Daniel Ricciardo thinks the key to a good result for Red Bull at the Japanese Grand Prix will be in maximising its tyre strategy.
After a promising free practice three — the first worthwhile practice session after Friday’s open sessions were washed out — Red Bull Racing were optimistic for a front row, but Ricciardo’s first laps was only good enough for P7, where he will start the race from on Sunday afternoon.
“I knew top seven was a sure thing, but I hoped for top five,” he said, before adding, “But in saying that I thought the session went well, I don’t think we really left much on the table.
“Sure, on run two, without the red flag, we were up about a tenth of the half and I think I could’ve ended the lap around two-tenths up, but in saying that probably the other guys would have found a bit as well, so it probably wouldn’t have changed that much.”
The qualification puts him behind Red Bull’s chief competitors Williams, for whom Valtteri Bottas will start third and Felipe Massa will start fifth, and Ferrari, which will start in fourth and sixth with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen.
Both are powered by better performing engines, and though Red Bull has pace in the twisty parts of the track thanks to a high-downforce aerodynamics configuration, the Suzuka Circuit makes passing notoriously difficult.
“But I have a feeling we use our tyres a bit better than them,” mused Ricciardo, “So maybe we can put ourselves into the fight with some strategy — otherwise we’ll just be running around trying to hang on the back of them.”
Tyres will be major players in the unfolding of the Japanese Grand Prix, both because of Pirelli’s newly mandated minimum tyre pressures, installed after the calamitous Belgian Grand Prix tyre failures, and because of expected rain overnight, which will clean the rubber off the track and reduce its grip.
Today the grip was able to build during free practice before the cars took the track for qualifying, but in the race drivers will have to navigate the track surface and its evolution on the fly.
“There was quite a bit of track evolution [on Saturday],” acknowledged Ricciardo. “For the race — it’s going to rain overnight by the looks of it — the track is going to be back to how it was this morning.
“When it’s green we’ll slide a bit more, and that’s going to create tyre temperature issues… especially here, where there are so many corners that come one after the other.
“You can only keep them so low, but feel I have the car underneath me, so I should have a bit more feeling on the longer runs and a bit more ability to save the tyres than some others.
“We also have a bit of pace to make up with that as well, so we have to try to be fast while [keeping down temperatures]. Should be fun!”