Daniel Ricciardo

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.

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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.”

6 things we learned from the Spain F1 test

Who shone, who shocked and who sandbagged across the first four days of the 2019 pre-season in Barcelona last week.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One teams with fast cars that want to look slow. Teams with fast cars who do little to mask their speed. Teams with middling cars and scarce sponsor stickers who make surprise appearances at the sharp end of the timesheets. Teams struggling to put a car on track at all … As the 2019 F1 pre-season roared into life at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, it was easy to see all 10 teams were present (eventually, we’ll get that that); what was harder to ascertain was which teams fell into which of the afore-mentioned categories. Ask said 10 teams for their views, and you’d get 100 different answers …

The annual F1 ‘phoney war’ of testing is unique; for what is effectively pre-season training in any other sport you can think of, conclusions are drawn and assertions are made on things even the teams themselves don’t completely understand yet. The raw stats tell us one thing; how those stats were achieved and why carries more weight as the clock ticks down towards when it all matters for real for the first time, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Over four days at Montmelo, a new-look F1 emerged from the fog that provided a dramatic backdrop to the start of each day of running; the cars themselves looked different with aerodynamic tweaks including a wider front wing compared to their predecessors, and the driver line-ups were cause for more than a few double-takes, just two teams retaining the same pair of pilots from last season, and four outfits jettisoning both drivers after the 2018 campaign.

Add three rookies into the mix (Alexander Albon at Toro Rosso, George Russell at Williams and Lando Norris at McLaren), and the annual ‘school photo’ at Albert Park in a few weeks’ time will look jarringly different to the one that preceded it.

Halfway through the February testing phase for 2019, what do we know about the season set to take off on March 17? A little, and a lot. Here’s six snippets to consider.

1. What the stopwatch said …

Testing, we’re always told, isn’t always about the stopwatch … but to paraphrase the old saying, if winning isn’t important, then why do we keep score? Both Renault and Toro Rosso would likely concur, with both drivers from each team ending up in the top five on the overall timesheets after four days.

Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg set the best time of the test (1min 17.393secs) on the final afternoon, with new teammate and star signing Daniel Ricciardo ending up fifth overall, just 0.4secs slower in his first official outing for his new squad.

Between the two yellow fellows? Albon, his teammate Daniil Kvyat, and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, not a sentence you would have expected to be writing when the pit lane went green at 9am on the first day.

Signs of speed are one thing in testing, but reliability might be more important – and on that front, Ferrari packed up at the end of day four in a class of one, Sebastian Vettel (303 laps) the busiest man in Barcelona for the week, and new teammate Charles Leclerc (295) sitting right behind him on the most laps list.

Ferrari’s 598 combined laps were well clear of the next-best return (Alfa Romeo with 507), while at the other end of the scale, Williams managed just 88 laps between Russell and F1 returnee Robert Kubica, its FW42 car not ready to run before the afternoon session of the first day, a predicament deputy team principal Claire Williams called “embarrassing”.

Russell and Kubica, unsurprisingly, were the two slowest drivers for the week in Spain, meaning there’s little sign last year’s wooden-spooners in the constructors’ championship are set to improve in the short-term.

2. … and what those numbers told us

So it’s set to be a Renault vs Toro Rosso fight for this year’s world championship, is it? Much as Australian F1 fans wouldn’t mind that, let’s pump the brakes. The devil in the details of the top (or bottom) lap times can be found in what tyre compound each driver set their benchmark time on, with Pirelli bringing five different specifications of tyres to Barcelona.

Thankfully for common sense and to end the endless confusion about tyre names (supersoft, hypersoft or super-duper sticky softy-softs, anyone?) that have been a feature of F1 coverage for the past few years, Pirelli’s tyres in Spain were simpler to understand. The C1 tyre was the hardest available, the C5 the softest. Pirelli’s data revealed the C2 tyre was 0.6 to 0.7-seconds faster than the C1, with similar gaps between each compound up to the one-lap qualifying specials that were the C5s. Early indications suggest the gap between the fastest and slowest tyres in the range could be over three seconds per lap.

So back to that list of fastest laps … and while reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton was seventh overall for Mercedes, he was the fastest runner on the C4 tyre, setting a 1:17.977 on the final day that was 0.584secs behind Hulkenberg’s best time of the test on the stopwatch, but, arguably, faster given the rubber he did it on.

