But Ricciardo was never in the contest despite a bright start to the race, finishing a disappointing ninth on his favourite track.
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Ricciardo laments early stop
Ricciardo qualified seventh fastest — his best result for the season — and started one place better on the grid after a penalty to Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly.
Hopes were high that the Australian could outperform the struggling Renault car on the track where he has achieved his greatest success, including raising the trophy in last year’s edition.
But those hopes soon faded, after an early safety car threw the race into chaos on lap 11.
Ricciardo was running in fifth, having gained a place in a frenetic start, before Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc slammed into the barriers at his home race and was forced to retire, bringing out the safety car.
The four leading drivers pitted, as did Ricciardo. Unfortunately, the four cars trailing Ricciardo — Carlos Sainz (sixth), Daniil Kvyat (seventh), Alex Albon (eighth) and Romain Grosjean (10th) — all opted to stay out on the track.
When Ricciardo re-emerged behind those rivals, his race was effectively over on a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult.
The sole good news in a nightmare day for Renault’s smiling assassin was a time penalty to Grosjean of team Haas, which lifted Ricciardo into ninth.
“We have to figure it out,” Ricciardo told Sky Sports when asked if his result was because of bad luck or bad management. “I got caught in… as soon as they (Renault) said ‘box’ I got no time to react or react differently but obviously it wasn’t the right call.
“I’ll settle and we’ll sort it out as a team what we can do better.
“We both (Ricciardo and Hulkenberg) came in and just handed everyone else a position. It’s a shame.
“We had a great start … had a good turn one and got into fifth and that was really our place so it’s a shame. We could have had a big result today.”
Speaking to the Renault website, Ricciardo added: “It was a very frustrating race, to be honest. We definitely could have done better and got a great result as we had all the cards in our hand.
“We’ll look at what happened and address it for future races.”
“It’s amazing to be back at the wheel and I’ve felt comfortable in the car from the beginning, so that’s fine,” the Australian said.
“Esteban has warmed up the car very well this morning and I felt that I took the fast pace when it was my turn.
“There are improvements in the car, and obviously, there are many visual changes as you can see if we look at the nose.
“The improvements are there and that is what we are looking for. It is too early to make comparisons, but our reliability is very strong and I would say that it’s promising. You can’t ask for much more on the first day, so I’m happy.”
Testing continues Thursday and Friday before a second three-day session in Barcelona next week.
The season-opening Australian Grand Prix takes place in Melbourne on March 15.
Whether 2020 is a success for the team or not largely centres around that challenge.
Podiums will again be tough to achieve and — barring a Steven Bradbury repeat — wins are out of the equation.
That should be of little concern to Renault providing it continues to take the right steps towards 2021, when F1 wipes its slate clean with its biggest rules shake-up in history.
But should Ricciardo decide this year that he’s seen all he needs to see, then its massive investment goes down the drain for nothing more than two years of extra media attention.
When Renault splashed out on the 30-year-old at the end of 2018, it didn’t simply make the coup because the Australian was off-contract and it could afford to. It was a signal of intent – something to show Ricciardo it was serious about becoming a force to be reckoned with once more.
The pitch worked as Ricciardo agreed to forgo the pursuit of race wins at a Honda-powered Red Bull to endure short-term pain in the midfield at Renault.
But that pain proved to be worse than promised. Renault lost its tag of ‘best of the rest’ while its power units still left plenty to be desired.
New rules from 2021 will drastically impact bodywork and place a higher demand on car durability and resourcefulness, while the introduction of a salary cap will, in theory, close the gap between teams. Power units, however, will remain the same.
As such, Ricciardo will need to see a marked improvement in both output and reliability from his 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid if he’s to buy into the Renault dream further.
The team already has a mountain to climb to overthrow the top three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, but considers itself a chance to compete at the top from 2021.
That becomes less likely the further the team slips from being the ‘best of the rest’ — that’s now McLaren — towards the bottom.
Renault has made no secret of its disappointment in that result and will want to set the record straight. Competing for the occasional podium position will do that and also keep Ricciardo invested — but that’s a dangerous balancing act given the greater goal is 2021.
Keeping a driver of Ricciardo’s calibre helps Renault’s greater cause, drawing more eyeballs towards them and therefore greater leverage when dealing with sponsors.
Ricciardo is, however, off-contract at the end of this season and there are seats available at the big three of Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes.
Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), Alexander Albon (Red Bull) and Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) are all yet to sign deals for 2021, leaving the door open to Ricciardo who was linked to all three teams before leaving Red Bull.
Assuming he does enough this season to keep his suitors’ interest, the pressure will be on Renault to prove to Ricciardo it’s worth staying.
Lose him, and there becomes very little about Renault that makes it look like the big team it once was.
Regardless, there are scores to be settled, championships to be claimed and races to be run. Can more records be broken?
Here are foxsports.com.au’s bumper burning questions ahead of season 2020.
WILL MCLAUGHLIN FUTURE DICTATE THREE-PEAT BID?
Scott McLaughlin. The champ. The wizard. The mountain man. The record breaker. 2019 was his season, by the stretch of Conrod Straight. The 26-year-old has a major shout at history in 2020, with the Shell V-Power Racing ace looking to become the first new champion to win three titles on the trot.
Still, whispers of America – well, they’re not whispers anymore – remain that key burning question. Will he stay? Will he go? Who knows? Either outcome is a good outcome for the Kiwi, who has the world at his feet at this very minute. However, 2020 presents McLaughlin – and his rivals – with a chance to really drive home who really has what it takes, with a raft of definitive aero and engine tweaks and a new control shock absorber.
McLaughlin shredded the field to pieces in Adelaide last year as the Mustang hit the ground running. The previous two years on the Adelaide streets, Holden rival Shane van Gisbergen was near untouchable. How McLaughlin responds straight away after such a taxing 2019 campaign – and an exciting off-season featuring IndyCar tests and his wedding – will provide an early indication of just how seriously he’ll take 2020.
With the States calling, McLaughlin still has a job to do here first. Whatever he wants to do post-2020, there’s no room for complacency, considering the winning profile he has created in three stunning years for the Shell squad.
CAN MOSTERT BE THE MEDICINE FOR STRUGGLING WAU?
The biggest news of the off-season came shortly after the Newcastle season finale, with Chaz Mostert’s high-profile defection from Tickford to Walkinshaw Andretti United confirmed.
For so long, Mostert has been touted as a future champion. Time is well and truly on his side – he’s still just 27 – he proved a standout in a Tickford squad which has proved consistently inconsistent. Still, which party will benefit from the move more, Mostert or WAU?
The early signs are impressive. Mostert finished the pre-season BP Ultimate Test at The Bend Motorsport Park seventh fastest, and has gained a vastly experienced co-driver in two-time Enduro Cup winner Warren Luff.
Most importantly for WAU, though, is that Mostert has retained his long-time engineer Adam De Borre, who followed the 2014 Bathurst winner to the Holden team. WAU’s previous drivers, James Courtney and Scott Pye, were class talents – but were largely let down by underwhelming machinery.
Mostert’s move also coincides with Supercars introducing a control shock absorber, as well as aero and engine tweaks – so as he starts afresh, everyone else does too, to an extent. But having De Borre in his corner is a major boost. If WAU were looking for momentum, then they’ve found it – but they can’t waste it.
CAN THE KELLY GANG GET MUSTANGS TO FIRE?
It was a mammoth off-season for the crew from Braeside, with Kelly Racing turning around a four-car Nissan operation into a two-car Ford squad in 16 weeks. Critically, a new car was built for Rick Kelly, while the team is running its own Ford engine program. It seemed a big job from the outset, and the team documented it in their Road to Mustang video series.
Thankfully, Garry Jacobson (Matt Stone Racing) and Simona De Silvestro (Porsche) found drives elsewhere, while the ever-improving Andre Heimgartner kept his seat.
