Daniel Ricciardo’s high-wattage smile was shining even brighter than usual as dusk descended on the Albert Park paddock on Saturday evening, and for good reason.
On his first race weekend at home and in his first race for Scuderia Toro Rosso, the 22-year-old West Australian qualified inside the top 10 on his Melbourne debut – and his pre-race goal of a points finish now looks a distinct possibility.
Ricciardo was one of the stars at Albert Park on Saturday, producing a special lap of 1min 26.319secs late in Q2 that was his best of the weekend by more than three-tenths of a second.
For the time being, Ricciardo wasn’t thinking about race day on Saturday night, choosing instead to let his career-best qualifying performance sink in.
“The ambition at the start of the weekend was to get into Q3, and we’ve achieved that,” he said.
“I thought Q3 might have been a little bit out of reach, so it’s a really positive result. I was pushing like hell and trying to squeeze what I could out of the lap. You always want more but, in saying that, it was pretty solid – and I don’t even know where I made the time up. I just didn’t brake – maybe I just held it flat everywhere...”.
Toro Rosso elected not to send Ricciardo out to record a flying lap time in the final 10-minute session of qualifying, meaning the Australian can choose to start Sunday’s race on either Pirelli’s medium or soft-compound tyre. The Australian said he understood the logic behind the strategic decision, but wished he’d had a chance to see if he could have advanced another row on the grid with an even faster effort.
“I wish there were more tyres so I could have had a crack, but I’m hoping that’s something that will pay off in 24 hours’ time,” he said.
Just 12 months after debuting as a Friday practice driver for Toro Rosso in Melbourne, Ricciardo finds himself ahead of the likes of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen and 11-time Grand Prix winner Felipe Massa on Sunday’s grid. He says he’ll probably find time to pinch himself after the Albert Park weekend, but for now, he’s thinking about how he’ll fare when the lights go out at 5pm on Sunday.
“It’s always so tight here in to Turn 1, so getting off the line always gives you that little bit of confidence to go in there deep,” he said.
“We’ve got the Ferraris around us tomorrow and some other fast guys, but that’s just more adrenaline – so bring it on.”