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.