Vettel, eighth overall, was less than two-tenths behind Hamilton and on the even slower C3 rubber, as was teammate Leclerc in ninth as Ferrari elected not chase a headline time late in the test.

Elsewhere, Alfa’s Antonio Giovinazzi was 11th overall, but less than a second behind Raikkonen on a tyre two steps harder, an impressive start to his first full F1 season. And lurking in 15th and 16th of the 20 race drivers who participated in the test? Red Bull Racing pair Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly, neither of whom set a fast time on anything other than the middling C3 tyre.

The numbers don’t lie, but sometimes they can conceal the truth behind them …

3. The eye test can override the data

Sometimes it’s good to ignore the numbers for a moment and let your eyes tell you who is fast, who is pushing and who is sandbagging in pre-season testing.

Standing trackside, it was noticeable how planted Ferrari looked out of the slow-speed corners, the SF90 jumping out of the big stop at Turn 10 at the end of the back straight like a scalded cat as much as a Prancing Horse.

Mercedes looked mega when its drivers pushed in the high-speed corners, but the team admitted its drivers were more focused on gathering long-run data than really stretching the legs of the W10.

Red Bull’s RB15 had a distinctive bark emanating from its new Honda engine and looked planted in the sweeping curves that define the Circuit de Catalunya, while Raikkonen and Giovinazzi took very different approaches to achieve the same goal, the Finn’s consistency of car position contrasting starkly with the Italian’s more flamboyant style.

Ricciardo’s signature late braking, while nowhere near its Red Bull race-winning pomp yet as he beds into his new surrounds at Renault, was on show from the get-go, while Albon was keen to find the limits in the Toro Rosso in his first pre-season test, the Brit impressing more by the day after a shaky start when he dropped the STR14 in the gravel on the second morning.

4. The fight at the front might not change …

So what are we to make of the pecking order after four days of running? Mercedes and Ferrari look set to pick up where they left off at the end of 2018 as the sport’s two fastest teams, but in which order?

Avoiding pre-season favouritism is as much of a sport as F1 itself, so when Bottas said after his final stint in the car that he felt Ferrari was “a bit ahead” of Mercedes after four days in Barcelona, Leclerc was quick to hose that notion down, suggesting the Silver Arrows had much more to show.

“The performance has no sense for now because it’s testing, they are not pushing and we are not either,” the Monegasque driver shrugged.

“We don’t know how much the others are sandbagging. We’ll see at the first race.”

Leclerc is right about that, but right now, that race might start with a Ferrari or two on the front row of the grid, even considering Hamilton’s incredible qualifying prowess in Melbourne, where he’s started on pole for the past five years.

And what of Red Bull? Team principal Christian Horner was delighted with the progress the team made over the four days as the marriage with Honda got off to a reliable start; only three teams (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso) did more laps than Red Bull’s 475, and those laps largely went off without a hitch other than Gasly clouting the wall at Turn 13 on the second day and costing the squad an hour’s worth of track time.

5. … but the midfield will swing wildly from race to race

Behind the top three teams and down to Williams in a clear 10th place in the pecking order for now, assessing who sits where in a massed midfield pack is much harder to ascertain after most teams had their moments in Barcelona.

We’ve mentioned Renault and Toro Rosso; elsewhere, McLaren finished second on the first (Carlos Sainz) and second (Norris) days, the young Brit ending the test 10th overall. And while Haas had its fair share of reliability woes for minor technical issues, there’s pace in the VF-19 when it works, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both enjoying top-three times on the first two days.

Alfa, with its distinct front wing design that turned heads, looks set to make a step after leaving the Sauber name behind this season, thickening what should be a lively midfield brew.

6. The new aero rules are a work in progress

Will the new wider front wings and more simplified rear wings for 2019 slow the cars down as intended and make overtaking easier? On the evidence of the first four days of the pre-season, it doesn’t look likely.

“There’s too many smart people in this sport to make the cars slower,” Ricciardo laughed after his first run in the RS.19 with other cars on track to follow.

“The lap times are still fast – the front wings look a bit more basic, but there’s still a lot of load being produced. I hope we can follow (other cars) closer, but for a feeling, if I didn’t know there was a new front wing on the car before I got in, I couldn’t tell.

