Formula 1

BLOOD IN THE WATER FOR BADGER

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RICCIARDO going from bad to worse as Monaco approaches, writes PETER COSTER:

FEARS their new cars will be copied by other teams led Ferrari to carry their car’s highly-secret undertray away from prying eyes at the Spanish Grand Prix in what looked like a bodybag.

Spies are everywhere as teams try to replicate  each other’s aerodynamic secrets from sneak pictures or television footage.

Mechanics shouldered the shrouded undertray like pallbearers after a Carlos Sainz excursion into the gravel.

The ground-hugging undertrays channel the air flowing under the car and are the most controversial of radical changes to the cars this season.

Aston Martin has been cleared of copying Red Bull’s design by “reverse engineering.” 

This means starting at the finish to understand how it has evolved.

But suspicions remain. Some will remember the “ground-effect” cars of the 1980s, banned by the FIA because it considered cornering speeds had become dangerous.

If the “suction” caused by the cars was disturbed during cornering, the car could suddenly fly off the track.

The carbon-fibre undertrays on the new cars, which have been developed by aerodynamicists, are believed to be responsible for the “porpoising” being experienced by Mercedes and Ferrari. 

Cameras in the cockpit show drivers’ heads bouncing alarmingly at high speeds. There are also other major issues with the new cars.

Max Verstappen won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in spite of drifting into the gravel behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

He was literally pushed off the track by a wind gust while being unable to open the DRS on his rear wing.

He managed to regain the track in fourth place and was then “gifted” a place by teammate Sergio Perez.

Leclerc, who started on pole and was likely to win the race, then retired as his engine inexplicably lost power.

Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo saw other drivers stream past his McLaren, seemingly unable to match their straight-line speed.

He started ninth on the grid but finished 12th and out of the points while teammate Lando Norris finished eighth and driving while sick with tonsillitis.

The Spanish was Ricciardo’s 216th Grand Prix, surpassing Mark Webber’s total. The Perth driver  has won eight GPs compared with Webber’s nine.

Ricciardo’s last win was at Monza last year in spite of his lack-lustre performance in most races for McLaren.

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A turning point seemed to have arrived at the Australian Grand Pix this year when he qualified seventh, but the new car seems to be giving him as much trouble as last year’s car.

It is difficult to accept that a driver long considered among the top five on the grid when he was driving for Red Bull has somehow lost his mojo since moving to Renault (now Alpine) and now McLaren.

Whispers about him being dropped from the team before his contract runs out next year are now a shout-out.

The Honey Badger is consistently behind Lando Norris in practice and qualifying and the race itself.

Last year, it was the car he could not come to terms with. It didn’t suit his driving style and he was having trouble adapting to the car instead of being able to make the car work for him.

Again, it was Norris who extracted the best from the car.

Next week, the circus moves to Monaco, where the Honey Badger won in 2018 after losing the lead in 2016 when his pit crew did not have his tyres ready.

Monaco was also the scene of perhaps his greatest embarrassment last year when he was lapped by Norris.

The then 21-year-old gave the struggling Ricciardo a wave as he went past. “Bad luck” 

or “See you later mate.” It could have been taken either way.

McLaren boss Zac Brown says there is “no rush” in talking about Ricciardo’s contract with the team. It will be discussed at the end of this season, but that will be a year ahead of its expiry date at the end of 2023.

There is blood in the water with American Indy driver Colton Herta saying he doesn’t wish ill upon the Aussie, but he does want his seat in the car.

Norris, who raced against Herta early in his career says the American was known as “Hooligan” Herta because of his cornering speeds, which often ended with the American in the gravel.

Another Australian who could be a possible replacement for Ricciardo in F1 is multi junior formula champion Oscar Piastri.

The 21-year-old Melbourne driver won the Formula 3 championship in 2020 and the Formula 2 championship last year and is the reserve driver for Alpine in F1.

Piastri is being mentored by Mark Webber, who was close to winning the world driver’s championship when driving for Red Bull in 2012.

Can Ricciardo turn his fortunes around?

That seems to be entirely up to him. He had the same upgrades as Norris at the Spanish Grand Prix and while he started ahead of Norris on the grid, it was because Norris had been penalised by the stewards for a track infringement.

Back to Sunday’s race and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz is having almost as many problems as Daniel Ricciardo.

Sainz started third on the grid and finished fourth behind Verstappen and Perez and Mercedes driver George Russell with Lewis Hamilton fifth for Mercedes.

The Spanish race lacked the pizzaz of the Miami Grand Prix with hundreds of celebrities, rappers and sports stars of all sorts crowding the track and a police motorcycle escort with lights flashing and sirens blaring as they took Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to the podium.

Next year, there will be a race in Las Vegas as well as Miami and the Circuit of the Americas in Texas.

The cars will race at speeds of more than 300kmh down the famous Las Vegas Strip and its landmark hotels and casinos.

This is another reason why teams like McLaren are already sounding out American drivers such as Hooligan Herta.

But next Sunday sees the most anticipated race on the F1 calendar if not the slowest around the twisting streets of the Principality. European Royalty will replace rappers.

Charles Leclerc, a Monegasque himself, will be the crowd favourite to regain the lead in the race for the driver’s world championship from Max Verstappen.

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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.

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