Daniel Ricciardo’s rollercoaster season, which in the opening two races hurtled from incident to incident, finally ignited in Bahrain with the Aussie delivering an excellent drive from 13th on the grid to fourth at the flag. Indeed, with just under half a second separating the Red Bull driver from Sergio Perez in the closing stages, Ricciardo might have stood on the podium for the second time this year had the race been a lap longer.
The Perth racer went into the weekend on the back foot, knowing that wherever he qualified he’d drop 10 places back down the grid. Red Bull’s sessions began in muted fashion with Ricciardo 14th in FP1 as the team spent much of the session “playing around with a few things on the car” but in the second session the Aussie’s soft tyre tyre run netted him the day’s fourth-fastest time, three places ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel. However, he insisted that steady progress was the key prior to the race.
“During the race I will make sure my aggression is on and make sure I’m moving forward,” he said. “But in practice and qualifying not really, I’ll just do what I can to make sure we have a good car for Sunday.”
In final practice Daniel was a low-key 13th, all the attention being focused on Vettel, who spun out with 20 minutes left and missed the end-of-session quali sims.
Ricciardo commandeered the spotlight in qualifying, however. He eased through the opening segment as one of just three drivers to only use the medium tyre (the dominant Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg being the others). His progress through Q2 was even more satisfying, Ricciardo making it to the top-10 shootout in third spot as the only non-Mercedes man to get within a second of Nico Rosberg’s segment-topping time.
That pattern was repeated in Q3 with Ricciardo storming to third spot again, and again the only man to get within a second of pole-sitter Rosberg. He ended the session 0.8s down on the German and +0.25 up on fourth-placed Valtteri Bottas.
Thirteenth place on the grid left Ricciardo plotting an attacking race.
“I don’t think we need to be conservative, we need to push, we are out of position,” he said. “If there is an opportunity to move forward I will do what I can and hopefully take away some points. At the moment it is pretty close between a two or three stop, maybe there is some room for us to try something.”
In the opening laps of the race Ricciardo struggled to make an impact on those ahead, admitting that his first stint was “pretty much follow the leader”. His cause wasn’t helped by a rash lap-nine move on Magnussen for 11th position that saw the Australian run wide.
He passed the Dane two laps later, however, with a good move at the exit of Turn 11, though the McLaren drivers tyre’s looked to have given up. Ricciardo then set of after team-mate Vettel.
And when he closed up on his team-mate, Ricciardo demonstrated once again that while he’s got the broadest smile in the paddock away from the car, behind the wheel he’s more than capable of making demands from his pit wall.
On lap 14 Vettel complained of a DRS problem and within two laps Ricciardo was on the German’s gearbox and radioing through to his team that “he was wasting time” and asking for Vettel to be moved out of the way.
The champion’s engineer Guillaume Rocquelin called through Vettel and delivered the unfamiliar message: “Daniel is quicker than you”. Vettel made it easy and Ricciardo swept past.
The battle between the team-mates was revived late in the race after the safety car was brought out by Esteban Gutierrez’s crash. Tucked in behind Vettel, Ricciardo put a lovely move on the champion into Turn One on lap 50 to steal sixth place. He then bustled past Jenson Button, though the McLaren driver was already experience the clutch issue that would see him retire two laps from the end.
Nico Hulkenberg was a less easy mark but again Ricciardo took no prisoners. His final set of options (taken on lap 35) were still working well as his fuel load lessened and the track temperatures dropped.
He forced an error out of the usually flawless Force India driver into Turn 11, took fourth and chased down Perez, who afterwards admitted that had the race gone on another lap he would likely have lost out on his first podium finish since the Italian GP of 2012.
Afterwards Ricciardo said that while Safety Car had helped he felt he would have been able to claim his first official points finish of the season regardless.
“The race went to plan. We went pretty long in the first stint and from then on it was target two-stop,” he told RedBull.com “The Safety Car probably helped but I think we would have made it anyway. Maybe the last couple of laps would have been… on the edge though.
“Before the race I thought we might creep into the top six if everything went well for us, so to finish fourth… that’s a pretty good day. It was a lot of fun but equally we didn’t get anything for free, we had to really work for it and that’s always a bit more rewarding: you make the moves, you move forward. I really don’t think the race could have gone any better.”
The Red Bull driver confirmed, too, that he felt he could have reeled in Perez if the race had gone on any longer.
“We got close to the podium today, I think within half a second, so I was doing all I could,” he said. The car came to me as the race went on and I was happy with how I moved up through the pack, so a good day. It was good fun to race Sebastian, it was hard but fair and we left each other room. That’s what we want from each other and we discussed it beforehand, we’re racers and that’s what we enjoy doing.”
His team were fulsome in their praise too, with Renault Sport F1’s Thierry Salvi admitting that Ricciardo had “done a good job all race… he was quite impressive” and team boss Christian Horner added that “Daniel put in a great drive and, with another lap, possibly could have made it to the podium”.
If the race confirmed anything, it’s that not only is Ricciardo capable of delivering lightning-quick qualifying laps (as evidenced regularly at Toro Rosso) but that in the right car he’s also a determined, decisive and clever racer who is able to take the fight to the champions he is now qualifying around.
Modest as ever, thought, post-race Daniel reckoned he can still do better.
“It took me a few stabs at a few guys today,” he said. “I think a couple of times I was a bit anxious. I guess I have [established myself]. It is important. Obviously Seb has been dominant in F1 for the last four years at least and it’s nice to come in and show that I can race at the front. Obviously when you have the car underneath you it gives you a lot of confidence to battle and to move forward.”
With his points on the board courtesy of a fine drive in a complex and unpredictable race, that confidence will undoubtedly now bloom.