overtakers in F1, but the 5.3km of asphalt that snakes its way around Albert Park lake is a flowing, twisty circuit for the drivers to enjoy, but is a notoriously difficult layout on which to pass, even in a fully-functioning machine.

Australian fans are clearly prepared to be patient and support Ricciardo as he takes his fledgling steps with his new team, with Albert Park dressed this year in a sea of Renault yellow as fans of the Perth product opened their lungs as well as their wallets to support him.

For the first time since 2006, when Mark Webber was in his second and final season with Williams, Red Bull Racing didn’t field an Australian driver at Albert Park, Webber’s retirement in 2013 opening to door for Ricciardo to take his place.

While the crowds flocked to the Albert Park circuit on a picture-perfect autumn day – event organisers said the estimated attendance of 102,000 was the biggest on race day for six years – they left knowing that Ricciardo’s quest to lift Renault from the front of the midfield into the fight with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull at the front will be a slow burn, Ricciardo’s teammate Nico Hulkenberg finishing in seventh place, and more than a minute behind third-placed Max Verstappen.

Great Briton, greatest ever?

Lewis Hamilton first offered a sign that he could be something special one corner into his first Grand Prix; since, his speed and sense of timing could soon see him become the best driver in F1 history.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

What if you could be both lucky and good? Lewis Hamilton has emphatically proved himself to be the latter; 73 Formula One wins and five world titles have this Great Briton on the podium in any conversation debating the ‘best-ever’ question in the world’s highest-profile motorsport category.

But fortunate? If being in the right place at the right time is any indicator of success, Hamilton is the modern-day master of F1; combine ferocious talent with infallible timing, and the result is a period of dominance that, by the end of 2019, the 70-year story of the sport may have never seen.

Mercedes arrived in Melbourne for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix with Ferrari in its crosshairs; not just at the first race of the year, after the Scuderia established itself as the team to beat after 2019 pre-season testing in Barcelona last month, but in the sport’s history books. From 1999-2004, a Michael Schumacher-led Ferrari led the famous Italian team on a red rampage, annexing six F1 constructors’ titles and five drivers’ championships in succession to turn what had been a ‘big three’ along with Williams and McLaren into a one Prancing Horse race.

By the end of this season, Hamilton and the Silver Arrows can match that haul, and in a manner that could see the 34-year-old on the way to overhauling Schumacher-set records that seemed unattainable when the German great took the chequered flag for the final time at the end of 2012. Or were they?

It took all of 249 metres, the distance from the start-finish line to the first corner at Albert Park, for Hamilton to offer a portent of what might follow in his Grand Prix debut in Melbourne in 2007. The McLaren rookie turned heads when he qualified fourth on Saturday; fast-forward 24 hours, and Hamilton finished on the podium in third, ambushing McLaren teammate and reigning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso into the tight first turn, his first corner of his first lap of his first F1 race. Even now, it’s a memory that Hamilton holds dear.

“I remember the build-up to the Grand Prix and all the pressure, so in that way the first corner couldn’t have gone better,” he said.

“If I’d started first, it wouldn’t have been as epic. I started fourth, went back to fifth, and came out third into turn one, and overtook the two-time world champion at the time. As a rookie, it couldn’t have been better.

“I thought there was no way to stay inside so I went left, and managed to out-brake everyone and get a couple of places.

“I had Fernando behind me for a long time and it’s pretty tough when you have a two-time champion behind you, especially in the first race.

“In many ways that was the first stepping stone to being where I am today, the first chapter of the story. To be in F1 is a dream, but to go in your first race and have a third is something that you don’t expect.”

As he prepares to start his 13th Formula One season this afternoon, Hamilton has every reason to expect that – and more – after being the lynchpin of Mercedes’ masterclass ever since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for V6 turbo hybrid power plants in 2014.

Today’s cars are the fastest, if not the loudest, in F1 history, and Hamilton has used his to devastating effect over the past five years, which have yielded four championships to add to his sole success at McLaren in 2008. He’s rapidly assembling a set of statistics that make for depressing reading for the rest of the field.