“The way the cars develop over the year … they’ve had a few months to develop over winter, so even if you lose a bit there, you’re going to gain elsewhere. They (engineers) will find ways to make the front wing work even better.”

The Circuit de Catalunya, for all of its benefits as a testing venue with good weather in the northern hemisphere winter, isn’t the best track to assess if a change instigated to increase passing will work, given the annual procession that the Spanish Grand Prix typically is most seasons. Until we get to some different tracks with different characteristics, the jury will remain out.

Renault, Toro Rosso tussle for top spots in Spain

Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo finish Thursday inside the top three in Barcelona, while Mercedes offers a glimpse of what might be coming in Melbourne.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON GRANDPRIX.COM.AU

Nico Hulkenberg and Renault ruled the day as the first Formula One test of the 2019 season wrapped up in Spain on Thursday, the German topping the timesheets with the fastest lap across the four days at the Circuit de Catalunya this week.

Hulkenberg’s week one benchmark of 1min 17.393secs, set with 80 minutes remaining in a session held under cold but sunlit skies, saw him finish 0.244secs ahead of 2019 rookie Alexander Albon, Toro Rosso enjoying its second straight strong day of form in Spain after Daniil Kvyat led the times on Wednesday.

Capping a promising day for Renault was Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian ending up with the third-fastest time of Thursday and the fifth-quickest of the test in all as the RS.19 found its feet after a troubled first two days of running.

Hulkenberg’s car finished the test on the back of a recovery vehicle after it broke down at Turn 13 on his first lap out of the pits immediately after setting his best time, the German managing just 24 laps in the afternoon after Ricciardo completed 34 before the one-hour mandatory stoppage for the session midway through the day.

Ricciardo wasn’t ready to read too much into Renault’s pace or reliability gremlins that appeared across the four days, but felt life at his new team after five seasons with Red Bull Racing had started on the right foot.

“On the whole, I think good enough,” Ricciardo said when asked for his assessment of the test.

“It’s hard to ask too much in testing as far it never runs perfect … at least I have never been in a perfect lot of testing pre-season.

“The runs we were doing, they were shorter runs with more set-up changes, so that naturally took a bit more time.

“I think yesterday and particularly this morning was quite useful for me, just going through set-ups and feeling like they actually did something to the car. That was quite positive.

“When a car is numb and doesn’t respond to changes, that normally isn’t a good sign. So after these four days, it feels pretty positive.”

Ricciardo finished three-tenths shy of his new teammate’s time, with Hulkenberg, Albon and the Australian setting their best times on the Pirelli C5 tyres, the softest of the compounds available at the test.

After three days of concentrating on data gathering with long runs, Mercedes finally offered a glimpse of the inherent pace most experts believe is in its new W10 chassis, Valtteri Bottas taking fourth spot on the C5 rubber, but appearing to have plenty in reserve as he finished half a second off the pace.

Teammate and reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton joined Bottas in the top five, his best lap of 1.17.977 coming in the morning session, and on the harder-compound C4 Pirellis.

Ferrari’s new signing Charles Leclerc completed 163 laps en route to finishing sixth on the final day, while the busiest driver on Thursday was Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian racking up a mammoth 154 laps to finish 1.1secs off the top time in eighth.

Bottas said on Thursday that he felt Ferrari was “a bit ahead” of Mercedes after four days in Barcelona, but Leclerc felt the reigning world champions had spent the opening salvos of 2019 masking their true pace.

“The performance has no sense for now because it’s testing, they are not pushing and we are not either,” the Monegasque driver said.

“We don’t know how much the others are sandbagging. We’ll see at the first race.”

After only appearing on track for the first time at the test on Wednesday, Williams had both drivers in action on the final day, Robert Kubica getting his first meaningful running of 2019 in the morning before handing the FW42 over to rookie George Russell in the afternoon.

The pair completed 65 laps between them and occupied the bottom two spots on the timesheets, meaning Williams has plenty of work ahead of it at next week’s second and final test in Spain before the Australian Grand Prix from February 26 to March 1.

Russian rules, Ricciardo on the rise

Daniil Kvyat gives Toro Rosso an unexpected headline time, while Renault has its strongest Spanish showing yet with its new star signing.  

