With yet another pole-to-flag procession in his Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton’s march towards a record-equalling seventh world title could not look easier.
But it was behind the Briton that excitement ensued around Spa as Daniel Ricciardo cut the deficit to Max Verstappen in third by nearly 12 seconds over the final five laps.
As the drivers complained about tyre issues, the Australian stepped up the pace as he chased down Verstappen in search of Renault’s maiden podium since 2011.
Although he did not record a top-three finish, Ricciardo pulled out the fastest lap to sail home in fourth spot, his best weekend yet for the French manufacturer.
With team-mate Esteban Ocon finishing in fifth, Renault claimed 23 points in Belgium – its most productive return since re-joining the paddock four years ago.
To underline the improvements of RS20, Ricciardo’s fastest lap time of 1:47:483 secs was 2.968 secs quicker than his 2019 time (1:50:451 secs) around the same track.
It was the Perth man’s second top-four result in four races, and he was just 3.422 secs off Verstappen in third, who was forced to heavily manage his tyres late on.
Without safety cars, one wonders if a podium could have been achieved for the seven-time grand prix winner, given Renault’s straight-line speed advantage in Belgium.
Lightning-quick through the first sector, his beautifully-managed second stint saw him maintain pace until the end, dispatching Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez with ease.
He comfortably held off Red Bull’s Alex Albon, lapping much quicker times than the leading trio of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen at end of the race.
That stunning final lap charge earned Ricciardo a bonus point in the championship standings. He now sits eighth, level with Racing Point’s Sergio Perez on 33 points.
Heading into next weekend’s race at the famed Monza circuit, where Renault sealed their best result of 2019, the 31-year-old has plenty to be positive about.
Around the high-speed Italian track last season, Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg sealed fourth and fifth respectively to earn Renault a significant 22-point haul.
If that same promising form is transferred this weekend then Cyril Abiteboul’s men could well threaten a maiden top-three since the 2011 Malaysian GP.
A return to the podium is still the aim for Ricciardo before he moves to replace the Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz Jr. at McLaren next year.
Of the two midfield rivals, Renault boast stronger pace and reliability over the last four races, outscoring McLaren by 47 points to 27 since the British GP.
And while there is nothing to suggest that Ricciardo should have cold feet about his McLaren switch in 2021, Renault has made serious strides, nevertheless, compared to their rivals and could have a tilt at a podium in Monza next Sunday.
Spa was undoubtedly Ricciardo’s most-convincing performance since the Red Bull days and a reminder of what he is capable of when the focus and motivation is there.
Still one of the best overtakers in F1, Ricciardo has the class to deliver but has been frustrated by the team’s failure to move forward in the past.
Now backed up with the blistering pace he needs to challenge, a podium in Monza would cap off a colossal achievement for Renault after a number of subpar seasons.
Know more about Sport360 Application