Of the 100 races contested since the new era dawned in Melbourne 2014, Mercedes has won 74, Hamilton taking 51 of them. For context, Alain Prost, the French great who won four world titles, won 51 in his entire career. Prost’s bitter rival Ayrton Senna, the driver who inspired Hamilton as a karting prodigy and whose striking yellow helmet colour the Briton adopted when he made it to F1, won 10 fewer Grands Prix before his death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

Prost, like Senna, did plenty of his winning for McLaren, the once-great team that has fallen on hard times after – and perhaps not coincidentally – Hamilton left for Mercedes at the end of the 2012 season. That 2012 finale in Brazil, won by Hamilton’s teammate and compatriot Jenson Button, was the most recent of McLaren’s 182 Grand Prix victories; not since Australia 2014, where Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification opened the door for Button to join rookie teammate Kevin Magnussen on the podium, has a McLaren driver finished a single race inside the top three.

McLaren has used Mercedes, Honda and now Renault engines in the years since Hamilton’s departure and re-employed double world champion Alonso after his stint at Ferrari went sour in 2014, but has taken a pair of podium finishes in the time Hamilton has amassed 85 top-three results and four championships, the two British giants heading in opposite directions.

Hamilton equalled Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio as a five-time world champion last year, an achievement that left the often-loquacious Mercedes man struggling to find the right words, while praising the efforts of his team to help him match the sport’s earliest maestro.

“When you think of Fangio, who for me is the godfather of racing drivers, he had five world championships and I have five as well … it doesn’t connect at the moment,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel real, but I am humbled and grateful to all the people around me, because there have been a lot of them along the journey.

“I feel like I can drive anything and I feel I can take the car to places that nobody else can, but to do that, you have to get the car in the right place. That means you’ve got to work with the team, help unleash what’s great within them so that you can unleash the greatness in yourself.”

Can that greatness eventually become greatest? Nico Rosberg, who retired immediately after edging teammate and former childhood friend Hamilton to the world title in 2016, cast his mind towards Schumacher’s 91 victories and seven titles the moment Hamilton took his fifth crown in Mexico last October.

“He can seriously go for Schumacher’s records now,” Rosberg, who now works as a pundit for Sky Sports in the UK, said.

“He’s got two more years on the contract, and ‘Schumi’ is only two titles away, under 20 race wins away. That’s possible in two years.

“It’s amazing. He can really try to become statistically the best of all-time, which is unreal. But it is a possibility, and I’m sure he’s going to be motivated by that.”

Pole for Hamilton, anguish for Ricciardo

Mercedes world champion experiences the joy of six in Melbourne, while Renault’s local hope misses the top 10 by the slimmest of margins.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

The more things change, the more they stay the same in Formula One in Melbourne; after an off-season of regulation changes concocted to slow the cars down, altered driver line-ups throughout the grid and Ferrari laying down a formidable marker in pre-season testing, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again stepped to the fore when it mattered on Saturday, the five-time world champion taking his sixth consecutive Albert Park pole position.

Now for the tough part; converting it when it counts.

After leading all three practice sessions in the lead-up to qualifying, Hamilton went to a new level when it counted on Saturday afternoon, his eighth Melbourne pole setting a new circuit record, a 1min 20.486sec lap coming with his final blast as the chequered flag fell.

Hamilton’s eighth Australian pole matches Ayrton Senna’s eight poles at Imola and Michael Schumacher’s eight at Suzuka for the most poles by one driver at one circuit in F1 history.

For all of that speed, the 34-year-old Briton has won just twice in Australia; in a period of dominance where Hamilton has won 51 of the 100 races since the advent of F1’s V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, the Mercedes man has won just once (2015) here in the past five years.

On the strength of Saturday’s showing, Hamilton’s rivals will have to hope his love-hate relationship with Albert Park extends for another year.

“Coming from winter testing we had no idea where we would be,” Hamilton said.

“I felt good that we had a decent package to work with, but we were aware that we might be slightly behind (Ferrari). From then to now we have not changed the car, we have understood it more. It’s a real shock, when you look at the GPS and the mid-speed corners, and the data from Barcelona. I am really, really grateful for where our car is … the guys at the factory have been working so hard.”

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, who played second-fiddle at Mercedes last year after not winning a race while Hamilton took 11 victories, was just 0.112secs adrift after taking provisional pole before Hamilton’s late improvement.

While Mercedes were exultant, Ferrari was left crestfallen after its pre-season pace from testing in Barcelona proved to be a false dawn. Sebastian Vettel was third on the grid, but light years behind his long-time title foe Hamilton, the German finishing over seven-tenths of a second adrift.

New Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc was fifth and nearly a full second behind Hamilton, the two Ferraris split by a last-gasp lap by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who slotted his Honda-powered machine into fourth place, but half a second from pole.

