When Daniel Ricciardo passed Valtteri Bottas to score a stunning win at the Chinese Grand Prix last season, there was a genuine feeling that the Australian could challenge for a future world championship.
At 28, he was entering into his prime and had the vast array of skills and pace to light up F1 tracks worldwide on a fortnightly basis. Added to that was his high-watt smile and contagious personality, serious marketing tools for any of the elite teams.
Ferrari and Mercedes looked like frontrunners to secure his signature at one stage during last season, but the Perth native shocked the F1 world by opting instead to pen a bumper two-year deal with Renault.
The French outfit finished fourth in the constructors’ championship in 2018 and while it was hoping to make up ground on Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari with their new man, there has been little evidence of this in the opening four rounds of the season.
In the four race so far, Ricciardo has retired three times and finished seventh in China. Two weeks ago in Baku, he reversed into Daniil Kvyat after trying to overtake the Russian and then going down the run-off area.
As a result, he will have a three-place grid penalty at the Spanish GP this weekend.
Moving to a team who have not clinched a podium in eight years seemed like a bizarre decision – maybe the £26.5 million-a-year salary didn’t – and bodes the question as to whether it was a poor career move for the once-firing Monaco resident.
The early-season struggles sees Renault languishing in seventh in the constructors’ standings, behind fellow midfield contenders McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Racing Point.
Ricciardo’s smile is still evident on race weekends, although not as high-watt as his Red Bull days, nor is his supreme overtaking, partly down to the fact that the Renault struggles to overtake fast cars much anyway.
But his initial difficulties are normal in a new machine. The biggest problem for Ricciardo is how the car would not allow him to brake as aggressively as he is used to on the Red Bull’s approach to corners.
A secondary issue was the Renault was disrupted when it was driven heavily over kerbs, forcing him to change his lines in some cases.
Looking back, it is hard to argue with Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull, though, especially knowing only one driver can be a world champion from the factory and special preference acting in Max Verstappen’s favour.
Whether Renault talked too good a game during contract discussions and Ricciardo fell for the trap remains to be seen. But he was clearly fed up at his former employers and needed a fresh challenge after his disappointing eight retirements last season.
However strong the Red Bull might be, Ricciardo wasn’t happy and never would have performed to his maximum if he had stayed.
Renault were the only other option on the table at the time and has allowed him to rediscover his love in a new environment and a hefty pay day (three times his 2018 salary).
But one thing he may not have realised was the significant drop from a top team to a midfield outfit.
It’ll take time to adapt, but if he can understand the car and its limitations better over the course of the season, then results will be more positive and Renault could be sitting tidy at the top of the midfield.
It’s still early into his two-year contract but with his sky high confidence and strong driving ability, the 29-year-old needs to show why is one of the leading men on the grid.
With 17 races still to go in the Formula 1 season, the championship is already over.
Okay that’s a little facetious but it is difficult to see how Ferrari can make this is a genuine battle.
Mercedes have recorded four successive one-two finishes in the first four races and look high on pace and confidence. At this early stage of the season, the points table makes for difficult viewing, with Ferrari trailing their rivals by 74-points in the constructors’ championship.
Twelve months ago, Sebastian Vettel held a nine-point lead over Lewis Hamilton in the drivers standings. This time around the German trails the five-time world champion by 34-points.
The Prancing Horse looked the team to beat at pre-season testing in Barcelona, with a beautiful, well-balanced machine. But in the season opener in Melbourne they could not match Mercedes’ searing pace.
In Bahrain, Charles Leclerc led for most of the race but a mechanical issue late on denied him victory. Had the Monaco man won, there could be a different feeling around Maranello.
Positivity did increase for Ferrari after the Gulf race, but they were average in China, where Mercedes sealed another one-two by a considerable distance.
Fastest for a large sections of the weekend in Baku, Leclerc crashed during Q2 and was forced to start from eighth on the grid – he gained two places after penalties to Kimi Raikkonen and Pierre Gasly.
Without him clocking a time in Q3, it’s hard to determine how much quicker he could have been if he was to start higher up the grid.
The 21-year-old did hold the lead for a brief stint during Sunday’s race, but Ferrari kept him out on the mediums for too long, and he subsequently lost eight seconds in the space of five laps before being called in to pit on lap 35.
Returning out on fresh softs, he had problems with getting the tyres in the correct temperature window and was unable to challenge Max Verstappen for fourth place. Another poor strategy call by the Italian marque?
But even aside from Leclerc’s mistake in qualifying on Saturday, one significant positive is that he has proven to be a real threat to his team-mate Vettel, paling a vast contrast to previous years when Raikkonen seemed content to play second fiddle to the German’s prospects.
It might not fully come together for Leclerc this year, but he looks a future world champion in the making. He just needs time and experience to adjust to being a central figure in one of the top teams.
Based on form and pace in the opening races, team boss Mattia Binotto should make it a level-playing field for both drivers instead of favouritism towards Vettel. Leclerc had to agree to team orders in the first three rounds and had his race ruined in Baku due to the team’s decision to leave him out for too long on the medium tyres.
Vettel, though, is not a four-time world champion for nothing and probably is the team’s best chance to win a world title at the moment. But the Heppenheim native is struggling to show consistent pace in qualifying this season – apart from clocking the second fastest time in Q3 in Bahrain.
Even if we are only one fifth of the way through the season, the feeling now is Vettel is out of the title picture, Leclerc requires more experience and Ferrari out of the constructors’ championship. A shame really after such confidence in the car coming into the new season.
Ferrari need to bounce back next weekend in Barcelona or they will be edging towards crisis point. Binotto insists he knows what the issues are with the car but it is going to take time for the package to fully flourish.
A year that was expected to be a thrilling duel between the two top teams now looks like a one-sided season with little excitement.
Let’s hope for reverse fortunes in Spain for one of F1’s most famous outfits.
Sebastian Vettel has warned Ferrari to raise their game in order to stop Lewis Hamilton from running away with the championship.
Vettel lost further ground in the title race after Valtteri Bottas led Hamilton home in Azerbaijan for a record fourth one-two finish from the opening four rounds for the Silver Arrows.
The German, whose winless streak now extends to beyond eight months, will head back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time 35 points off the championship summit.
Ferrari meanwhile are already 74 points behind Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.
Responding to Hamilton, who said Ferrari need to improve in order to take the fight to Mercedes this season, Vettel replied: “He is right, we need to pick it up.
Ferrari impressed in winter testing, but after four races, they seem to have no answer for Mercedes.
Although there are 17 rounds still remaining, the Scuderia’s quest to end a decade-long championship drought is facing a stern examination.
“You need the confidence in the car, and I am not yet there with it,” added Vettel.
“I feel like I am not driving at my best because the car doesn’t answer or respond the way I like.”
Vettel’s junior team-mate Leclerc dominated in practice for Ferrari here but threw away his chances of a maiden victory by stuffing his car into the barriers during qualifying.
He led the race for 20 laps, by virtue of being on a different strategy to the leaders, before taking the chequered flag in fifth.
“I made a mistake on Saturday, but I will come back from it stronger,” he said.
Provided by Press Association Sport