The pre-season BP Ultimate Test was a chance for teams to adapt to aero, engine and shock changes, with ‘starting from scratch’ the mode of the day versus finding absolute pace. For the Kelly squad, it was about ironing out all things following a monolithic off-season – and it came good from the get-go with Heimgartner setting a solid pace. However, the team could still only run one car at a time due to a lack of parts, and they needed to make a quick dash to a local store following coil pack dramas.
Early teething issues aside, the team – with a narrowed focus on two cars and two gun drivers – deserve to go into season 2020 with a renewed optimism. Kelly himself took the team’s last win at Winton in 2018. Can a Kelly Racing Ford win become a matter of when, not if, this season?
WHO WILL STEP UP FOR TICKFORD POST-MOSTERT?
Losing Chaz Mostert, the team’s most talented and credentialed driver, is a big loss for Tickford. The Ford squad gains Jack Le Brocq, who is no stranger to Tickford, having carried out a Super2 campaign with the team in 2016.
Mostert and Cameron Waters, the 2015 Super2 champion, butted heads on track on numerous occasions during their time as teammates, none more controversial and divisive as the dramatic clash at The Chase late in last year’s Bathurst thriller.
Waters is still only 25, but has won just one race – a shortened 2017 Sandown 500 – in four main game seasons with Tickford. He trusted the team enough to extend his stay in Monster Energy colours, and he recorded his best championship effort (seventh) in 2019.
Veterans Lee Holdsworth and Will Davison – in the 23Red Racing entry – both showed serious glimpses of speed in 2019, but consistency will be the key in maximising the team’s status on the grid.
Desperate to prove 2015 was no outlier, can Tickford be more than third-best in 2020? Should they do so, in Mostert’s absence, the team needs a leader.
Lowndes’ take on Holden saga
CAN A REVAMPED VCAT PROCESS PAY DIVIDENDS?
Make no mistake – the number of aerodynamic changes made throughout the 2019 season made for an uneasy feeling.
So, Supercars had two cracks at it in the off-season to get it right. The category’s technical staff worked long days to get a more detailed process across the Mustang and Commodore in order to find that magical ‘P’ word for 2020.
No one likes talking about parity. Fans want certainty about the racing product, as drivers and teams do too. A driver and team dominating is bad news for the record books at the very least.
CAN RED BULL HOLDEN RETAIN WINNING MOMENTUM?
For all of the Scott McLaughlin-Shell V-Power Racing dominance in 2019, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team won the final seven races of the season across three different events after an indifferent start. The factory Holden squad won just one of the first 17 races of the season as McLaughlin ran riot, before consecutive wins across the Townsville and Ipswich events proved a shift of sorts for the Triple Eight squad, as minor as it seemed.
‘Minor’ was one way to describe the aero tweak to the ZB Commodore ahead of the Pukekohe round, which immediately preceded the enduros. From there, the Red Bull Holdens won eight of 10 races, and if not for a Safety Car misdemeanour for Jamie Whincup in New Zealand, and a late-race fuel gamble at Bathurst, the Holden gang would have nailed the perfect 10.
So, what to do with form? The champion team has it, but with three months between the chequered flag in Newcastle and first practice in Adelaide, with a single-day pre-season test in between, only Red Bull Holden can demonstrate if they learned anything from a 2019 season which petered out to an expected title win for McLaughlin.
McLaughlin’s back-to-back titles marked the first time Triple Eight had lost the drivers’ title in successive years since Whincup won the team’s first championship in 2008.
Triple Eight don’t stay down for long – even if the recent Holden news has splintered their attention – and Shane van Gisbergen’s runner-up finish in 2019 continued the team’s run of top-two finishes in the drivers’ title dating back to 2005. With aero, engine and shock absorber changes, everyone nearly starts from zero in Adelaide, with the pre-season test at The Bend not a true reflection of what we’ll see in 2020. But if you’re looking for a favourite this season, or in Adelaide at least, don’t stray too far from the #97 pilot.
