Daniel Ricciardo’s future, Alpine’s present and more storylines for F1 Australian GP

The 2024 Formula 1 season could potentially reshape the sport. With over half the grid driving on expiring contracts, the driver transfer market could truly shake up the field over the next few months. We have already seen one seismic move — the upcoming switch to Ferrari from Mercedes from seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton — and more could be on the way.

As such, the competition for seats on the 2025 grid expects to be tight. And one driver who might feel they are lagging in that fight right now?

Daniel Ricciardo.

Following a shocking mid-season return to the grid a year ago, a move that was likely a cause for celebration at Netflix offices, Ricciardo has seen his 2024 campaign roll off to a slow start. After topping the timing sheets in the first practice session ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Ricciardo has turned in a pair of lackluster performances. He finished P13 in Bahrain, one spot ahead of teammate Yuki Tsunoda due to a late-stage set of team orders to let Ricciardo pass that was the subject of much discussion in the days following the race.

Then in Saudi Arabia it was a P16, finishing behind Tsunoda on another points-less afternoon for Visa Cash App RB F1 Team. In the closing laps of that race Ricciardo even spun, although he was able to recover and finish the race.

At both races Tsunoda also qualified ahead of Ricciardo, with Ricciardo posting a P14 in back-to-back weeks while Tsunoda is the only VCARB driver to see Q3 this season.

The early-season struggles have led Dr. Helmut Marko, a Red Bull advisor and one of the sport’s most quotable figures, to wonder about Ricciardo’s future. “Ricciardo has to show something quickly. There is work to be done,” said Marko to Motorsport following the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Following that race Ricciardo admitted his mistake, but noted that he was staying upbeat.

“It was a tough race and overall, a tough weekend, which is very frustrating. During the Safety Car time, when almost everyone pitted, we had a slow pit stop and a few laps from the end, I made a mistake and hit too much kerb in Turn 1, which caused a spin. I’m staying optimistic though, as I know we have some positive signs and we just need to polish our package up,” said Ricciardo in the team’s post-race report.

Now he gets a chance to go home, and to the site of his first-ever points finish.

“We have a week off now, and there will be a big push from everyone to get it right and make sure we have a good package for the next race,” said Ricciardo after Jeddah. “I know the team wants it as badly as I do. I’m excited to go back racing in Melbourne, so let’s get ready for it.”

Just how good of a homecoming will it be?

Ricciardo’s homecoming is just one of the major storylines heading into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.

When will the turnaround come at Alpine?

The challenging start to the 2024 F1 season at Alpine shows no signs of letting up.

Coming out of pre-season testing the team knew they faced an uphill climb, given the issues with the A524, and that led to a complete reorganization of their technical team.

However, that has not immediately translated to results at Alpine. In the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix both Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly started — and finished — at the back of the field. That was a pattern the team repeated in Saudi Arabia. Ocon and Gasly started in P17 and P18, respectively, and while Ocon managed to climb up to P13, Gasly’s race was over almost before it began, as he suffered a gearbox failure on the formation lap and was out of the race shortly after the start.

It was a second-straight race without points for the team, and a step back from a season ago. Last year at Jeddah both drivers finished in the points, with Ocon in P8 and Gasly right behind him in P9.

The results show a step back from a year ago, as does the data. Looking at Ocon’s fastest laps from both the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and this year’s installment, highlights some of the issues for Alpine. Take this comparison of those two laps, courtesy of F1-Tempo:

The fact that last year’s fastest lap was quicker than this year’s is probably worrying enough for Alpine. But diving into the data a little more shows even more worrisome signs. The 2024 lap came with a DRS boost, right at the start of the lap. The 2024 lap is in pink, while the 2023 lap is in blue:

Screenshot 2024 03 17 at 9.39.08 AM

That little boost allowed Ocon in 2024 to reach a top speed of 320 km/h during that stretch, much faster than the 299 km/h recorded during that same portion of the lap a year ago, which you can see in the upper-left portion of this chart:

Screenshot 2024 03 17 at 9.40.35 AM

Even with that significant DRS boost this season, the 2023 car was still quicker.

Following the race Ocon made it clear: They are just not quick enough.

“Realistically, that’s all we could achieve in the race today. For us, we took it as another opportunity to learn more about the car. There was some chaos at the start, so we did well to stay clean and capitalise on some positions,” said Ocon in the team’s post-race media report. “There were some moments of close wheel to wheel racing, which was good at times. We are just not quick enough to score points and that’s where we are at this moment in time.”

Team Principal Bruno Famin noted their “difficult” start.

“We said it was going to be a tough start to the season and it has been a very difficult first few weeks with the test and two Grands Prix. Even if we have upgrades coming, we need to understand our lack of performance,” added Famin. “And, today, we have to investigate the gearbox problem, which cost Pierre valuable track time. There is only one thing we can do and that is to continue working hard all together to improve the current situation that we are in.”

Now the team returns to the site of perhaps their lowest moment of the 2023 season, which saw Ocon and Gasly come together after a late-stage restart and knock each other out of the points. They may be hoping for a redemption story in the Australian Grand Prix this year, but can the current version of the A524 write that story?

Progress first, results second for Logan Sargeant?

Another one of the drivers working on an expiring contract this season is Logan Sargeant at Williams. The lone American driver on the grid a season ago was handed a new one-year deal for the 2024 campaign, which was a surprising move to some after a rookie season saw Sargeant notch just a single point on the year.

Sargeant has yet to open his account this year, finishing in P20 at the Bahrain Grand Prix as he managed an electrical issue on his FW46. In Saudi Arabia he put in a slightly-better result, coming across the line in 14th.

While the points are not there yet, Williams Team Principal James Vowles maintains his patient approach with Sargeant, pointing to “progress” as the goal more than anything else.

“It’s important to him to get good results,” Vowles said in Saudi Arabia. “The only thing I would say is it’s not the early on bit. What we have to see from him is progress as we continue on. ‘Early on’ implies that there’s a risk if he’s not performing after three races that something will happen, and that’s simply not the case.”

The Williams boss remains focused on the big picture idea of “progress,” rather than simply the results.

“In the case of Logan, he knows that he finished last year starting to build on what he had as an experience base, and he’s coming back here not as a rookie now, but someone that has years of experience behind him,” Vowles added.

“He’s got to build on that without mistakes, without error, and continually move forward.”

Ultimately, results will matter. But the idea at Williams seems to be that if the process is solid and progress is present, the results will naturally follow.

When that happens, however, remains to be seen.

What will Ferrari’s lineup be this weekend?

Talk about a tale of two weeks for Carlos Sainz Jr.

The Ferrari driver — who is set to be replaced by Hamilton next season — put in a masterful performance in Bahrain, securing a P3 finish to open his season with a podium.

The following week he was in the hospital, undergoing an appendectomy for appendicitis.

His illness opened the door for a stellar debut for Ollie Bearman, who narrowly missed out on Q3 after just one hour of practice but finished in the points in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, holding off Hamilton and Lando Norris in the closing laps for a stunning P7. Bearman was back behind the wheel of a Ferrari last week, participating in a previously-scheduled testing session in the F1-75, the team’s 2022 challenger:

Can Sainz make it back in time for Australia, or will the 18-year-old Bearman get another shot at F1 glory?

An early test for F1 support in the United States?

The expansion of F1 into the United States has been a heavily-debated topic the past few years.

But are their signs that growth may have plateaued, or even begun to subside?

Ratings for the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in the United States were down this season, compared to a year ago:

There could be a few innocent explanations for this. A year ago the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix aired on ESPN — not ESPN2 — and also aired on a Sunday, opposed to Saturday morning this season. In addition, many viewers are turning to F1’s streaming service, F1TV, thanks to the different camera angles, options such as in-board cameras for all 20 drivers, and more to get their Formula 1 fix.

However, there is a fear that Max Verstappen’s continued dominance — he has led a Red Bull sweep along with teammate Sergio Pérez in both races this season — has seen more casual fans being to tune out. Verstappen’s dominance is just one of the many stories on the grid this year, and viewers of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on F1TV two weeks ago may have noticed how that broadcast almost treated Verstappen as an afterthought, focusing on the battles throughout the rest of the field.

But for more casual fans, dominance may be boring, particularly when there are other options available including in the motorsports world.

Complicating matters even more is the schedule over the next few weeks. With both the Bahrain Grand Prix and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix running on Saturday night local time, those races started at fairly reasonable times for American viewers.

With the grid heading to Australia, Japan, and China over the next three races, American viewers will face either a lot of sleepless nights/mornings, or be forced to catch up on replays. The Australian Grand Prix gets underway at midnight on the East Coast, while the Japanese GP starts at 1:00 a.m. Eastern, and the Chinese Grand Prix at 3:00 a.m. Eastern.

Thankfully, those three races are followed by the Miami Grand Prix.

Whether the majority of the American audience follows the grid to South Beach will be worth revisiting.

What can we expect from Mercedes?

Coming out of pre-season testing there were hopes that after two seasons that saw Mercedes and their drivers fighting aerodynamic issues, that the team had solved those problems with the W15.

However, through two races the results have not lived up to the expectations. The Silver Arrows currently sit fourth in the Constructors’ standings, two points behind McLaren for P3, and already 61 points south of Red Bull.

There were some promising signs for the team in Saudi Arabia, namely their speed on the longer straights. Lewis Hamilton was able to keep Oscar Piastri behind him for an extended period early in the race, thanks to the straight-line speed the team was able to generate with their low downforce configuration.

“We were actually one of the fastest cars, if not the fastest car, in a straight line,” said Andrew Shovlin, the team’s Trackside Engineering Director, in a video released by the team following the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

However, the high-speed corners of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit posed a substantial challenge. Shovlin identified three areas of weakness on the W15 regarding high-speed corners: Balance, bouncing, and a lack of grip.

“One of them was the balance wasn’t great,” said Shovlin. “So those very fast corners [where] the walls aren’t particularly far away [are] the ones where the driver wants a lot of confidence and quite often we were snapping to oversteer if they really leaned on the [tires]. You can easily imagine how unsettling that is for the for the drivers. That was a factor in qualifying and the race.

“In qualifying we were also suffering a bit with the bouncing. That was less of a problem in the race: There’s more fuel in the car, you’re going a bit slower and that seemed to calm it down and it wasn’t such an issue.”

When Shovlin turned to the third issue, he noted how this could be a factor in the Australian Grand Prix, given the similar configuration to Jeddah.

“Then the big one is we don’t really have enough grip there. So that’s one of the things that we are working hard on this week because Melbourne has a similar nature of corners,” added Shovlin. “We’re doing a lot of work to try and understand why did we not seem to have the grip of some of our close competitors.”

By his estimates Hamilton and George Russell were losing “around three or fourth tenths” of a second per lap to their rivals through those high-speed corners in Saudi Arabia. Will Mercedes be able to cut that down in the Australian Grand Prix?

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top