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON GRANDPRIX.COM.AU

A late lap by Formula One returnee Daniil Kvyat has given Toro Rosso bragging rights at pre-season testing in Spain, the Russian topping the timesheets with the fastest time of the first three days of the 2019 pre-season in Barcelona.

After Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) looked set to cap a strong day of work with his name atop the leaderboard, Toro Rosso sent Kvyat out on track shod with the softest-compound C5 tyres, and the effect was dramatic, the 24-year-old firing in a 1min 17.704secs flyer with 13 minutes of the day remaining.

Kvyat finished 0.058secs faster than Raikkonen, who completed the most laps of day three (138), while Daniel Ricciardo shook off a slow start to life at Renault with an encouraging showing in the afternoon session, completing 80 laps and finishing third on the timesheets, 0.460secs behind his former teammate at Red Bull Racing, Kvyat.

“We lacked some running on day one, so we definitely bounced back today,” Kvyat said.

“Now it’s important to go on working hard without getting caught up with where we finished on the timesheets, even if it’s quite pleasant to end up where we did.”

While Kvyat and Toro Rosso became the first team to show their pre-season hand at the Circuit de Catalunya this week, Mercedes continued to put kilometres into its new W10 machine, Valtteri Bottas (11th, nearly three seconds off first place) and Lewis Hamilton (12th, 3.1secs adrift) content to complete long runs for the reigning world champions over a combined 182 laps, more than any other team. Mercedes is yet to use the two softest-compound tyres at the test as it keeps its powder dry ahead of the season-opener in Melbourne.

Ricciardo had endured a difficult first two official on-track days at Renault, his second day curtailed when the DRS flap on his RS.19 machine broke as he approached the high-speed first corner, only the Australian’s reflexes keeping his new car from clattering into the outside wall.

Teammate Nico Hulkenberg ran a conservative program in Wednesday’s morning session, the team electing not to use DRS as the German recorded a time that stood for sixth place at the end of the day.

The Australian hit the track at 2pm local time and immediately set to fine-tuning his car’s set-up on harder tyres, and a late run with DRS enabled inside the final 30 minutes on Pirelli’s C4 rubber saw Ricciardo record a time that was comfortably the best Renault has managed across the test.

“I’m happy to get some solid laps in,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a positive as we’ve been lacking that rhythm in the car over the last few days. We tried three different compounds of tyre so that was also good to go through and understand.

“I’m keen to get stuck into it to see where we can keep improving. The main thing was driving 80 laps, that was really important.”

Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel was fourth for Ferrari after the Prancing Horse dominated the opening two days, the German recording the fastest time on Monday before new teammate Charles Leclerc did likewise 24 hours later. Vettel completed 134 laps to bring Ferrari’s tally to a mammoth 460 in three days with barely a hitch, proving the SF90 is both fast and reliable as it attempts to find a way to loosen Mercedes’ five-year stronghold on the sport.

Max Verstappen was fifth and concentrated on long runs after a delayed start to the day for Red Bull, while Wednesday proved problematic for Haas, which had its drivers in the top three on the first two days of testing.

Test driver Pietro Fittipaldi crawled to a halt in the morning session with an electrical problem, while Romain Grosjean stopped on track twice in the afternoon, the final time with four minutes remaining to cause a red flag that saw the session finish prematurely.

Grosjean was seventh overall, but the Frenchman has completed just 134 laps in two days of running so far.

The only driver slower than Bottas and Hamilton on Wednesday was British rookie George Russell, but day three was little more than a glorified shakedown for Williams after its FW42 machine finally hit the track after missing the opening two days. Deputy team principal Claire Williams described her eponymous team’s late start to 2019 as “embarrassing”, something it can ill-afford after finishing last season at the bottom of the constructors’ standings.

“It’s not a situation we ever wanted to find ourselves in,” Williams told reporters.

“It’s embarrassing not bringing a race car to a circuit when everyone else has managed to do that, particularly for a team like ours that has managed to deliver a race car to testing for the past 40-odd years.”

Russell completed 23 cautious laps and was nearly five seconds slower than Hamilton, and will hand the car over to teammate Robert Kubica for the morning session of Thursday’s final day of the first test of the year.

