A determined Daniel Ricciardo will seek to make an immediate impact on this year’s ‘all new’ Formula 1® World Championship on Sunday by locking horns with the favourites in this weekend’s season-opening high-speed Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old Aussie, third for Red Bull Racing behind the two Mercedes of retired champion German Nico Rosberg and three-time champion Lewis Hamilton in last year’s title race, carries local hopes of landing his first win on home soil in a keenly-anticipated contest at Albert Park.
No Aussie-born racer has triumphed in an Australian Grand Prix since world champion Alan Jones won a non-championship event at Calder Park in 1980 – and Ricciardo has a better than decent chance of ending that long wait for home fans in a contest that may see the track’s lap record under threat.
The Aussie racer clocked last year’s fastest race lap in one minute and 28.997 seconds. If he trims his time by around five seconds – as some observers have said is possible – he could beat seven-time champion German Michael Schumacher’s 2004 record of 1:24.125 in a Ferrari.
Rosberg retired after his dramatic title triumph in Abu Dhabi to signal an off-season of change and some upheaval for Mercedes as they, and the rest, prepared for the new ‘fatter-and-faster’ formula that makes its racing debut in Melbourne.
Pre-season testing saw Hamilton and his new Mercedes team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas in strong form with both pace and reliability, but Ferrari pushed them close and Red Bull were not far behind after two weeks’ work at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain.
"So far, from what I have seen, everything seems pretty close, but it is only testing and we were always driving at a different time of day, doing different run plans and programmes, so it is impossible to say,” said Bottas, who will be seeking his first victory.
"We will find out very soon and, for me, I definitely feel that my rate of improvement is going to be big this year. I feel, every single time I am in the car, that I am getting better and more comfortable."
Bottas and Hamilton are widely tipped to be the pace-setting duo this weekend with four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari team-mate Finn Kimi Raikkonen in hot pursuit, closely chased by Ricciardo and his Red Bull partner Dutch teenager Max Verstappen.
Verstappen, 19, made a massive impact last year after switching from Toro Rosso to Red Bull and is expected to push Ricciardo harder than ever before – starting here at Albert Park.
And that’s a prospect that is welcomed by Ricciardo as he tries to shake off his ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image and scrap for points and titles.
“We're not like Lewis and Nico were yet, but I hope we can be,” he said, referring to the tension between the title battlers last year. “We would both absolutely love to get to a point like that, where we're fighting for it all the time.
“When we are, that basically means we're doing what we want to and reaching what we want to achieve in the sport.”
Ricciardo’s famous broad smile is sure to be on show if his Red Bull delivers on pace and performance as the sport steps into the future following a technical revamp and under the direction of new American ownership.
Liberty Media’s take-over and the off-season departure of veteran commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone has coincided with an overhaul of the regulations to usher in the new breed of ‘fatter and faster’ machines that deliver high-speed cornering and make huge physical demands from the drivers.
All that and the sight of the struggling McLaren Honda team switching back to ‘retro’ chassis names and team colours, with the return of a flash of orange, and Force India’s bold introduction of pink livery has added to the sense of a bold new beginning.
Despite the changes at Mercedes, that included the departure of technical team boss Briton Paddy Lowe to join Williams as chief technical officer, the champions start 2017 as favourites again. Lowe, who helped guide Mercedes through three dominant title-winning years, has been replaced by former Ferrari boffin Briton James Allison.
Bottas, whose switch from Williams meant that the British team had to ask Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa to make a rapid u-turn after retiring and come back to partner 18-year-old Canadian rookie Lance Stroll, has settled in quickly and easily alongside Hamilton.
As yet, however, he has not faced the Englishman in serious racing mode and Hamilton, stung by last year’s loss of his crown, is sure to want to hit back immediately.
But the top pre-season story has been all about the problems at McLaren where a boardroom upheaval led to the ousting of long-term chief Briton Ron Dennis before testing confirmed that Honda’s latest engine – in the third season of their much vaunted partnership – lacked both power and reliability.
Two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso made little attempt at hiding his feelings after a frustrating run of failures during testing.
“We have only one problem and that is the power unit,” said Alonso, who had expressed satisfaction with the team’s latest car for the new high-performance aerodynamic era. “There is no reliability and there is no power.”
For one of the sport’s traditional grandee teams, it is an embarrassing situation that new executive director Zak Brown has inherited, but he insisted that the team has no intention of breaking its Honda contract.
Mercedes’ domination has seen them win three straight title doubles and 51 of the last 59 Grands Prix – a sustained domination that created talk of handicaps, a prospect dismissed by Liberty’s new technical boss, former Benetton and Ferrari director, Briton Ross Brawn.
“The fans will see through anything synthetic,” he said, hinting that only a long-term effort by rival teams will end Mercedes supremacy. That might start, of course, with a Ricciardo ripper in Sunday’s race…