“I am certainly surprised, everyone is, probably even themselves,” Vettel said of Mercedes’ pace.

“There’s homework for us to do to understand. We should be better than this, but tomorrow is a new day. The gap is there today, it was a surprise, we didn’t expect it coming here.

“I don’t think the straight line (speed) is a problem, I think we are just losing in the corners.”

For Verstappen’s former teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, qualifying came to an agonising end, the Renault driver missing the final top-10 shootout for pole by just 0.038secs, meaning he’ll start Sunday’s 58-lap race from 12th on the grid. The 29-year-old was out-paced by new teammate Nico Hulkenberg by 0.008secs, but there were few smiles at Renault after last year’s fourth-best team failed to have one of its drivers make Q3.

Mercedes and midfield team Haas were the only teams to not switch one or both drivers over the off-season, while new rules brought in for 2019 mandating wider, higher front wings and more simplified rear wings hoped to reduce downforce and make the cars slower, and easier for drivers to follow one another in an attempt to overtake. Ferrari estimated before the pre-season that cars would initially be slowed by 1.5secs per lap as the teams got their heads around regulations, but nobody clearly told Mercedes, Hamilton’s pole lap was nearly seven-tenths of a second faster than the fastest lap of the 5.3km Albert Park layout he set in qualifying 12 months ago.

While Hamilton’s lap confirmed theories that Mercedes had been keeping its powder dry in pre-season testing, Vettel and Ferrari could take some solace in the fact that race day is what counts, and the Scuderia has shone on Sundays in Australia for the past two years, Vettel winning both races.

Last year’s race featured just five on-track overtakes in 58 laps, suggesting that winning pole is more than half the battle, but Vettel jumped Hamilton in the pits during a mid-race safety car period to steal his fourth victory in Australia.

Ricciardo, like his former Red Bull teammate Vettel, will be pinning his hopes on race day, and his Melbourne history suggests he has reason to be optimistic. In every race he’s completed at home, he’s finished ahead of where he started, and Renault’s encouraging long-run pace in Friday practice should see him aiming for solid points in his first race for a new team in six years.

“Half a tenth (of a second), you can always find that as a driver, so I blame myself before I blame the car,” Ricciardo said, explaining that he didn’t feel he had the necessary grip to really attack Albert Park’s tricky first corner on his final qualifying lap.

“I just felt the tyres were a bit cold; opening the lap I didn’t really have that much confidence getting into turn one, so I lost the time there. In hindsight, I think the grip was there to go quicker. It’s always painful when you know you haven’t got 100 per cent out of it.

“I race first and foremost for myself, but part of me was bummed for the crowd. I know they would have loved to see me in Q3, and I came up short for them.”

While matching his career-best result in Australia with a fourth place appears to be a bridge too far for Ricciardo in Sunday’s race, he’s bullish that he can move forward.

“I definitely think we can be in the points, points plural rather than a point, so better than 10th. I think we have the car for it; if we could have got into Q3, we had a car good enough for eighth today. That’s what we’ll target in the race.”

‘Perhaps the love just wasn’t there’: Ricciardo opens up on move

As he morphs into one of Formula One’s elder statesmen, Daniel Ricciardo is ready to lead – and knows he’s now driving for a team where he can.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo was that “young kid” once. When the Australian Formula One driver gathered with his peers on the Albert Park grid for the annual start-of-season photo before his Melbourne debut in 2012, he tried to play it cool, but his eyes didn’t lie. ‘There’s Michael Schumacher,’ Ricciardo thought as the German great took his seat in the front row. To Schumacher’s left was two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. Compatriot Mark Webber flanked the Spaniard. Former (and future) world champions Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg plopped down onto seats in front of the 22-year-old.

Fast-forward to next weekend’s 2019 F1 season-opener in Melbourne, and two-thirds of the drivers assembling for this year’s version of that same ‘school photo’ will be younger than the Australian. Ricciardo turns 30 in July, and those advancing years have brought perspective, built maturity and unlocked a feeling that the time to complete himself as a driver is now. Ricciardo, who will make his debut for new team Renault in Melbourne after shocking the F1 establishment by walking away from Red Bull Racing last year, knows he’s ready to lead. It was an opportunity he was never going to get by staying put.

“There’s more of a chance for me to do that at Renault,” Ricciardo tells Fairfax Media in a break from pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, fiddling with a stiff new team cap that doesn’t quite fit just yet.

