MANAMA (Reuters) - Daniel Ricciardo is an optimist but even optimism has its limits.
Red Bull’s smiling Australian, who finished third overall last season behind the Mercedes duo of now-retired champion Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, has had reason to scowl after the first two races of 2017.
His home grand prix in Melbourne was wrecked by mechanical failure while in China he finished behind 19-year-old Dutch team mate Max Verstappen - who took third place despite starting 16th. Ricciardo, fifth on the grid, ended up fourth.
“After the race in China I was pretty pissed off,” he told Reuters at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
“I just felt I could get more out of myself and when you are that close to a podium...”
The 27-year-old, whose beaming grin has become as familiar to fans as his “shoey” podium celebration of drinking champagne from his boot, said he had already had to recalibrate expectations.
“If I expect to win every race then I’ll probably become miserable because it’s unrealistic, but I think we know where we are now,” he added.
“Coming into this weekend I think fifth probably has to be the target and that’s what I’ll focus on.”
Champions Mercedes and rivals Ferrari have become the pacesetters, with Ricciardo’s former team mate Sebastian Vettel leading the standings jointly with Hamilton.
Red Bull are some way off the leaders’ pace even if Friday practice in Bahrain showed them to be more competitive than expected, with Ricciardo third on the evening timesheets.
Team principal Christian Horner said the real test would be the first race of the European season in Barcelona next month when major updates come through, but Ricciardo was looking further down the road.
“At this stage unfortunately we’re not battling for the big points yet,” he said.
“We’re not quick enough. But you’d like to think second half of the year we should start getting some chances. It will be very hard I think before August to get a win now.”
Ricciardo won last October in Malaysia, after Hamilton’s engine blew, and started on pole position in Monaco in May - the only time a non-Mercedes driver took the top slot in all of last season.
“I’m looking forward to Monaco but to have any chance of a kind of a repeat of last year we need to be well within a second on a normal track. If we are 1.2 off in Barcelona, I don’t think we can win Monaco,” said the Perth native.
“Even if I feel I can do a bit more, we need to be within half a second to have a chance in Monaco...if we just get something fundamentally right on the car, whether it’s floor, sidepod or something which generates a ton more downforce, then we could turn it around probably.”
The rivalry with Verstappen, considered potentially the most explosive in the sport with two race winners vying to be top dog, is bubbling along nicely but without any sign of looming flare-ups.
“I think it could still be very tasty. Unfortunately, at the moment it’s not looking like it’s going to be a world title hunt,” said the Australian.
“I like our relationship, I like the rivalry we’ve got. But I think now it’s important for us to use that to the team’s advantage and whatever fire we’ve got, use that to push the team and give them as much feedback development as possible.”
The pair felt the heat of battle last year, fighting each other for victory in Malaysia in a team one-two finish and the podium in Germany and Mexico. Verstappen won in Spain on his team debut.
“If we just keep the same mindset, focus on each other but have respect within the battle, I don’t feel it needs to blow up any further,” said Ricciardo.
“You can never predict what’s going to happen, if we end up having an on-track incident, but if it remains like it is it should be alright.”
Editing by Ed Osmond