Daniel Ricciardo readies for bittersweet F1 return at Australian GP

<span>Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA</span>
Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

Daniel Ricciardo returns to the Australian Grand Prix this weekend without a car but still with plenty of local support at Albert Park, as Melbourne prepares for its biggest weekend of the sporting year and Formula One fans eagerly await what is being tipped as the “fastest race in Melbourne ever”.

Ousted last year by McLaren and replaced with rookie fellow Australian Oscar Piastri, the popular Ricciardo will endure the bittersweet experience of watching his home grand prix from the outer as his former team battle to get off the ground floor in 2023.

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McLaren is tied with AlphaTauri for dead last in the constructors’ standings on zero points after two races and their season is already being written off as a disaster. Engine failure meant Piastri couldn’t finish his debut in Bahrain and, although the Melbourne rookie overtook teammate Lando Norris, McLaren still finished 15th.

The F1 season traditionally kicks off in Melbourne but this year the 58-lap event will be the third race of the 2023 calendar. A record 419,114 fans attended last year’s Australian GP, making it the biggest sporting weekend in Melbourne’s history.

This year’s talking point is a resurfaced track with some radical changes. Organisers have introduced a fourth DRS zone, located along the back of the circuit between Turns 6 and 11, and removed the chicane at Turns 9 and 10. The drastic remodelling is fuelling hopes this year’s Australian GP will be the “fastest race in Melbourne ever”.

“You’ve got the evolution of the cars from last year, and the fourth DRS zone means the cars will be quicker around the back of the circuit,” Australian Grand Prix chief Andrew Westacott said. “[It] will obviously increase speed and therefore lap time and make it the quickest Grand Prix and the highest average speed ever in Melbourne.”

It’s good news for 21-year-old Piastri in his first home race as a Formula 1 driver.

“It’s a massive privilege for me to be able to race in not just my home country, but in my home city,” Piastri told reporters. “I grew up 10-15 minutes away from the circuit and could hear the cars back when they were loud enough back at home in the backyard, so for me, it’s really special. I feel super privileged to have the opportunity.”

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Piastri is having a chequered debut season. In Jeddah both he and fellow driver Norris were forced to come into the pits by lap three to replace damaged front wings. McLaren’s rebuild has been chaotic, with new team principal Andrea Stella’s sacking technical director James Key and dividing the head design role among three people.

Norris has finished 17th in both races, accelerating speculation the highly touted 23-year-old Belgian-Briton could be in Mercedes’ sights when Lewis Hamilton retires.

That could open up a seat for Ricciardo in the 2024 season. As it stands, leaving McLaren might be the best career move he has made, with reports the 33-year-old walked away with a contract termination worth up to $24m.

Although he has rejoined Red Bull Racing behind the scenes, it will be a strange experience for Ricciardo to be watching and not driving. Ricciardo finished sixth here for McLaren in 2022, matching his 2015 result for Red Bull but failing to better his best result of fourth in both 2016 and 2018.

“This is the first year in as long as I can remember that my goals aren’t going to be 100% about racing and competing,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “Aussie fans always bring a lot of energy and I’m excited to see the F1 fans in Melbourne.”

Speaking of his Red Bull return, Ricciardo said: “I’m back in an environment and ultimately a family that I have a lot of good memories with, and it feels really good to be back there. In turn that will develop my abilities, my confidence and my enjoyment behind the wheel.”

Ricciardo admitted it had been a “tough couple of years professionally” as he took a break from the mental and physical rigours of F1’s 23-race calendar. However, he maintained the exile from frontline F1 duties has not affected his competitive streak.

“There’s an element of that competitor in me wanting to remind people that I’m still here, still a professional and still contributing to success,” he said.

Ricciardo has been busy with simulator work and marketing duties. It included driving a championship-winning RB7 F1 car around Australia as part of the Red Bull Racing Road Trip series.

Ricciardo tested the RB7 in outback Broken Hill and down Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. In one scene, he outmanoeuvres a helicopter herding him like cattle. In another, he is buzzed by a fighter pilot as they race along Sea Cliff Bridge near Wollongong.

Ricciardo is joined in the video by Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen, off-road racers Toby Price and Daniel Sanders and aerobatic pilot Matt Hall, climaxing with a race against Van Gisbergen at Australia’s most treacherous circuit, Mount Panorama.