“Coming here, people know a little of what I’m like, but they don’t really know me. People in this team now are meeting me as a 29-year-old, where a lot of people (at Red Bull) met me as the 20-year-old young kid.

“I’m not saying they treated me like a kid from then on, but they knew me as a kid, more what I used to be than what I eventually became. That’s why I have more opportunity here to create something.

“To think that you’ve got the chance to lead a team of, say, 1000 people, it’s intimidating and exhilarating at the same time. To think that you could have that much power is humbling, but I do acknowledge that I have some power to rally people together. The first thing I needed to do was recognise that I could have a lot of influence. I’m excited to take that on.”

Cyril Abiteboul is Renault’s Formula One managing director and the youngest team principal in the sport, the 41-year-old charged with spearheading the French company’s return as a fully-fledged chassis and engine manufacturer four years ago. More than a decade on from Alonso ending the red reign of Schumacher and Ferrari in 2005-06, Renault has made steady progress as it morphs from being an engine supplier to other teams to a constructor in its own right, and Abiteboul sees the arrival of the seven-time Grand Prix winner as something that “is igniting the mixture” as it attempts to muscle in on the fight at the front.

“It’s been an exceptional reaction … there was a storm of applause, everyone was over the moon,” Abiteboul says of Ricciardo’s signature.

“It was huge news and a surprise because other people were not expecting that. It is a huge moment for us. It gave us a boost of motivation and some pride for the staff.”

How has Ricciardo’s arrival changed things at Renault? Abiteboul points to the reaction of his workforce when Ricciardo, along with new teammate Nico Hulkenberg, visited the team’s factory at Enstone in England just before pre-season testing commenced. As Ricciardo made his way towards the front of the room through a sea of staff, the applause and enthusiasm for a driver who had yet to turn a wheel in a Renault was “something I didn’t see coming”.

“It was a fantastic moment,” Abiteboul says.

“Daniel has a generosity of personality and he’s a smiler, and that to me is a sign of what he’s prepared to give to people. He has the type of personality that makes people want to work harder to please him, to make his car faster, and for the team to progress faster. He is a driver you are desperate to work flat-out for.

“He’s one of the few guys on the grid who is not just for himself, about himself. Not everyone has a driver that that, so when you have one who does, it can uplift a team.”

Physically and mentally, a rebooted Ricciardo will arrive in Melbourne with his trademark bounce back in his step, the memories of a trying last year in Red Bull colours well and truly in the rear-view mirror. This time last year, with a chance to explore F1’s version of free agency for the first time, Ricciardo was peppered with questions about who he’d be driving for the following year before the season at hand had even started, which barely abated thereafter.

Ricciardo concedes that, by wanting to explore every possible option that was available and “do the contract thing properly”, he may have inadvertently added to his stress levels. After his 2018 season started so brightly with two victories in the opening six races, he couldn’t want to turn the page after it spluttered to a meek sixth-place finish in the world championship.

After a year where he admitted to being “exhausted and jaded”, Ricciardo returned to Perth in December, aiming to recapture the energy that he felt the lingering contract negotiations and the way his Red Bull tenure ended sapped from him the longer the season went.

Ricciardo failed to finish eight of the 21 Grands Prix last year, seven of them with mechanical failures as unreliability blighted his side of the Red Bull garage. But it was the one race where he didn’t see the chequered flag for reasons other than his car breaking down that brought his future into sharper focus.

In last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Ricciardo and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen fought furiously for much of the race, which came two weeks after Ricciardo had capitalised on a Verstappen error to scythe through the field to win in Shanghai. The Red Bull teammates repeatedly banged wheels and swapped paint before a seemingly inevitable collision with 12 laps remaining, Verstappen chopping across the front of Ricciardo on the high-speed run to the first corner, eliminating both cars on the spot. Red Bull management scolded both drivers equally, demanding they front up to the team’s UK factory to apologise to the team’s staff.

With Ricciardo already weighing up whether to stay at Red Bull or look to pastures new, the incident – both its timing and the reaction to it – gave him plenty to ponder. The Baku clash wasn’t a “deal-breaker”, but it was significant.

“I struggled to let that go, the whole race and the aftermath,” he says.

