Ricciardo is our only hope

As the only Australian in formula one now, Daniel Ricciardo is the new face of the Australian Grand Prix.

Ricciardo’s trademark toothy grin beams out of roadside billboards all over Melbourne and stars in other forms of advertising for the race.

Just as the nation’s hopes rode with Mark Webber for 12 years, they will rest on the shoulders of the young West Australian at Albert Park on Sunday.

Ricciardo has replaced Webber as our great hope and also as defending four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull Racing teammate, increasing the weight of expectation.

Unfortunately, his arrival at Red Bull has coincided with the team struggling with the radical new technical rules.

The Renault-powered RB10 racer was dogged by problems in pre-season testing, with Ricciardo and Vettel completing less than half the running of the benchmark Mercedes-Benz squad and failing to post competitive lap times.

Instead of his promotion to Red Bull ranking him among the pre-race favourites, the team’s unexpected travails have many pundits doubting that he and Vettel will finish the 58-lap, 307.5 km season-opening Australian Grand Prix, much less contend for victory.

Ricciardo has no idea how Red Bull will perform once the cars take to the track for the first practice sessions on Friday afternoon, but he doesn’t discount the possibility of a major improvement since the last test ended in Bahrain 11 days ago.

‘‘I definitely hope we can surprise some people,’’ he said. ‘‘I know for a fact the team’s been working ridiculously hard all through the off-season, but even more so since testing began and we realised where we stood.

‘‘Since Bahrain, they’ve done a lot back at the factory and I’ve sure we made progress, but until we get on track on Friday, we’re not going to know how much ground we made on the competitors. So we still have a bit to discover, I’m sure, but we’re going to get stronger and stronger the more laps we do.

‘‘I think each lap is going to be so important for us and we’ll learn a lot more and keep closing the gap a bit. Hopefully, sooner rather than later as well.’’ Ricciardo admitted that his team’s problematic preparations had taken some of the external pressure off in the lead-up to his debut with the outfit that has dominated for the past four years.

‘‘In a way, I guess it lowers a little bit of expectation, but at the same time, it doesn’t really change my approach,’’ he said. ‘‘I still have a job to do, still have Seb alongside me, which is going to be a big challenge no matter what position we’re fighting for.

‘‘I still have a bit on my plate and, hopefully, I’ll be at the top of my game.’’ For the past several days, Ricciardo has been in the limelight, answering constant questions about his prospects at Albert Park.

Other drivers would be tired of the repetition, but he is so enthusiastic and accommodating that there is no sign of frustration - just acceptance that the intense interest is natural.

‘‘Everyone’s curious, just as I am, to see how I go,’’ he said. ‘‘A lot of people probably don’t know what I’m capable of, so it’s curiosity for now and obviously Seb’s been so dominant, so it’s like ‘can this kid really take it to him’ and that, I guess, we’ll find out.

‘‘But for me, I’m just still trying to stay pretty humble about it all and just do what I’ve done for the past few years and try to improve on that. Good thing is, I don’t really feel like I’ve peaked yet and I still feel I’m learning a lot.

‘‘I’m still young, so hopefully there’s still a bit of speed to come out me.’’ Ricciardo could barely contain his excitement after competing in an informal drag race against a jet fighter on Wednesday morning, piloting a Red Bull F1 racer against an RAAF F/A18 Hornet on the runway at the East Sale airbase.

‘‘It was pretty cool,’’ he grinned. ‘‘I could see it catching me in my mirrors and it’s the only time you’re actually happy to be caught by something in your mirrors. Normally, you don’t like seeing a car behind you get bigger, but seeing that in the mirror was something that will stay in my memory bank forever.

‘‘That was a pretty surreal feeling. And then it flew past me. Good fun, so I can’t wait to see the footage.’’ Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Ricciardo is looking forward to driving for a top team and the chance to vie for his first formula one race victory later in the season.

‘‘It’s a step closer to what I want to achieve in the sport, so it makes me feel good and more motivated than I’ve ever been to really do well,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve earned the seat - that’s one step - but I haven’t done anything with it yet.

‘‘Up until now, I haven’t been with a top team - my best result’s just a seventh (with Toro Rosso, Red Bull's  junior formula one team), so there’s still plenty of room for me to move forward and there’s no point in me getting too excited until I do that.

‘‘I don’t expect winning to come easy, if it does come, but that’s our target. That’s our goal to work towards and that’s the challenge we have in front of us. I haven’t got close to a win yet, so I have a bit of learning to do, but I’m ready.’’

The story Ricciardo is our only hope first appeared on WA Today.

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