Daniel Ricciardo outqualified teammate Yuki Tsunoda at the Hungarian Grand Prix, his first race back in Formula 1, but is keeping expectations in check for what he expects to be a grand prix of difficult lessons.

Ricciardo recorded AlphaTauri’s best qualifying result in five races when he put his car 13th on the grid in Budapest, a result that eclipsed all but one of predecessor Nyck de Vries’s Saturday performances.

It also put him four places ahead of new teammate Tsunoda, who was knocked out of qualifying in Q1, albeit with a time just 0.013s slower than the Australian in a super-tight session.

Ricciardo wasn’t reading too much into the result but admitted the overall picture was positive after just two days back in the car.

“I had no idea where to expect to be on the grid, so the 13th place in a way feel somewhat irrelevant,” he said.

“Of course my reference is Yuki for now, and I think he’s also – watching from the outside – a good reference, not only this year but I think already the second half of last year I could see with Pierre (Gasly) he was starting to be a lot more competitive.

“Whether I’m ahead or behind, I think just to be there is positive for me.”

The Australian said he had developed a clear picture of where he needed to pick up his game after a disrupted Friday practice session and rated himself at 98 per cent of his potential by Saturday afternoon.

“I felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “Yesterday we only really got one session. I was a bit off the pace, but I kind of knew where I was missing, and it was quite self-explanatory where I could find the pace.

“I improved those today. I think everything I had to improve last night I was able to improve.

“We can probably all of us get to 95 per cent quite easily at this level. It’s then those last few per cent. I think I found a little bit in quali, but for sure there’s still a little bit more.

“I got it close to 100 per cent – maybe 98 – so I took a nice step.”

But the Perth native’s 10-race absence from the grid is likely to tell on Sunday, when he completes his first grand prix distance in almost eight months in a car he drove for the first time only on Friday.

Though he wasn’t willing to set a formal target for the race, he said he was anticipating a more difficult afternoon focused on learning rather than pushing forwards towards the points.

“I’ve done probably only an eight-lap run or something at the moment,” he said of his limited race experience in the AlphaTauri. “I think tomorrow there’s going to be a lot of things for me to learn in terms of tire management but also the car with fuel, as the tires go off.

“I’ll start to probably discover a bit more about the car and obviously then in those conditions the weaknesses. I think there’ll probably be laps where I’m maybe not doing too great but then there’ll be laps where I’ll be doing better because I’m learning as I go.

“I don’t want to say that negatively, but inevitably there’s going to be still a handful of things to pick up on. Hopefully I can be a fast learner.

“If we can find our way into the points, that would be huge. I think for now obviously as a team we need to get points, but it’s really just making sure that I’m on top of the car, at one with the car, and then that’s the first box I need to tick.”

Sunday result pending, there’s already a sense that Ricciardo has rediscovered his old mojo and that his AlphaTauri stint is likely to restore at least some of his pre-McLaren reputation.

The Aussie credited his solid comeback showing to his half-year sabbatical, which he said helped him to rediscover his confidence after two bruising seasons at Woking.

“If we even forget the result today, just t he way I feel, I just feel a bit lighter and a bit more bubbly, kind of like myself,” he said. “I was driving a bit more with a smile.

“ was very, very good for me. Maybe not everyone needs it, but for me I felt like it was really good at that time of my career.

“Of course I’m a race car driver, so I’m always going to expect something out of myself, but truthfully I was really trying to remove as much of that as I could and make sure that this is the place that makes me feel like myself again.

“Jumping in the car in qualifying, I felt actually really relaxed. Not to take it lightly, but just happy – happy to be back and happy to be able to push the car on the limit again.

“I felt like I had enough time to fall back in love.”