Daniel Ricciardo's seige at the Australian and Bahrain GP
The new era of Formula 1 has gotten off to a real rollercoaster of a start. Reigning champions struggling, crowd favourites Ferrari lacking performance, Force India and Williams showing great form and new hot shots coming through with impressive performances. But above all else, Mercedes have emerged as the big winners of the winter battle and I'm pretty sure that the World Championship battle is going to be a two horse race between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
What I didn't expect to see was Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat, and Valtteri Bottas play starring roles in the 2014 season quite so early. These four guys along with Nico Hulkenberg, who we already knew about from 2013, have truly arrived in Formula 1 with their performances early this season.
Disqualification and appeal or not, Daniel Ricciardo was superb through Saturday and Sunday in Melbourne. If the Aussie was under pressure at his home Grand Prix, he wasn't letting the world know. He recovered from being a few tenths down on Friday to being the hometown hero on Sunday.
Daniel's always been a bit of a smiling assassin with a strong inner belief and determination behind those pearly whites! We've been friends since he raced in Formula BMW back in 2006 and as I watched him on the podium on Sunday, my mind wandered back to a dinner I had with his dad Joe who came to see me in Brackley early in 2007, just before Dan was going to have his first evaluation test to get on the Red Bull Junior program. Joe was pretty nervous ahead of the test, not because he doubted his boy's ability, but because this was their big chance of getting the money he needed to keep the racing career going. It all panned out superbly of course and I am very pleased for Dan, Joe and his mum Grace - it's nice to see good things happen to good people even in this cynical, political, harsh business of motorsport.
Yes I know the weather conditions were iffy and Sebastian had issues, but Daniel seized the opportunity in qualifying. Everytime he came across the line in all three parts of qualifying, he was right up in the mix. In the race, the McLaren looked like it had a bit more pace but Dan didn't make a mistake under pressure and held on for a memorable podium at home. The explanation from Red Bull seems to suggest that he didn't really gain performance and if you look at what he did in Malaysia and Bahrain, where he attacked and passed Sebastien with real confidence was a real sign of him putting down a marker of not being a pushover this season.
Magnussen was a total star of Melbourne. The confidence with which he attacked the race track, with the rear of the car dancing around, right from the word go on Friday was very impressive. Anyone who watched his dad Jan at Macau in 1994, when he went from 18th on the grid to winning the second leg, will recognise that confident aggression! What especially impressed me was the start. After getting a sudden burst of wheelspin, the Mclaren snapped sharply to the left and Kevin was close to ending up in the wall along with Alonso. He gathered it up calmly and then defended smartly from Hulkenberg into turn 3 to set himself up for a fine afternoon.
The Bahrain Grand Prix really showed the world, and especially drivers in junior formulae, just how good clean wheel-to-wheel racing can be. Racing wheel-to-wheel is always hard in a single seater because of the blind spots. You often can't see the other car alongside you and also because you can't see your front wing, it's often hard to judge just how close and tightly you can squeeze in before contact is made with the car in front. You also have to remember that racing drivers all have an ego and more often than not, you rely on the guy you're racing to treat you with respect and back out of the fight at some point to avoid a collision. In recent years, as cars and tracks have gotten safer, the drivers often wait too long to concede a place, which ends in a collision but this week we saw plenty of examples of drivers giving up places strategically to get it back by clever placement a couple corners later.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were a fine example of drivers racing hard but fairly. They came very close to touching on the opening lap at Bahrain on Turn 4 until Nico had to accept he had lost the corner and I thought they again came very close just before the first pitstop, when Lewis gave Nico a chop coming out of turn 1 into turn 2. Apart from that, there was a good amount of respect shown between them. The quality of racing from guys like Checo Perez, Nico Hulkenberg, Jenson, Dan Ricciardo and the Williams drivers was also very high. Of course for all the good racing, there were a couple moves which were really questionable - Pastor Maldonado's lunge on Esteban Gutierrez was just clumsy with pretty dramatic consequences for the Sauber and I thought Jules Bianchi's lunge into turn 1 was also very optimistic, just like his move on lap 1 in Malaysia, but overall the quality of overtaking was very high.
You also have to keep in mind the whole brake by wire and varying brake balance in all of this. The drivers are constantly adjusting the brake balance and therefore to have the confidence to attack the brakes at exactly the right point and make the move stick is actually harder than it used to be. Bahrain was a great example of clean, good fighting and I do hope that we see this as an example not just for the rest of the season, but for other categories as well.
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