Ferrari on the double as Ricciardo’s wings clipped

Charles Leclerc makes it a Prancing Horse quinella in Spain, while Daniel Ricciardo finishes in the gravel after a rear wing failure.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON GRANDPRIX.COM.AU

Ferrari flew for a second day as Formula One pre-season testing continued in Spain on Tuesday, but for Daniel Ricciardo, a flying rear wing made for a second consecutive low-key outing for the Australian as he gets acclimatised at Renault.

After Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets and lap count on day one of the lead-in to next month’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, his new teammate Charles Leclerc repeated the feats on day two, the 21-year-old Monegasque setting a session-best time of 1min 18.247secs and racking up 157 laps on an incident-free day.

Leclerc’s time was 0.086secs slower than Vettel’s day one benchmark, which slashed more than one second off the fastest time set at the equivalent Barcelona test 12 months ago.

A late soft-tyre run by British 19-year-old Lando Norris saw the McLaren rookie finish second on the timesheets, 0.306secs adrift of Leclerc, while Kevin Magnussen (Haas) rounded out the top three.

Norris, who completed 10 laps, lapped 0.005secs faster than teammate Carlos Sainz managed on Monday, both drivers setting their best times on the C4 Pirelli tyre, the second-softest of the five compounds available at the test. McLaren’s pre-season reliability woes of past years have disappeared at this test so far, both drivers totalling over 100 laps on their day in the car, and both being headed by only Ferrari on the timesheets.

After his first official on-track day at Renault ended with him at the bottom of Monday’s timesheets, Ricciardo made steady progress on Tuesday, taking to a cold, foggy track a little after 9am and immediately improving on his times from the previous day, slotting in behind pace-setter Leclerc for much of the morning session.

His run ended abruptly a little after 11am local time, when the top flap of his rear wing fell off as he thundered down the start-finish straight, the resultant spin pitching him into the gravel trap at Turn 1, where he managed to avoid the wall.

Ricciardo ended the day in ninth place, lopping 2.1 seconds off his best time from Monday, and finishing 0.049secs behind new teammate Nico Hulkenberg, who competed a full race simulation as part of a marathon 95-lap run in the afternoon.

Despite his dramatic off, Ricciardo said he was encouraged by the progress between days one and two.

“When it was on, it was OK … when it broke, it’s like going into the corner with DRS open,” he said of the rear wing.

“As soon as I braked, I lost the car and spun. I lost the rest of the morning, but this is what testing is for.

“Before I had the DRS failure, I did a long run, 15 laps or something, and I was quite encouraged. The way I was able to bring the times back towards the end of the run, that was good.

“That’s really my own real impression for now; yesterday I got a few more laps in and did some set-up changes. The run this morning was more representative. We haven’t done low-fuel running or anything like that; we’re still running quite conservative. From a competitive feeling, I don’t know where we stand.”

Ricciardo’s successor at Red Bull Racing, Pierre Gasly, was responsible for the biggest incident of day two, the Frenchman backing his RB15 machine into the fence at Turn 12 with a little over an hour of track time remaining for the day. Gasly, who finished seventh overall and completed 92 laps, was unhurt in the shunt, but didn’t take any further part in proceedings.

Elsewhere, British rookie Alexander Albon capped a dramatic first day of 2019 with the fourth-fastest time; the Toro Rosso driver spun on his out lap as soon as the track opened and beached his car in the Turn 5 gravel trap, had another slow-speed pirouette at the final chicane, and then had a near-miss with Hulkenberg’s Renault in the pits inside the final 15 minutes.

Conspicuous by their absence from the sharp end of the timesheets for the second day running were world champions Mercedes, with Valtteri Bottas (sixth, 1.288secs off top spot) taking over the W10 for the afternoon after Lewis Hamilton (10th, 1.681secs behind Leclerc) completed 74 laps in the morning. The team spent much of its 163 laps on the C3 tyre, completing long runs with consistent lap times that sends an ominous portent for their race pace come Melbourne.

Day three of pre-season testing kicks off at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday, where Williams hopes to be able to join the fray after missing the opening two days of testing as its new car, the FW42, wasn’t competed on time.

The car is expected to arrive at the track in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and will turn its first laps for 2019 in the afternoon session with Robert Kubica and George Russell.