MONTMELO, Spain -- After setting a new Circuit de Catalunya track record on Wednesday Daniel Ricciardo predicted Red Bull will be hot on the heels of Mercedes and Ferrari at the Australian Grand Prix.
Ricciardo's return to the RB14 this week was productive -- he completed 165 laps and set a 1:18.047, putting him 0.3s ahead of Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, albeit having used a softer Pirelli tyre. Red Bull started 2017 with a sizeable deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari, but Ricciardo does not expect that to be the case this year.
Asked if he feels confident he can challenge for a podium at his home race, the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 25, he said: "I think that, looking at it now, we are close."
With Ferrari yet to venture on to the softest Pirelli compounds this week Ricciardo is unsure which of Red Bull's two main rivals will be at the front of the pack, but he knows the gap will not be as significant as it was 12 months ago.
"I still don't know where Ferrari are, I'm quite confident Mercedes is probably just in front of us but Ferrari I'm not sure. But I think we're going to be much closer than last year."
"We are getting there. The Mercs still look pretty quick. I think that they still have a bit more on the rest, but it is not too bad. We are looking pretty good. Not really sure about Ferrari at the moment, but we are in a decent place. We made some good changes to the car today, so I think we are better than we were 12 months ago, let's say that much."
Red Bull's development was relentless in 2017 and the team finished the season in a strong position, with Ricciardo's teammate Max Verstappen claiming two wins in the final races on merit. Ricciardo thinks the team has built on the strongest areas of last year's RB13.
"I feel the balance is similar to how it is last year, but I feel where our car was good last year I feel we've made that even better, so our strengths have become stronger. The last sector, traction, things like this, the car feels quite strong, so this is a good base for now.
"We will still work on a few weaknesses but generally it does not feel too bad. Mercedes are still quick, if everything was equal right now they still have a little bit on the rest, but I don't think it is too big. So it seems positive."
Pirelli expects the fastest times to dip into the high 1:17s on the newly-resurfaced Barcelona circuit by the end of the week and Ricciardo was sure he could have done so with his quick run just after lunch.
"It's early days, so I think there's still more to come, but I think that for where the car is now and how the lap was, it wasn't too bad. There's probably a tenth on the last sector, so I could have probably made it into the 17's but it was pretty good.
"I think we made a good step with the car today, again we made a few changes this morning and each change seemed more or less positive, or more positive than negative, so I think we got the car running better today, got it faster, reliability was good, so it's getting there."