MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Daniel Ricciardo will again carry his nation’s hopes of a first home winner at the season-opening Grand Prix at Albert Park on Sunday and it would be a well-earned victory for the Red Bull driver after a punishing week off the track.
The pin-up boy of Australian motor racing, Ricciardo’s profile has grown year by year since humble beginnings with the defunct Hispania Racing team in 2011.
Since replacing compatriot Mark Webber at Red Bull in 2014 after two years with Toro Rosso, the affable 27-year-old’s popularity has soared in his home country and his ‘shoey’ celebration -- drinking champagne from his race boot on the podium -- has been adopted enthusiastically by local athletes.
Burgeoning corporate support for the Perth-born driver has also meant an exhausting schedule of promotional events ahead of the season-opener and Ricciardo said he often felt overwhelmed by the attention.
On Wednesday, he raced down Melbourne’s Yarra River on speed-boats with team mate Max Verstappen early in the morning before a big media scrum.
Twelve hours and some five events later, a glassy-eyed Ricciardo cracked jokes and told racing anecdotes at a re-branding party for a Western Australian sponsor specialising in sandalwood production.
Having come fourth at Albert Park last year and had a runner-up finish in 2014 stripped when his car was disqualified due to a technical breach, Perth-born Ricciardo is desperate to reward his fans with a win on Sunday.
But he won’t be putting too much pressure on himself.
“It is demanding, it is a tiring week but obviously it’s pretty cool to see so many people supporting me and the event,” he said at the pre-race media conference on Thursday.
”It’s kind of overwhelming actually.
“But it’s nice and encouraging to see. I hear ticket sales are up quite a chunk from last year. I try to enjoy it as well. I appreciate it won’t last forever.”
Ricciardo won three races in his 2014 debut season with Red Bull before going winless in a disappointing 2015 plagued by reliability problems.
He returned to the winner’s circle at Malaysia last year, one of only two races not sewn up by Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning the championship.
The other race was won by Verstappen, the teenage wunderkind expected to make life increasingly difficult for Ricciardo on the track as he matures.
Ricciardo welcomed the rivalry from the young Dutchman as positive for Red Bull’s hopes of threatening Mercedes’ three-year reign over Formula One.
“Hopefully tough (battles), hopefully we’re fighting for victories,” he said.
”He’s obviously fast and it’s his third year now... He’s no longer a rookie any more.
”The team is excited to see how we go, (like) everyone else.
“Hopefully it can be hyped up that we are fighting at the front, that’s what we both want.”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly