MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Daniel Ricciardo’s promotion to the Red Bull hot seat promised a more pliable partner for Sebastian Vettel, but the 24-year-old’s impressive qualifying at his home Grand Prix suggests the world champion has another gritty Australian to deal with.
Tensions with his former team mate Mark Webber were a hallmark of Vettel’s four championship years as the chisel-featured Australian railed at playing second fiddle in the Red Bull garage.
The German’s ruthless pursuit of victory, occasionally at Webber’s expense, endeared him to few Down Under and a certain schadenfreude was detectable in the cheers at Albert Park when Ricciardo finished second in qualifying on Saturday compared to Vettel’s 13th.
Ricciardo will line up with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton on the front row on Sunday but will no doubt be hogging the headlines in local newspapers after showing creditable composure on a greasy track doused by rain showers.
Rather than save his best until last like Hamilton, a determined Ricciardo set the pace from the outset, topping the timesheets early and re-claiming the front running with seconds to spare before being ultimately overhauled.
“It was nice to always be up there,” Ricciardo told reporters, flashing his trademark toothy smile.
”The engineer was on the radio saying: ‘pace is good, P1, P2, P3’ and it was always that battle for the pole position so definitely a really nice first qualifying session with the team.
”We’ll have to see what went wrong with Seb and his side of the garage, but for now, it’s happy for me to be at least up here.
“It wasn’t looking like this a few weeks ago. Pretty pleased right now.”
Webber was a welcome presence at Albert Park throughout his F1 career, and has remained so this week despite playing no part in the action.
However his failure to perform at home, despite collecting nine wins overseas, was a disappointment to local fans.
Ricciardo, who crossed from Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso in the off-season, faces a tall order to become his country’s first home F1 winner, with Mercedes expected to be dominant on dry-weather tires.
But the front row was enough for Ricciardo to be the star attraction at the post-qualifying media conference where Hamilton and third-placed Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg were largely ignored by local reporters.
“For me to start the season with a front row, it does a lot of good things for the confidence,” said Ricciardo, who has yet to climb an F1 podium.
”I‘m really excited but at the same time, I‘m still staying calm and collected, because tomorrow’s what counts, so there’s no point having a party tonight and not focusing on tomorrow.
“I’ve been sleeping well, I’ve been pretty worn out by the end of the day, with all the extra-curricular activities today, but I‘m sure I’ll sleep well tonight.”
More heartening for Red Bull was Ricciardo’s confidence that the RB10 car his team fought with during a dismal winter testing was starting to behave.
“In testing unfortunately, a lot of the time we were circulating to learn about reliability and to stop things from over-heating so we weren’t really focused on what set-up we were running or any of that,” he said.
”I think all the aero guys are gathering more information and making the car a bit quicker each time we run.
“It’s definitely a positive for us now, and hopefully the upward trend continues and we can start to hassle these (Mercedes) guys in dry conditions soon.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin