Daniel Ricciardo’s roller-coaster Formula One season continued Saturday when he qualified third fastest for the Bahrain Grand Prix with a performance of raw speed which again put struggling world champion and Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel in the shade.
The 24-year-old Australian was just 0.866sec off the pole position time of Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg in a barnstorming drive given extra impetus by the knowledge that he was facing a 10-place penalty on the grid for a pit-lane infringement in Malaysia last weekend.
It was the latest dramatic episode for Ricciardo who had his second place in Australia stripped from him through disqualification.
Then, in Malaysia, he drove off with a loose wheel after a pit stop and had to return to the garage to have it refitted.
As he returned to the track, dropping from fourth to last, Ricciardo’s front wing came loose and damaged a front tyre, meaning he had to go back to the pits.
And he then had to serve a 10-second stop-go penalty before retiring.
Despite his travails, Ricciardo was still optimistic that he can charge back through the field under the Sakhir floodlights on Sunday and open his points account for the season.
“We’ve got some good guys in the office back there and I’m sure they’ll do what they can to get me as far up the front as possible,” he said.
“I would love to charge through and have a podium after the 57 or so laps. I think realistically we just have to get some points to start with. My season has been going well but I don’t have any points to show for it so far, so I think that’s the first target.”
Ricciardo’s penalty meant that four-time world champion Vettel, who missed out on the third and final qualifying session, will start in 10th spot.
But it has been a miserable week so far for Vettel who also suffered the indignity of crashing into the gravel in Saturday’s third and final practice session which left him with the second slowest time.
“We weren’t quick enough today. I was pretty happy yesterday, but I think this morning didn’t help us when I spun off and did some damage to the car,” admitted Vettel.
“It’s hard to say how big the impact of that was, as once you start qualifying you just get your head down and try to do the best you can.
“I think our speed is okay on a longer run — and actually on a shorter run too, as Dan has shown. It will be hard to overtake some cars tomorrow, but we will try our best.”
Ricciardo’s blistering performance on Saturday even prompted cheeky suggestions that the Australian should now be considered as Red Bull’s number one driver.
Pole-sitter Rosberg, however, wasn’t going to fall into the trap.
“I don’t really want to rate them. Sebastian is clearly a fantastic driver, one of the best out there and Daniel is doing a great job and definitely deserves the seat that he’s got at Red Bull,” said Rosberg.
“It will be an interesting battle between the two.”