“That played a part in my decision. I never really felt the same after that. As soon as I crashed into him, part of me felt ‘you guys deserved this, that was a shitshow’. If the roles were reversed, if I’d been in front and moved twice in the braking area and he’d run up the back of me, would things have been handled the same way? It was a question I kept coming back to.

“The team treated us as both equally at fault in that situation, where I think deep down they knew that it was their mistake and Max’s mistake. A lot of things didn’t sit well.”

Before and after their Baku clash, Ricciardo and Verstappen got along amicably off-track, but as Ricciardo’s contract negotiations lingered, he wondered what the future might look like if he re-signed, given the Dutchman was entrenched at Red Bull until the end of 2020.

“There was nothing physical – it’s not like Max had, say, a better or newer front wing than me,” Ricciardo explains.

“But he committed to the team for so long so early and signed such a big deal, and there was a feeling for me that the team was thinking ‘he’s put more faith in us than you have, and you’re taking so long to negotiate’. Perhaps Red Bull thought ‘you’re not going to go anywhere else’, but I think that’s the wrong mentality. I felt like I had to work too hard to justify what I wanted, and what the performances I’ve had say I should be worth. Perhaps the love just wasn’t there.”

Ricciardo repeatedly references the honesty, simplicity and transparency of his contract discussions with Abiteboul and Renault as a key factor in eventually signing a two-year deal with the team last August. After a fraught year on-track and a mentally draining one off it, the lack of clutter, a clarity of focus and an absence of historical baggage appealed.

“I don’t look back on it negatively, it gave me all my milestones in F1,” he says of his time at Red Bull.

“At Red Bull, every year is ‘this is going to be our year’ … the risk of being disappointed or let down is naturally higher. I joined them after the team won four world titles, so before I got there, I thought I was going to have a world championship car. For five years, that wasn’t the case. From that point of view there’s less risk coming into this, because there’s more room for us to grow.”

It’s growth Abiteboul feels Ricciardo can fast-track for Renault.

“It was up to us to come to him and explain our situation, and I think it was part of what he liked about our style and our approach, our attitude and how we manage the drivers. Maybe that’s a change from what he was used to,” Abiteboul says.

“Already I see he is someone who doesn’t impose himself; he will prove himself with his results and his actions rather than saying ‘I am the leader’ and making a big statement. This is one of the things we like so much about him coming here. There is a fantastic opportunity to be seized and room for a leader to emerge at Renault, and that’s one of the reasons we went for Daniel.”

F1 2018: Who was best in class?

Who stood up and shone? Who stumbled backwards or stuttered? It’s time for our top 10 drivers of the F1 season.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’re making a list, checking it twice … no, not that one, even if it is December. The final month of the year finally hears Formula One engines fall silent after the equal-longest season in the sport’s 69-year history, and for some drivers (Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, for example), more Grands Prix (to extend his run of five straight podiums to end the year) would probably be welcomed. But the off-season does give us cause for pause and a chance to reflect on who and what was good in 2018 – and who underwhelmed or went missing when it mattered. Which is where we came in.

In this space this time last year, we ran the rule over the grid to come up with our top five drivers of 2017. Halfway through this one; a report card that handed out the mid-season grades (and who needed to do their homework or stay back after school for extra detention). This time, we’re changing tack.

From the 20 drivers who lined up for the start of season school photo in Australia in March, we had a statistical anomaly this year – those same 20 drivers also posed for the end-of-year shot in Abu Dhabi last month, the first time in F1 history the same grid that started the season also finished it. But forget 20 – it’s a top 10 list for the season that’s of interest, and begs questions of how to arrive at one.

What were the expectations for each driver (and their teams) heading into 2018, and did they exceed those relative to their teammates, and the opposition? Who had outsize results in cars not worthy of them, or who squandered points and podiums in machinery that was superior? And do the final standings for 2018 tell the complete truth, or is context more important than counting points?

Before we reveal the top 10, two honourable mentions to those who just missed. Kevin Magnussen was comfortably the best Haas driver of the season for a fledgling team that finished a heady fifth in the constructors’ championship, and the Dane had his best season yet, scoring 56 points to finish ninth overall. A better year than teammate Romain Grosjean, but not one that slid him into our top 10. And Carlos Sainz, who finished right behind Magnussen in 10th after a strong sixth-place showing to wrap up his Renault tenure in Abu Dhabi, missed out by a whisker as he prepares to head to McLaren for 2019. Both tough, tough omissions … but if 10 make it, 10 have to miss.

