While his home Grand Prix boasted a record crowd largely due to his presence, Daniel Ricciardo had a disappointing race in Melbourne in front of grandstands stained with large patches of yellow in support of his move to Renault from Red Bull.
It was always going to be a risk moving away from a big three team but, for reasons well known, the popular Australian struck a deal with Renault after being presented with a road map to the championship, by the French team’s bosses, which Ricciardo and his minders bought into.
On Saturday he qualified 12th, his best effort 1.5 seconds shy of the top time in Q2, after which his afternoon ended. A year earlier in Red Bull colours, he lined up fifth on the grid after qualifying eight tenths on the pole-winning time.
On race day, he made a relatively good launch off the line, went for a gap left by the Racing Point of Sergio Perez, who then opted to drift back towards the Renault of Ricciardo, edging him off track and on to the grass where he smacked a drain pipe which launched his car and smashed its front wing.
He never came back from that and eventually parked it on lap 28, “I was gutted for sure… I hit a gutter sometimes you feel you can get away with that at every other track.”
“No-one to blame, other than grass and a big bump of concrete. I didn’t want to go on the grass, I had a run on Perez, I saw him move, so moved a bit more and that put my wheel on the grass and as soon as I got the grass there was the gutter. I don’t know how I’m smiling, I don’t seem to have a good break here.”
Granted, these things happen in a split second, but for teams who leave no stone unturned in their meticulous preparations for a Grand Prix weekend, the question has to be asked: Why was this not picked up during a track walk or recce?
While Ricciardo might avoid reading too much into the season opener, as Renault and the other losers suggest Melbourne is an anomaly, but if it is not an oddity then they have only bought themselves a couple of weeks respite from reality. Bahrain will be telling.
However, the team have hailed Nico Hulkenberg’s seventh place when the reality is that the French power unit package appears to have slipped to the bottom of the pecking order, as Honda thoroughly outperformed them in qualifying and also in the race.
But Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul is not panicking, “We know the car has much more pace than we have shown, especially in qualifying, and it will be the priority of the next race to extract more from the initial platform with a smoother execution across the weekend while we work on our planned upgrades.”
Ricciardo echoed the sentiment, “We should be a top-eight car the first half of the season, then even better after that. Bahrain is like a holiday week, nothing going on so I can prepare.”
“When the race is over in five seconds I feel that the preparation was not where it should be and I’m too busy pleasing everybody else. It is hard, especially at home. The whole week is full on and I’m pretty flat right now,” added Ricciardo.
Big Question: Are Renault on the back foot already?