For all of Scott McLaughlin’s dominance at Shell V-Power Racing, Fabian Coulthard has somewhat been left behind.Bathurst controversy aside, Coulthard has been a loyal servant to DJR Team Penske since he arrived in 2016. However, he has so far been left in the shadows by McLaughlin, and both are returning to drive for the team in 2020.
The simple expectation, from one side of the garage, is that McLaughlin will pack up and head stateside – an idea amplified by his recent IndyCar test at Sebring. On the other side of the garage, Coulthard – who turns 38 in July – will be looking to retain the form he found at the Newcastle finale where he ended a four-month podium drought.
McLaughlin’s future will dictate much of the attention, but should he leave after this season, you could forgive DJR Team Penske for being reluctant to head into 2021 with an all-new driver line-up.
WILL THE SYDNEY TEAM CONCEPT WORK?
The Team Sydney idea has had its troubles, and was slow to get off its feet. Still, Tekno Autosports is a Bathurst-winning team. They know what it takes to win. Don’t forget the Shane van Gisbergen days.
But being one of a number of teams to expand to a two-car operation is one thing. Packing up and heading to a new base, with two new drivers, and an early big-name sponsor is another.
2010 series champion James Courtney turns 40 this year, but is a wizard on the Adelaide streets. Everyone else is starting afresh considering the aero, engine and shock absorber changes, so the season-opening race is a great place to start. Chris Pither’s announcement was late and quietly made, but he also brings valuable experience to the team.
So, what defines a successful first year for Team Sydney? Courtney had big ambitions, telling foxsports.com.au: “I didn’t move teams to not get results. It’s definitely achievable to get race wins.”
Sure Skaife backs Supercars
MORE NIGHT RACING A SIGN OF EVEN MORE TO COME?
The 2020 season will feature not only a new track in Hampton Downs, but multiple night racing rounds in a single season for the first time. First, Perth will back up its 2019 night event with a return in 2020, while Sydney Motorsport Park – which broke new ground in the Supercars era in 2018 – is coming back this season.
Notably, though, the Gold Coast enduro event will become an even greater spectacle, with the Surfers Paradise Street Circuit to make its night racing debut in October. Formula 1 fans have come to enjoy what the Singapore Grand Prix is today – the standard bearer of night racing with concrete walls and fans at your very doorstep. That can only be a good thing, with the Gold Coast famed for its party atmosphere under lights.
Sparks, flames and glowing brake discs create an awesome viewing experience, which is offered to fans trackside or from the living room. Should the events take off this season, could 2021 and beyond see even more night racing?
CAN THE REAL TODD HAZELWOOD PLEASE STAND UP?
Of all 24 drivers in the 2020 championship, 2017 Super2 champion Todd Hazelwood will be one to watch. Still mightily young at 24, Hazelwood has earned a seat at Brad Jones Racing, a team which will be desperate to recover that winning feeling. The Holden squad hasn’t won a race in the main game since Tim Slade’s dual Winton breakthroughs in 2016, but Hazelwood – Slade’s replacement – impressed for Matt Stone Racing in his two years with the one-car squad.
MSR is expanding in 2020 to two cars, one for Garry Jacobson, the other a share concept between Super2 young guns Zane Goddard – but Hazelwood certainly helped the team lay some foundations for their Supercars future.
Certain performances from Hazelwood, particularly in one-lap trim, proved he has pace. Should BJR harness that pace, Hazelwood could become one of the stories of the season.
Slade took a podium on the Sunday race at the season-finale in Newcastle. One, a fitting farewell from the team. Two – and importantly for Hazelwood – it came at a street circuit, so any lessons learned from that weekend can surely be translated across to Adelaide, where Hazelwood has more than proven his smarts. Think last year’s Shootout appearance.
Nick Percat was a standout for BJR in 2019, while Macauley Jones and rookie Jack Smith have time to prove themselves having learnt plenty in their formative main game showings. Hazelwood, though, has had the two full-time seasons, understands the midfield fight, and now has more resources in his corner. How far can he go?