MELBOURNE • For Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian Grand Prix has been an exasperating mix of desperately willing fans and mostly unwilling cars.
His seventh home event has already gotten off to an inauspicious start after receiving a three-place grid penalty yesterday for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during practice.
The Red Bull driver was also handed two penalty points for failing to stay above the mandatory minimum time set by the FIA (International Automobile Federation) in the final two mini sectors of the lap in the second practice session.
No home driver has finished on the podium in the 33-year history of the Australian GP, although Ricciardo did climb the rostrum in second in 2014 only to be disqualified.
But the 28-year-old, who did not finish in last year's Melbourne race, is considered a championship threat with the RB14 car expected, along with Ferrari, to threaten the Lewis Hamilton-led Mercedes domination.
The optimism comes from winter testing in Barcelona when Ricciardo consistently registered fast lap times, suggesting Red Bull may have overcome the teething issues of last year.
"It feels like we are in a better place than we have been the last few seasons," he said ahead of the new season.
STEPPING UP A GEAR
It feels like we are in a better place than we have been the last few seasons... We're certainly relying on the reliability to improve, and we have made a pretty good step with that.
DANIEL RICCIARDO, Red Bull driver, feeling confident ahead of the opening race in Australia tomorrow.
"We seem solid. Soon we'll know on one-lap pace where we are, but I don't think we are far off."
Reliability will be crucial if they are to mount a serious challenge to both Mercedes and Ferrari.
Red Bull had lifted four straight drivers' and constructors' world titles when the Australian was promoted from Toro Rosso in 2014, but have not claimed another since, with Ricciardo winning five races for the senior team.
"We're certainly relying on the reliability to improve, and we have made a pretty good step with that," Ricciardo said.
Adding to the intoxicating mix is the threat from ambitious 20-year-old team-mate Max Verstappen, who was outscored by Ricciardo on race points last year but regularly topped the Perth native in qualifying.
"It is the most exciting driver pairing in F1," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told The Guardian. "You have the emerging, enormous talent of Max, and Daniel who is approaching his peak. It is a great contest... and that gets the most out of them."
That pairing could be entering the final straight as Ricciardo will become a free agent next year, raising speculation about where he will be next season given the contracts of Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari are also due to expire at the end of the year.
But Ricciardo is not about to be distracted.
"This is a year which our prep's been well and good," he said. "And I really, really hope Lewis is right that we will have a chance to fight for a title and that will ultimately make me very happy and... take my time and see what happens."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE