BAKU: A confident and in-form Daniel Ricciardo forecast he will be a strong contender for another victory in this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix after topping the practice times on Friday (Saturday in Manila).
The big-smiling Australian, who won last year’s race and also the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, was narrowly quickest ahead of Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari.
He said he felt he had a strong car for Sunday’s race, but feared that his main rivals may be faster in Saturday’s qualifying session.
“But even if we don’t qualify on the front row, we’ll still have a very strong race car,” he said. “We’re still in the group of favorites.”
Ricciardo clocked a best lap time of one minute and 42.795 seconds to outpace Raikkonen by just 0.069 seconds with Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen third, 0.116 seconds adrift.
Verstappen’s lap was a welcome outcome on another turbulent day which had seen him crash into the barriers during the opening practice in the morning—after crashes and incidents at all of the three season-opening races.
Valtteri Bottas, who was fastest in the morning session wound up fourth for Mercedes ahead of team-mate and defending four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and two-time champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren.
Esteban Ocon of Force India was seventh, ahead of Carlos Sainz of Renault, Kevin Magnussen of Haas and Nico Hulkenberg in the second Renault.
World championship leader and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel was only 11th for Ferrari, but said he was not too concerned by his problems.
“It is a tricky circuit, but it is the same for all of us,” said Vettel.
“Probably, I struggle a little bit more than the others, but I am not worried. Towards the end I had a good rhythm and was quite happy so I think we can improve for tomorrow.”
Hamilton, who trails Vettel by nine points in the title race after failing to win in any of this year’s opening three events, said he felt confident his Mercedes team would resolve their issues with tyre performance.
“Baku has not been a great hunting ground for me in the past, but we have had only two races here,” he said. “I am sure we can sort out the tyres. I have rock solid confidence in my team.”
All of the leading teams were closely matched in performance throughout the day, which ended with Ricciardo oozing confidence in his Red Bull car on all tyre compounds.
“We were quick today,” he said. “The ultra-soft long run we could have been better, but super-soft was good. I think we’re pretty confident.
“Qualifying? I’m still not sure how much the others can go quicker.
“I certainly feel like I’m up there, I feel like I’m driving good and I felt comfortable out there today. That’s the important thing with a street circuit, you want that comfort in yourself and the car.
“I didn’t really have any scares today. The balance was pretty normal, pretty good.”
Raikkonen was also buoyed by his performance after struggling in the morning session when he had experimented with his set-up.
“It’s a lot better, but let’s see what happens now,” he said.