Sparks fly as Daniel comes undone again

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WHEN he moved to Renault this season, Daniel Ricciardo could not have expected two worse performances from his new team. PETER COSTER reports:

DANIEL Ricciardo’s seat in his F1 Renault had to be bashed into submission by mechanics at the Australian Grand Prix in a “low-tech” solution to a “too-tight” race harness “in the gentlemanly region”.

At the Bahrain Grand Prix, it was a bizarre encore to the season opener at Albert Park when Ricciardo jumped out of what became a hot seat believing he could have been “electrocuted”.

The original hot seat was “Old Sparky,” the Florida electric chair in which a long line of prisoners were electrocuted.

Old Sparky even travelled to other southern US states to perform its services.

The Australian driver was told to “jump out of the car” and did so in roo-like fashion.

He was under investigation for failing to reattach his steering wheel after leaving the car at the side of the Bahrain circuit, but all has been forgiven.

An electrical red-warning light was on and further down the road teammate Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault was sitting at the side of the circuit with the same electrifying problem.

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Not only did both cars fail at the same time on the same part of the circuit, but  Carlos Sainz’s Renault-powered McLaren retired with a gearbox failure.

In the previous race in Melbourne, the Renault engine caught fire. Fire marshals were slow to reach the fiercely-burning car and one marshal struggled to pull the pin on his fire extinguisher. Old Sparky blazed away.

The problem for Renault is far greater than Ricciardo might have thought when he decided to  switch seats from Red Bull last year.

Renault is one of three works teams in F1. Mercedes and Ferrari are at the front of the grid, followed by the independent Red Bull, which dropped Renault engines last year in favour of Honda power.

When Ricciardo, on a long flight between races, decided to take the seat at Renault, it looked like the right decision.

Honda engines were at least 10kph off the pace compared with Ferrari and Mercedes and had been dumped by McLaren after double-world champion Fernando Alonso left the team in frustration.

Red Bull’s feeder team, Toro Rosso, was forced to take the Renault engines in exchange for its Honda engines.

They were not happy then, but they are overjoyed now as Renault struggles and Honda continues to improve.

The “optics” are bad for the once-dominant French manufacturer, whose engines powered Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel to four world championships.

Vettel left for Ferrari, stung by his inability to score a win during Ricciardo’s triumphant first year in which the former Perth driver won three races.

Now Ricciardo has left Red Bull, not necessarily because he has been outdriven by Max Verstappen, but because he believed the team was being built around the young Dutch driver. Ricciardo is 29 and Verstappen is 21 and the same may be happening to Vettel at Ferrari where rookie Charles Leclerc is also 21.

The Monegasque driver replaced Kimi Raikkonen, who at 39 is the oldest driver in F1. Age makes a difference, although the Finn and no doubt Ricciardo might disagree.

Leclerc deserved to win at Bahrain. He led for most of the race before his Ferrari’s energy recovery system failed with only 10 laps to go.

He finished third after the safety car forced drivers to hold position while debris was cleared from the track.

Lewis Hamilton, ever the diplomat, gave him a commiserating hug, saying it was “devastating” for Leclerc, but the Ferrari failure was “an opportunity” for Mercedes.

The young Monegasque had been fastest in practice, won pole, recorded the fastest lap and was voted driver of the day by fans.

He scored more than 50 per cent of the worldwide vote with the best of the rest race winner Lewis Hamilton on just under 11 per cent.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who replaced Ricciardo at Red Bull, finished only 11th at Melbourne and eighth at Bahrain, while Verstappen took third at Albert Park and fourth at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit.

In spite of the tears of joy shed by Honda boss Soichi Yamamoto as Verstappen stood on the podium in Melbourne, the hard-charging Verstappen has tempered his initial enthusiasm for the Honda engine by saying he will have more to say after the next GP at Shanghai.

There is no doubt that Verstappen as a driver is keeping the Red Bull cars competitive. At Bahrain, he gave not a centimetre as he banged wheels with Carlos Sainz.

Former world champion Nico Rosberg commented: “Never try to overtake Max Verstappen.”

Other drivers felt the same way about Michael Schumacher when the seven-times world champion was racing.

You attempted to overtake at your peril as Damon Hill found when Schumacher spun in front of him at Adelaide in 1994.

Only a point separated the two drivers in the last race of the season. Hill needed only to finish in the points ahead of Schumacher to take the title. Their cars collided. Both were out of the race and Schumacher was world champion.

Did Schumacher  cause the collision? Sir Jack Brabham, a hard racer who won three world championships, told me Schumacher “did the only thing he could do”.

“Black Jack” once pushed his car across the finishing line to win his first world title. His attitude was whatever it takes.

When your correspondent asked Schumacher whether he could have avoided Hill he said he was merely a passenger in the car. Few believed him then or since.

Verstappen is in the same mould as Ricciardo found out when he tried to pass him in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last year.

Both cars were sidelined when Verstappen blocked Ricciardo right and then left. The rules say you are allowed only one blocking manoeuvre in F1.

When Ricciardo moved to pass on the left after being shut out on the right, Verstappen swung back and left the Australian driver with nowhere to go.

Smoke pouring off his tyres, Ricciardo ploughed into the back of the German’s car.

At Bahrain on Sunday, the stewards were taking a more lenient view of driver aggression. Sainz complained bitterly about being hit by Verstappen but the stewards decided it was “a racing incident” and there was no penalty.

“Let them race,’’ and it was a race to remember in spite of it being another Mercedes 1-2.

The circus moves on to China with Ferrari and Charles Leclerc showing the “bloody red cars” (as they were known when Enzo Ferrari dominated F1) have the speed to turn it around.

And just to conclude with the latest peace of F1 jargon:

“Under-rotating, they call it,” said Martin Brundle, after Sebastian Vettel went into a corner with his tyres smoking. “We call it locking up.” Locking up it is and Brundle knows what he’s talking about after 158 GP starts. He was third on the podium in that Adelaide race, eventually won by Nigel Mansell.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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