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Why 2018 is Daniel Ricciardo's big year

From ESPN - March 20, 2018

The 2018 Formula One season looks set to be a pivotal nine months in Daniel Ricciardo's career. After four years driving for Red Bull without challenging for a title, the early indications suggest the former world champions have rediscovered their mojo over the winter. During pre-season testing the new RB14 looked devastatingly quick in the corners and with a healthy boost of power from engine-supplier Renault it could be among the best cars on the grid in Melbourne.

Of course, testing can be misleading and the picture can easily shift as updates arrive in rival garages ahead of this weekend's Australian Grand Prix. But even if 2018 proves to be another false dawn, Ricciardo's long-standing contract with the team is finally coming to an end this year. As a result, he will be free to explore options with the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari for 2019 if Red Bull fails to deliver for a fifth season in a row.

So is the Australian excited about the upcoming season?

"Yeah," he answers with that trademark grin spreading across his face, "you should feel my nipples!"

Given that we are sat in a packed Red Bull motorhome during the second week of testing, I politely decline his offer. Today is Ricciardo's 'day off', which means he's sat inside talking to ESPN while teammate Max Verstappen thrashes the new RB14 around the Circuit de Catalunya. That may sound like the short straw, but the man from Perth is still full of energy after a series of solid days behind the wheel of his new car.

"I probably have not had too many reasons to get excited in the years before," Ricciardo says with a nod to Red Bull's patchy performance during winter testing in recent years. "But it feels like we are in a better place than we have been the last few seasons. We seem solid. Soon we will know on one-lap pace where we are, but I do not think we are far off."

Will Renault deliver?

At the end of the two weeks of testing in Barcelona, the RB14 may not have held the new track record at the Circuit de Catalunya -- that honour went to Ferrari -- but it was consistently registering the fastest apex speeds according to the GPS data of rival teams. That suggests Red Bull has finally overcome the teething issues it experienced with last year's RB13 and may have produced one of the best cars on the 2018 grid.

But Red Bull's ability to produce a good a chassis has never really been in doubt. The question has always been -- and still remains -- what engine supplier Renault can produce to power it.

Ricciardo retired from three races last year with engine-related problems and amassed 70-places-worth of grid penalties due to power unit component changes beyond his allocation for the season. This year each driver is limited to just three engines per year instead of four, meaning the onus is on Renault to up its game not just in terms of outright power but also reliability.

"We are certainly relying on the reliability to improve, and we have made a pretty good step with that," Ricciardo says. "I am just going to go on those things for now, and once we are confident with that we are going to want performance.

"I think we are obviously still not going to be on Mercedes' level. There is nothing that they [Renault] have changed to get another 40 horsepower. But in any case, to win a championship you need to be finishing races -- let alone winning, you need to be finishing. Once we can finish we can start taking points away and do our thing."

But let's assume the Red Bull-Renault package does deliver on its pre-season promise. Let's assume it gets within 0.3s of the fastest car, whether that be a Mercedes or a Ferrari. Would Ricciardo fancy his chances of challenging for a championship then?

"Look, if the top three teams are within 0.3s then for sure the driver can still make a difference. Even if you do not have the outright pace you can be more aggressive at the start to gain a position and block for the rest of the race. You can muscle your way through.

"If we are in the hunt, I believe I can make the difference."

The threat from within

Yet the greatest challenge to Ricciardo's championship campaign might not come from a rival team but from within Red Bull. In Verstappen, Ricciardo faces one of the most prodigious talents of the current generation and a driver that is still improving at a remarkable rate.

Last year the Australian outscored the young Dutchman on points, but in qualifying Verstappen beat Ricciardo 13-7 with an average advantage of 0.128s per lap. Reliability issues clouded the competitive picture between the two teammates over the course of the year, but most observers gave Verstappen the nod over Ricciardo in their end-of-season rankings.

"I think last year Max got on with it a bit earlier," Ricciardo explains. "He also had a good end to the season, but I probably did not get on with it as quickly in terms of the new car and all that. Finding the sweetspot -- it was quite a difficult car to drive at the beginning of the season -- and I was probably just too caught up in trying to make it better when I probably just should have just accepted what it was and just got on with it.

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