MELBOURNE, Australia -- Formula One mania in Australia has certainly not been lost on Daniel Ricciardo.
The McLaren driver and local hero, who is gearing up for his first Australian Grand Prix since 2019 and ninth as a fulltime driver, admits he's never experienced anything quite like what's taking place this year in Melbourne.
"It's always been pretty wild here, there's no denying that," said Ricciardo on Friday morning. "But it felt like it was turned up a notch, or two, or three. Yesterday was a perfect example. It's a Thursday and the walk in ... the fans ... I don't know if they thought the race was yesterday, but it felt like a Sunday.
"For a Thursday, and I'm talking around the world, it was the busiest Thursday I've ever experienced walking into a paddock. That certainly stood out. It's awesome. It's definitely a good crazy and there's a lot of support and love. I think everyone's just stoked to have the race back. It's a special feeling."
The 2020 Australian Grand Prix was famously cancelled at the 11th-hour, after a McLaren team member tested positive to COVID-19 and the team then withdrew from the event. Last year's race in Melbourne was slated for late November but was also forced to be abandoned due to logistical concerns centred around COVID-19.
During the 36-month gap between races at Albert Park, Netflix's docuseries Drive to Survive began booming, attracting a new legion of fans to the sport. It appears to be the catalyst in a completely sold out 2022 Australian Grand Prix.
F1 is expecting in excess of 410,000 fans to attend this weekend's event (Friday - Sunday), which would make it Australia's highest-attended sporting event in history. Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief Andrew Westacott believes the number could have been even greater had they been permitted to sell additional tickets, with an expected 25,000 set to miss out on a raceday ticket altogether.
"We didn't come here for two years and we've seen all around the world how much F1 has grown, thanks to Netflix and thanks to how exciting the battle has been," said championship leader Charles Leclerc. "To come back here after two years ... it shows that it has also grown here."
Another major difference this year in Melbourne are the changes which have been made to the circuit, an attempt to move away from the relatively uneventful races hosted at Albert Park in the past.
The bumpy street circuit has been resurfaced and shortened by 28 metres, with seven corners modified and two turns completely removed, bringing the total down to 14. The most notable alteration is at Turn 1, with the opening right-hander now 2.5m wider and offering drivers more racing lines. Turns 6 and 11 have also been widened to allow for faster speeds through the back half of the lap, in the hope it leads to more overtaking opportunities.
"A few of us drivers were involved in the discussions on how we could make Albert Park a little more racer friendly on Sunday," said Ricciardo. "From a driver's point of view, it was always enjoyable but not a track which provided the most amount of overtaking.
"I'm going to claim all of it if the race is wicked and awesome and everyone's talking well about it!"