Daniel Ricciardo’s almost-out-of-breath message at the end of Formula 1 qualifying at Imola was an indicator of the quality of the lap: “Please tell me that’s a good position… I was… fuck.”
Then when he learned it earned him fifth pace on the grid: “That was big.”
Ricciardo was beaten to “best of the rest” honours by AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, but the Renault driver later said (only half-jokingly) that it was because “he just had a faster car” – as far as Ricciardo was concerned, the lap that yielded fifth was extremely good.
“I don’t think I’ve done one as good as that yet,” said Ricciardo to Sky Sports F1 immediately afterwards. “I’ll take my lap as the best lap I have done so far this year.
“Sorry, that sounds really like… a pat on the back. But yeah.
“I’m stoked. It was fun. This track is awesome and I’d be saying that even if qualifying didn’t go well.
“I was on the limit right at the end there. That was the most fun I have had in quali for a few races.”
Renault performed strongly in practice but Ricciardo looked like an unlikely Q3 contender at the start of qualifying as he barely escaped Q1 while team-mate Esteban Ocon was seventh-fastest.
In Q2 Ricciardo found half a second to end up fifth-fastest while Ocon was eliminated. Alan Permane, Renault’s sporting director, said Ricciardo’s jump was probably exaggerated by “a really poor Q1 gave us a big fright, and we mustn’t put ourselves in that situation again”.
But in Q3 Ricciardo managed to improve by an astonishing 0.433s again – the biggest Q2-to-Q3 step of anyone on the same compound across the two segments.
“It was a big chunk in Q3 that came from him and from determination, and he went for it,” said Permane.
“I was watching the lap, and watching the delta time that we generate every metre he’s on the track, and you could see that Turn 1 he really went for it, he committed, he made a huge chunk of time through that.
“And then every corner, he just went faster, faster, faster. I think he got the measure of everything.”
Even once the adrenaline of his lap had faded, Ricciardo’s excitement over it hadn’t.
Asked by The Race to explain why he found it such a satisfying lap, the Renault driver said: “It’s a good question. I think it’s probably two things.
“It’s putting it together. Not really having a bad corner, so in a way something that’s mistake-free.
“But probably because we had such short track time it was the first time I’d done it. I’d never gone through the first chicane that quick before, and even the second chicane.
“So everything was kind of new, and it’s a little bit of the unknown because I knew in Q3 if I was going to do anything I needed to find a few tenths from what I’d done in Q2.
“Just pushing the car to a limit and finding that limit, that’s really exciting.”
Two tenths of Ricciardo’s gain apparently came in the first chicane alone, and he said the Tamburello sequence “sets the tone” at a track that the Australian is a huge fan of.
“I got through the first chicane quite a bit quicker than I’d done before and then that kind of just fueled me for the rest of the lap,” he said. “I was like alright, ‘let’s go!’ – it was just cool.
“And I think the chicanes, the more slow speed chicanes like after Aqua Minerale, I think the [Turns] 14-15, you have to be really quite aggressive on the kerbs to obviously cut the track and kind of carry a bit more momentum. But that obviously can create a snap in the oversteer.
“It’s not easy so I think just getting through there aggressive but still clean that was pretty satisfying.”
Though Ricciardo was proud of his effort it was 0.018s slower than Gasly’s, and Ricciardo conceded that “obviously he did a great lap as well”.
But he was adamant there was “nowhere” that he either made a mistake or “left the time on the table”.
“I think I improved every corner compared to Q2,” he said. “I was really honestly happy with the lap.
“There’s nowhere that stands out I guess. I don’t want to say he did a better lap, I think he just had a faster car!
“Those two hundredths could be anywhere. Maybe the hairpin? I just had a little bit of a snap there. But even with that, I was still quicker than what I’d done previously.”
Ricciardo’s immense improvement across qualifying was not replicated on the other side of the Renault garage, as Ocon only improved by a tenth in Q2 and thus missed the top-10 shootout 0.15s.
And Ocon was at a loss to fully understand why he did not have the same pace.
“The first run was a bit tricky, but I think on the second run is really where we should have stepped up and we didn’t manage to,” he said.
“I think there was a couple of things in there, in the choice of when I wanted to go out and where you are with traffic.
“We decided to go early out in the session to be free and to still have some decent sun over our heads, towards the end it got a bit cooler.
“We still don’t know if it was the right decision or not but I think overall there’s been a few differences than what we usually do in terms of the plan.
“I don’t know if that explains it.”