So who made the cut? From 10 to 1, let’s count them down – the best F1 drivers of the class of 2018, and why.

10. Fernando Alonso

2018 summary
11th in world championship (50 points), best result 5th (Australia), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Was Abu Dhabi, where Alonso performed a series of celebratory donuts on the start-finish straight after the race with fellow multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, really the last time we’ll see the Spaniard in F1? We don’t know that for certain, but what 2018 taught us was that Alonso got everything he could out of a McLaren that, by season’s end, was the second-slowest car. He scored 50 of the team’s 62 points, and outqualified teammate Stoffel Vandoorne 21-0, the first driver to whitewash his teammate since … Alonso himself (Nelson Piquet Jr in 2008). Of those 50 points, 32 came in the first five races as he preyed on the customary early-season unreliability of rivals, taking a yard when an inch was on offer. Fifth in race one of 2018 in Australia was the best he could do all season. Let’s hope we see him again; how much better would F1 be if Alonso was sharing the same piece of track with Hamilton and Vettel on merit, not for nostalgic purposes?

9. Sergio Perez

2018 summary
8th in world championship (62 points), best result 3rd (Azerbaijan), 1 podium, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Perez is the answer to what will eventually become a trivia question from 2018; by taking third in Baku, the Mexican was the only driver not from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull to stand on the podium all season (Azerbaijan 2017, where Lance Stroll finished third for Williams, is the only other race in the past two seasons to end likewise, a stat fact F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn calls “unacceptable”). Nearly one-quarter of Perez’s points came on that one crazy afternoon in Azerbaijan, and while he’s a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to pick up the crumbs thanks to his tyre-conserving style, his qualifying deficit to Racing Point Force India teammate Esteban Ocon (16-5) costs him a spot in our rankings from where he finished.

8. Charles Leclerc

2018 summary
13th in world championship (39 points), best result 6th (Azerbaijan), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
How good was Leclerc’s rookie season? Not since Verstappen (49 points for Toro Rosso in 2015) have we seen a newcomer this polished, and what made his maiden campaign all the more impressive was that he was driving for Sauber, which finished dead last in the constructors’ championship the year prior. The Swiss squad’s jump to eighth can be primarily pinned on the composed 21-year-old, who ended the year with a trio of seventh-place finishes on the bounce in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the best realistic results on offer behind the sport’s ‘big three’ teams. A brighter spotlight awaits as Vettel’s teammate at Ferrari, but nothing we’ve seen so far suggests it should bother him. Put your hard-earned on him becoming F1’s 108th race winner sometime next season.

7. Nico Hulkenberg

2018 summary
7th in world championship (69 points), best result 5th (Germany), 14 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Seventh overall, seventh on our list, seven races started from seventh place on the grid … there’s a consistent theme here for Hulkenberg, who was largely in control of F1’s ‘class B’ in 2018 despite not finishing seven of the 21 races, the second-worst in that category on the grid (we’ll get to number one on that list later, Australian fans). It took until round 12 in Hungary, where he finished 12th, for the Renault driver not to finish in the points in a race where he saw the chequered flag. Finished eight races in (you guessed it) seventh place or better in his best F1 season yet.

6. Valtteri Bottas

2018 summary
5th in world championship (247 points), best result 2nd (Bahrain, China, Spain, Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan), 2 poles, 7 fastest laps, 8 podiums, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Finn finished fifth overall, but we’re docking him a spot here based on what he did the year prior in the sport’s best team, and what his teammate did in equal equipment in 2018. Rewind 12 months, and Bottas took three wins and scored 305 points to finish third overall; this season, he went winless while teammate Hamilton won 11 times, the first time a world champion’s running mate failed to win a race since Mark Webber in 2013. Azerbaijan, where he suffered an untimely puncture within sight of the flag, was one that got away, but Russia, where he was ordered by Mercedes to gift the win to Hamilton to aid a championship quest the Briton eventually won by a mile, might have hurt his head as much as Baku hurt his heart.

