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Formula 1

Ricciardo's F1 breakthrough - is it real and what's behind it?

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Daniel Ricciardo's first full-time Formula 1 campaign back in Red Bull's junior team has gone far from to plan, but a weekend of, so far, comprehensively beating RB team-mate Yuki Tsunoda appears encouraging.

Ricciardo didn’t go as far as claiming that his switch to a new monocoque for the Chinese Grand Prix was responsible for his strongest weekend of the season so far - but he certainly suspects it.

The Australian has stressed that the new chassis was always scheduled for introduction in Shanghai but said earlier in the weekend that he had “been quite vocal” about having it in order to eliminate any possibility that his early-season struggles could be attributed to an undetected chassis problem.

The team was happy to oblige given team-mate Yuki Tsunoda had no concerns about his chassis, with racing director Alan Permane describing it as a “happy accident”.

But China has proved, so far, to be Ricciardo’s strongest weekend of the season, thanks to him being emphatically the stronger performer in the RB team. Before that, he had gone 4-0 down to Tsunoda in qualifying for the first four races, as well as failing to register a point while Tsunoda has seven.

Ricciardo finished Saturday's sprint race 11th after starting 14th and qualified 12th for Sunday’s grand prix, beating his team-mate in every session.

Indeed, Tsunoda’s feedback after qualifying echoed what Ricciardo referred to earlier in the season at times. Tsunoda indicated the positive feeling in the car was failing to translate into laptime – ending up 0.303s slower despite Permane saying “we haven’t found anything wrong or any issues with his car yet”.

Ricciardo can’t give a definitive answer on whether the chassis change is the reason for the improvement, not because he’s unwilling to but because he doesn’t have evidence to do so beyond the fact that the performance appears to have improved.

But while correlation doesn’t automatically equal causation, he believes that sustaining this form can provide the confirmation. 

“It feels like a more normal weekend,” said Ricciardo. “From the get-go, we just felt like we’re in a better place.

“Everything came…I don’t want to say easier because that sounds too easy but it came a bit more seamlessly so far this weekend. So, it's encouraging. Obviously, we did change chassis, so I don't want to jump on that yet and be like 'it's definitely that'.

"We need to prove that over the course of a few races. But that was obviously something we did change this weekend, and so far it's been my best weekend of the year.

"Whether it's that or whether it's just that I've always done well around here, we'll see.

Ricciardo versus his team-mates in Shanghai (qualifying and race)

2012 (Vergne): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Vergne ahead in R
2013 (Vergne): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Ricciardo ahead in R
2014 (Vettel): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Ricciardo ahead in R
2015 (Kvyat): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Ricciardo ahead in R
2016 (Kvyat): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Kvyat ahead in R
2017 (Verstappen): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Verstappen ahead in R
2018 (Verstappen): Verstappen ahead in Q, Ricciardo ahead in R
2019 (Hulkenberg): Ricciardo ahead in Q, Ricciardo ahead in R

"We'll see in Miami and in Imola and maybe the next few, if it continues.”

Ricciardo indicated there was no fundamental change in his own approach this weekend and characterised the changes made to the car as nothing more than “a little few tweaks here and there”.

However, it could be significant that such changes were made at Suzuka two weeks ago, where he backed away from the ‘safety’ understeer he’d dialled in for Australia thanks to a lack of confidence in the high-speed corners. So this is part of an ongoing process.

Untangling the array of factors that will have contributed to his turnaround, including the extent to which Tsunoda is underperforming, is almost impossible. But what Ricciardo has no doubt about is that his RB was better in China than during the previous four events, saying “to be black and white with it, for now, yes” when asked if it felt different.

“Say my weekend, how it’s gone so far, continues [and] say the next five completely do this 180 [degree turnaround] so to speak, then I’ll have the confidence in saying 'alright, maybe we will never know what it was, but something didn't maybe feel right with the previous chassis’.

“I would love to be here in five races' time and say that, because then it means the season was definitely turned around and [I can] get that monkey off our back or put that thing to bed, so to speak. But I'm encouraged so far with the two days we've had here.” 

We can certainly take Ricciardo at his word that he’s happier with the car. What’s more, his suspicion that this could be down to the chassis change might prove to be correct.

However to that, we must add some caveats. Not only is this just one weekend, but it’s one on which Tsunoda is struggling and it could conceivably be that Ricciardo is simply where he normally would be (after all, he qualified 11th at Suzuka, one place higher than for the Chinese Grand Prix) while for whatever reason his team-mate has hit trouble.

Ricciardo's recent struggles mean he's certainly motivated to believe that it's a genuine breakthrough, but there’s the danger that this could just be circumstantial rather than symptomatic of a turnaround.

But it’s certainly good news for Ricciardo that he’s feeling confident and has the potential to score his first points of the season in Sunday’s race. Only with time will we know whether this really is the start of a good run of form and the extent to which the chassis change is, or isn’t, a factor.

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