Ricciardo all smiles ahead of his home GP

FOLLOWING last year's dominance and off-season form, the spotlight should be on Mercedes' reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg.

But all the glow is around the smile of Australia's Daniel Ricciardo.

The Red Bull driver's effervescent grin has become part of the Melbourne furniture leading up to Sunday's Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park. His face is on billboards and the official passes hanging off lanyards ... Ricciardo is clearly the man of the moment. Finishing second in last year's race, only to be stripped of the result hours later for breaching a fuel flow technicality, sparked a successful trajectory for the boy from Perth.

With experience driving a car which wasn't perfect, Ricciardo went on to claim victories in Canada, Hungry and Belgium, eventually finishing the season in third place overall. The same couldn't be said for teammate and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.

Repeatedly outpaced by his new unheralded team-mate, Vettel pulled the pin and switched to Ferrari at the end of the season.

While Red Bull has enjoyed mixed fortunes in testing in the off-season, the Silver Arrows duo of Hamilton and Rosberg remain favourites this weekend.

Australian-based Mercedes-Benz AMG Driving Academy head instructor Peter Hackett knows this track well. He lives only a few hundred metres away, and spent time with the marque's star drivers this week, and also drove the 5.3km circuit at speed as part of a drive day which saw 90 customers get a chance to tackle the track themselves.

"It is probably the most fun street circuit to drive because it's a fast flowing traditional circuit like Silverstone, Donington or Phillip Island," he said.

"It's not iconic like Monaco, which is famous for almost the wrong reasons, but Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg they like the speed. It's one of the fastest circuits they come to in a Formula One year.

"It has one of the highest percentages of full throttle usage per lap.

"There are big long braking zones, there are changes in surfaces and shadows and bumps, so if the weather is a little bit awkward the white lines are everywhere and that really becomes a challenge for a driver."

Ricciardo could be assisted by the fickle Victorian weather - currently forecast to be about 20 degrees and clear - but anything is possible. If he does claim the chequered flag, he would be the first Australian to win his home grand prix.

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