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Ricciardo hopes team bonding can lead to F1 podiums in 2020

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PARIS — Having gone a full Formula One season without a single podium finish, Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo is itching to ditch his footwear again after a race.

“I am craving to take my shoe off, for sure. It’s been a while,” joked Ricciardo, who celebrates podiums by pulling off a sweaty racing shoe, pouring Champagne into it and taking a hearty gulp.

“I am optimistic. I feel like this year there’s a bit more stability in the structure,” he said at Renault’s 2020 car launch on the Champs-Élysées on Wednesday. “We have to move forward.”

Ricciardo has not been on the podium since winning the Monaco Grand Prix with his former team Red Bull in May 2018. His best finish in 2019 was fourth place at the Italian GP late in the season – a far cry from his 29 podiums, three pole positions and seven wins with Red Bull.

As he prepares for his 10th season in F1, the 30-year-old Australian driver is hoping that team-bonding activities can help drag the French manufacturer back into contention. His first chance comes at his home race, the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 15.

Renault dropped from fourth fifth in the constructor’s standings last year, finishing 54 points behind McLaren, the team it supplies engines to.

“Personally I put responsibility on myself to get results and to have a presence in the team, immediately,” Ricciardo said. “If everyone has their head down, I also feel some responsibility to bring it up. Last year I learned a lot, ways we can be better as a unit.”

In his first season with Renault, he placed ninth in the drivers’ standings, with teammate Nico Hulkenberg a distant 14th. Hulkenberg, who never secured a podium in 10 seasons, lost his seat. He was replaced by Frenchman Esteban Ocon, who returns to F1 after being cut by Force India for 2019.

Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull, where he formed a strong but strained partnership with Max Verstappen, to join Renault was widely considered a risky one.

At Renault, he sensed morale was too low, compounded by poor results. For that to improve, Ricciardo has pledged to play a central role in team-bonding exercises.

“We have some ideas in mind to integrate the team, not just on race weekends. Find ways away from the track to become more close as a unit,” he said. “Because you know the person a little bit more, and you’ve been something else with them away from the track, it’s a way to have each other’s back and support each other more.”

The “non-F1 tasks” are designed to push team members through a certain degree of physical exertion, and pull them closer together.

“Some outdoor activities, we’re going to make a few people sweat as well,” he said. “Get them out of their limits and get them to re-insert some self-belief in themselves, get them to do something maybe they didn’t think they do. It will help I’m sure.”

The 23-year-old Ocon also returns with a point to prove after not getting a seat last year, despite being highly rated.

Ocon’s ambition could in turn sharpen up Ricciardo’s driving.

“He’s young, he’s missed out a year and that hunger’s going to be there,” Ricciardo said of his new teammate. “It’s another person to gauge yourself (against), learn from. I think it’s a good dynamic.”

Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.