There was cautious celebration after Daniel Ricciardo finished his first race for new team Renault at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday, picking up his first points for the team in the process.
The Australian’s seventh-place finish at a track he has previously won on in 2018 provided a best return for Ricciardo on a weekend where he finally appeared to get closer to where he wanted to be at this point in the season.
After back-to-back retirements in Australia and Bahrain, he delayed his scheduled departure from the latter in order to complete testing in the car and get more used to the braking and steering which he had previously struggled to adapt to.
And while China appeared to reap the benefits of that extra work the 29-year-old put in, it’s the climax to what happened in Bahrain and what happened again on the other side of the garage that is causing trouble at Renault.
The French manufacturers provided new MGU-K specs to both Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg’s car – as well as the McLaren customer cars belonging to Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris – after failures from three of the four cars they supply engines for.
However, while the upgrades seemed to do the job for Ricciardo, Hulkenberg was forced into a second consecutive retirement.
“We can be pleased that Daniel opened his points-scoring account with us this weekend,” Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul said. “He drove an intelligent race to conserve the tyres on a one-stop strategy, which we had to adopt to maintain position despite the challenge of starting on the soft tyres.
“Nico, unfortunately, retired with an MGU-K related problem that we will investigate further after this weekend. We will look at the weekend as a whole and our focus switches to the next race.”
Hulkenberg, who reported the issue to the team himself, added: “We pitted and came out in some traffic, but then I felt a loss of power.
“We tried our best to fix it out there as it looked like a software issue, but it wasn’t possible and we had to park up. We’re looking into the issue, but it looks like an MGU-K related problem.
“We have things to work on ahead of the next race, but we will look at everything in detail and come back stronger.”
Whether or not Renault can iron out their engine issues, which also blighted Ricciardo’s final season at Red Bull last year, contributing heavily to his eight retirements throughout 2018, and come back stronger for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in two weeks is another matter however.
They will not only need to fix it in Hulkenberg’s car, but also test Ricciardo’s in case he is set for similar disappointment next time out.
With this many engine issues so early in the season, it’s likely that a grid penalty awaits the Renault drivers later in the season for exceeding the maximum number of power units, which will be crucial in the tight midfield battle that is already balanced on a knife edge.
So that is why Ricciardo’s race was more relief than celebration.
A ‘best of the rest’ finish is the most he can hope for this season and the huge gap to Pierre Gasly, who was so far ahead in sixth that he managed to pit again to go on softer tyres to secure the fastest lap, underlines just that.