5. Daniel Ricciardo

2018 summary
6th in world championship (170 points), 2 wins (China, Monaco), 2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 2 podiums, 13 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Two wins in the first six races had Ricciardo considering a championship charge, but as the year unfolded, it seemed the affable Aussie had spent the off-season that preceded 2018 walking under ladders while crossing paths with a black cat and breaking a mirror on Friday the 13th. In 21 races, he had eight non-finishes, all but one of them from reliability gremlins that could have broken someone of lesser character (for context, the Mercedes and Ferrari pairings, plus teammate Verstappen, had 12 DNF’s combined). When the car was fast, Ricciardo was often too far back with penalties to do anything with it, and when he started where he should have, the car regularly broke. In the final nine races of 2018, there were just two – Singapore and his Red Bull swansong in Abu Dhabi – where Ricciardo didn’t come into the race weekend carrying a penalty, or the car cried ‘enough’. His swashbuckling win in Shanghai and his defensive masterclass while nursing a crippled car in Monaco were top-shelf memories from a season he’ll be glad is over.

4. Kimi Raikkonen

2018 summary
3rd in world championship (251 points), 1 win (USA), 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 12 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Raikkonen of 2018 is more Steady Eddie than one who drives with the searing speed that characterised the early part of his career, but in his final season with Ferrari before heading back to where it all began with Sauber, the 39-year-old was the perfect beta to Vettel’s alpha at Ferrari. He finished races (17 of them), didn’t get in the way (most of the time; many of the sport’s insiders were surprised he qualified on pole ahead of title-contending teammate Vettel at Monza, particularly after Vettel spun on the first lap fighting with Hamilton), and bagged a long-overdue win in Austin on merit, snapping a 113-race skid that stretched all the way back to Australia 2013 for Lotus.

3. Max Verstappen

2018 summary
4th in world championship (249 points), 2 wins (Austria, Mexico), 2 fastest laps, 11 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
If this list was being compiled from the second half of the year only, Verstappen would be a clear second; after scoring 105 points in the first 12 races, he gobbled up 144 from the last nine. Winning on Red Bull’s home patch in Austria made him more popular than ever, while for the second straight year, he made the rest look ridiculous in Mexico, winning that race by over 17 seconds while driving in cruise control for the final stint. The error-prone ways of the first half of Verstappen’s season seem like a lifetime ago already. Can Honda power lift the Dutchman higher in the standings (and this list) 12 months from now?

2. Sebastian Vettel

2018 summary
2nd in world championship (320 points), 5 wins (Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium), 5 poles, 3 fastest laps, 12 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Freeze season 2018 on lap 51 of the German Grand Prix, and this list – and Vettel’s standing in Ferrari’s history books – looks a lot different. A lap later, Vettel crashed out of his home Grand Prix while leading in the rain, allowing Hamilton to take an unlikely victory after starting 14th, and stealing the championship lead from his rival to boot. From there, things went south for the German – spins while fighting for position in Italy, Japan and Austin were costly, and by Mexico, Vettel was runner-up in the championship for a third time, Ferrari’s wait for its first drivers’ title since 2007 extending another year. Hockenheim was Vettel’s only non-finish of the season, but it was the beginning of the end.

1. Lewis Hamilton

2018 summary
World champion (408 points), 11 wins (Azerbaijan, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Abu Dhabi), 11 poles, 3 fastest laps, 17 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
It’s amazing to think, given how Hamilton’s season ended, that he didn’t win a race until round four in Azerbaijan, and he lucked into that one to such a degree after Bottas’ late puncture that he delayed the podium proceedings to console his Mercedes teammate before accepting the winners’ trophy with a sheepish face. The afore-mentioned win in Germany, and another the following weekend in Hungary where he produced a mesmerising qualifying lap in atrocious conditions, gave Hamilton the advantage, and he pressed that home to such an extent that he wound up winning 10 of the final 16 races, becoming the first driver ever to score more than 400 points in a single season. For lap of the year, look no further than his pole position in Singapore, where he dazzled as bright as the night lights that illuminate the sport’s most unforgiving track, and showed the gap he has over the rest when he’s at the top of his game.

The Dan Diaries: Over and out

In his final F1 driver column for redbull.com, Daniel Ricciardo is in a reflective mood as five years with Red Bull Racing comes to a close in Abu Dhabi.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

So, this is it, the last race for the team (and my last Diary). It’s not like the news I’m moving on is new news, it’s been out there for months, but we’re in Abu Dhabi, and Sunday night is the end of a chapter for me and the team. Funny how the timing works too; one of my mechanics told me after Brazil that Abu Dhabi would be my 100th race with the team, so good to bring up the century on a big milestone for me.

I spent the week between Brazil and Abu Dhabi on the road, so it wasn’t until I headed to the last race that I started to look back and began reminiscing about the journey with the team. There’ll be some emotion with the team and all of that, that’s natural, but the way I’m looking at it, I’m hardly retiring, I’m still racing. But there’ll be time to be nostalgic and reason to as well. It’ll be good, in a way.

Doing 100 races, it’s gone quick. Australia 2014 doesn’t even seem that long ago. The ones I’ll remember most … you always gravitate towards the seven wins, but there’s been others as well. Of the wins, Hungary in 2014 is certainly one that was significant for me, as it marked my confidence and my hunger to win. Having to hunt people down, passing Lewis (Hamilton) and Fernando (Alonso) in the last few laps … that race marked the point where I felt like, yes, I belonged up the front and I had supreme confidence and zero intimidation from anyone. It kind of set up the label of who I’ve become now, what my reputation is in F1.

Melbourne 2014 – number one of the 100 – is one of the races I’ll always remember, there were lots of little things about that which are very vivid in my memory. Qualifying there, where it was raining and I was second … maybe it was because it was the first race for the new cars and they were quieter, but when I crossed the line in qualifying, it was the first time I’d ever heard a crowd from inside the car. I heard this roar and I thought ‘holy shit, maybe I’m on pole!’ … it was crazy. I was on inters in the rain, first race with the new team, home race … I was the brave kid who made the ballsy call, and I look back at that now and think that it was a really important race in my time at Red Bull. I went two feet in that day, was decisive, and that set the tone for the driver I was to become, especially in that first year up against Seb (Sebastian Vettel). That year, it just clicked. I always knew I had that in me, but I was able to put it all together that year, and that confidence from that year has carried on since. That style of racing was always there. It was the same in karting when I was younger, I didn’t start off being that aggressive or being that good at overtaking, it just took time.

I won three of my seven races with Red Bull in that ’14 season, so that’s the year I look back at being the most fun for me and the most important for my career since. The wins were big, and I had a massive battle with Fernando in Germany where we raced really hard but fair, and he had some praise for me afterwards which was big at the time.

I feel ’14 didn’t just shape me and my approach from then on, it changed the level of overtaking from other guys in the sport as well. I really believe that. Not many people were doing that, coming from a long way back and trying big passing moves. Maybe they learned from me and the way I was racing, so perhaps I set a new level and showed people what was possible, and the drivers that were willing to try it were trying it. I realise that sounds a bit cocky, but I really do believe that. Not saying all of them can do it … but at least more of them are trying!

It was something that I always wanted because I was always perceived by others as the nice guy, a soft touch and that sort of thing. For me to develop the reputation that was the polar opposite to what people maybe thought I was, that was even better. It takes a while to shake off something like Bahrain 2012 when I was at Toro Rosso when I got pushed around on the first lap, that was a setback to my reputation for sure. I didn’t want that feeling, and it took time to shake off.

When you do five years and 100 races with a team, there’s so many people you come across and you work with, and it’s almost unfair to bring up individual names. I feel like I’ve had good relationships with every mechanic that’s ever worked on my car, for example. But Simon (Rennie), my race engineer, is someone I need to single out. Simon and I couldn’t be more different out of the car, our personalities are really as contrasting as you could get, but we’ve had this fantastic relationship where he understands me and we never second-guess one another. I always felt he knew what I wanted or what I meant, and I always trusted him to make the right calls. I never questioned him. He feeds off the battles with me, if I say something on the radio that’s hungry, he’s right with me. He’s someone I’m going to miss going into battle with on Sundays.

The mechanics … the amount of times they’ve rallied between an FP3 and a qualifying session and got me out there … I wouldn’t have won China this year without them, and that was probably the most satisfying ‘team’ moment of the times I’ve had here.

Come Sunday night in Abu Dhabi, that’s when it will all hit me. I’m not driving the test after the race, so I’ll head back to Europe and close everything off, say my goodbyes, go to the team’s Christmas party and that sort of thing. I’m sure some drivers would be like ‘Christmas party? I’ve left the team now, who cares?’, but I feel being there is right, for the people who work in the factory and the whole team, to show the gratitude I have for the last five years of work everyone has done. And then it’s off to see my new team, and then on one final flight to get some downtime back in Oz. I’m keen to be in one time zone for a sustained period, get my body to reset and switch off the brain. It’s been a long year.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride with me for the past five years, and the three years we’ve been doing these diaries. It’s been fun and I always notice the support, so thanks. Guess I’ll see you on the other side …