Abu Dhabi: Daniel Ricciardo believes 2016 has been his best season yet in Formula One and is confident of mounting a title challenge next year.
The Australian has sealed third place in the drivers’ championship ahead of Sunday’s Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and admits his performance has exceeded his expectations.
The Red Bull ace has enjoyed eight podium finishes this year, including victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix, to hit back from a challenging 2015 when the team battled with an uncompetitive Renault power unit before this year’s successful upgrade.
While Ricciardo scored three race wins in his breakout 2014 season — when he also finished third in the driver standings — he said his recovery from last year’s struggles and the stern competition from new teammate Max Verstappen rated this year his best on track.
“The year has been pretty solid. I have been really happy with how it has gone pretty much from start to finish,’’ said Ricciardo, at a Red Bull event at Yas Viceroy hotel on Friday evening to announce the team’s extension of their engine naming partnership with TAG Heuer for a further two years.
“Obviously there was a lot of success in 2014 and that was new success for me because it was my first real big year with wins and podiums and that, but I think on a personal level I think this year has been my strongest one.
“The level of how it has all gone with Max [Verstappen] the competition and all that, it’s been fun.
“I think it’s been a very good year. Mainly because of where we came from last year to this year, we didn’t expect to be in that position so that definitely made the results this year a lot sweeter.
“We didn’t really think we would fight for a win, let alone fight for three of them. And then I think the rate of development and improvement that the team took on was really encouraging, so there was just a really good mood and atmosphere within everyone and that made it fun.
“It gave us good energy and good motivation to go out there and drive well.’’
Having clearly established himself as the best of the rest of the Formula One field behind dominant Mercedes duo Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, Ricciardo knows the next step is to put the car and himself in championship contention.
He is confident Red Bull — second in the constructor standings behind Mercedes this year — can make a major leap forward in 2017.
“If we make the same sort of steps, I think it is realistic [that we can challenge], but we do need to keep improving because obviously Mercedes still have a buffer on everyone,’’ Ricciardo said.
“I think it’s just fine-tuning now, the package is very good, it’s just not perfect and I think we’ve just got to clean it up in a few areas and I can improve a few parts here and there and if we put all that together then it should put us on Mercedes level.’’
Preparing to enter his fourth season with Red Bull, Ricciardo, who cited his maiden career pole position at Monaco as his highlight of the year, believed his best racing is ahead.
“I think there will always be, for the next few years, some improvement,’’ the 27-year-old, said.
“It’s a complex sport, you’re always learning. I still feel like there’s places I can improve.
“Hopefully the best is still yet to come. If I’ve got a good car next year, then hopefully I can get a couple of positions further than I did this year and that will be very nice.’’