Ricciardo draws praise for class tribute
DANIEL Ricciardo has made an all-class gesture to returning driver in the first press conference of the 2019 Formula 1 season at Albert Park in Melbourne on Thursday.
The Aussie racer without being prompted by a question pulled up the press conference to congratulate Polish veteran Robert Kubica on his emotional return to the grid - eight years after he almost lost his life in a rally crash.
Ricciardo simply said it was great to see Kubica back in Formula 1. The gesture prompted a round of applause from media representatives and the other drivers involved in the press conference, including Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.
The 34-year-old will race for Williams in 2019, completing an incredible comeback.
Kubica suffered a partially severed right arm and fractures in his elbow, shoulder and leg in a rally collision in 2011.
"Robert mentioned he has had a pretty long winter break, but I don't think we all actually know the extent of what he has been through to get here,'' Ricciardo said.
"I just think it's awesome to see him back. I have known him from when I moved to Europe in 2007 which feels like a long time.
"Just a testament to his character. I won't ask for everyone to applaud, but I really think it's awesome."
Ricciardo was full of optimism for Kubica's return, but continued to downplay his chances of finally earning a spot on the podium of his home Grand Prix on Sunday.
"I think early on there won't be too many front row starts, so there'll certainly be some cars in front and a win might be optimistic in a few days time, but being the hunter I think that is still going to be a lot of fun this year," he said.
He is more optimistic about challenging for the front of the grid at the back end of the 2019 season.
"I might need some help from some others this early in the season, but there's a chance (of a win) for sure," Ricciardo said about winning at Albert Park.
"If we could pull that off then lock your doors."
The conference started with a question to Lewis Hamilton about the tragic passing of FIA race director and Formula 1 giant Charlie Whiting on Thursday in Melbourne.
"He really was a pillar," Hamilton said.
It comes as Australian Grand Prix chief Andrew Westacott declared Ricciardo remains just as big a draw card for racegoers as he did before making his move from Red Bull to Renault.
He said ticket sales are on track to set a new record in 2019.
Westacott says the season-opening race is on track to eclipse last year's attendance figures, with interest in Ricciardo still sky high.
Westacott is confident the overall crowd figure for the four-day event at the Albert Park circuit will exceed 300,000 people and hopes more than 100,000 fans will be there on race day.
"We're fighting fit... the sales across corporate, grandstand and general admission are up about seven to eight per cent on last year," Westacott said.
"Daniel makes a difference... he's a hero.
"I love my sport and I think Daniel is like (NBA star) Ben Simmons - he's someone who people relate to.
"He's a nice kid in a day and age when some of the behaviours of sportsmen and women can leave a bit to be desired.
"Daniel has always been big. Everyone empathises with him - he had an ordinary year late last year... we all felt for him.
"But it's a fresh start for him."
After a cool start to the week, the notoriously fickle Melbourne weather is promising to help race organisers attract large numbers through the gates, with temperatures rising.
Unlike other years, the race won't clash with the opening round of the AFL season, which is a huge bonus according to Westacott.
Ricciardo has done his best to temper expectations for Renault as they look to close the gap on Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, but Westacott is bullish about his prospects.
"I reckon he is capable of gunning for a podium," he said.
"No one knows exactly how they're all going to perform.
"Renault will have a good package and they've gone well here before."
- with AP