The Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo took an unexpected victory at the Chinese Grand Prix, following a brilliant strategy call by Red Bull, and a spectacular charge at the end of the race from the Australian.
Ricciardo, who is still yet to win a race starting from within the top three, stayed calm and showed his overtaking prowess when he surged from sixth to first in the space of 10 laps; after Red Bull opportunistically pitted for fresh tyres behind a Safety Car.
When the Safety Car pitted at the beginning of lap 35, Riccardo was in sixth place with two Mercedes, two Ferrari’s, and his team mate between him and the lead of the race. The Red Bull driver first took advantage of an incident between his team mate Max Verstappen and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel to make up two places. The following three however where down to his talent for overtaking, with his skills as last of the late breakers coming into play.
He treated fans of the sport to a masterclass in how to overtake the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, before overtaking Valtteri Bottas for the lead. He finished the race almost 10 seconds clear of closest challenger Bottas.
Ricciardo has been known as somewhat of a burglar when it comes to victories and podiums as well. As he said himself after the race, none of his six race wins have come from boring races. Rather they come from ones where he is presented with the opportunity to win after something critical happens.
“At the start of the race I thought we could fight for a podium but I didn’t really expect a win; then after the safety car and when I could see the way the race was going I knew we had a chance. Once I had a sniff of victory I wasn’t going to let it go.” Ricciardo said after in a team statement.
Bottas finished second for the second race in a row after watching his chances of winning disappear with the Safety Car. His start was a carbon copy of Bahrain, as he got passed the Ferrari of Raikkonen to move up into second place. During the first stint Bottas did not seem to trouble Vettel. Rather he hung back and preserved his tyres. The Mercedes driver was the first to blink out of the two of them and went onto the medium tyre, managing to undercut the Ferrari of Vettel to take the lead of the race.
He stayed in the lead of the race and looked on course to win, despite the fact the lead he had over Vettel was narrow. But once the Safety Car happened, and the Red Bull of Riccardo was flying there seemed an almost inevitability that Bottas would not keep the lead of the race. An inevitability that was confirmed when the Red Bull driver passed him on lap 45. Indeed once Riccardo passed, Bottas had more problems trying to hold off Raikkonen who was challenging for second place.
Raikkonen finished the race third, after having compromised his race to help out his team mate. In the opening stint Raikkonen was very much the rear gunner for Vettel. Holding up Hamilton and the Red Bull’s while Vettel escaped out in front. However by the first round of pitstops it was clear the undercut was working well. In a move similar to Mercedes in Spain in 2016, Ferrari left out Raikkonen in the hopes he would back Bottas up into Vettel, compromising the Finns own race. While he did succeed partially to hold Bottas up, this cost him dearly in track position. When he was eventually allowed to pit after Bottas overtook him, he came out in sixth place. From there it was a fight up to gain the final podium place. Something Raikkonen was clearly in no mood to celebrate given his more sullen than usual appearance on the podium.
The sister Mercedes of Hamilton finished the race fourth after being out-qualified and out raced by his team mate this weekend. From the moment on the starting grid when Hamilton radioed in to say he felt his tyres were not optimal, it felt like it was going to be a tough race for the current World Champion. And it was. Hamilton did not look happy in the car and this showed in frustration on his team radio. Ultimately a fourth he was promoted too from this weekend really was the best he could have expected.
“We have a tough battle ahead of us,” Hamilton admitted after the race. “We’ve been underperforming and yesterday and today have been a disaster on my side. I need to try and rectify that and get myself back into normal performance back or otherwise more valuable points will be lost. I’m thankful for a couple of incidents that happened ahead kept us in the battle.”
Verstappen finished fifth after yet another error strewed race that saw him clash twice and pick up a ten second time penalty. Like his team mate Ricciardo, Red Bull took the opportunity to pit Verstappen behind the safety car, meaning he was on fresher rubber than those around him. His first incident came when he tried an unrealistic move on Hamilton and ended up going off track, costing himself time though he would overtake the Mercedes five laps later. The second and bigger incident came when he tangles with Vettel, who was running in third at the time.
Verstappen was right on the tail of Vettel thanks to his fresher tyres, but the Dutchman attempted an extremely optimistic overtake at the hairpin and failed, ramming into the Ferrari. Both cars span off, with Verstappen slipping down to fifth as a result. Vettel was relegated to just eighth in the end after the collision with Verstappen. The Red Bull driver was subsequently hit with a 10-second time penalty by the race stewards, costing him a fourth place finish.
Vettel spoke privately to Verstappen immediately after the race, though he was cautious in his public criticism of the Dutchman.
“He’s not young anymore,” the four-time world champion told the media. “But this can happen when you have done 300 races. Inside the car judgements are very difficult to make. But you have to ultimately have these things in mind and make sure you don’t crash. We were both lucky.”
Verstappen’s errors in China were the latest in a series of mistakes in the first three races of this season. In the opening race of the season in Australia he damaged his car running wide in the early laps, and then spun, losing several places and finishing sixth as a result. In Bahrain, he crashed into the wall in the first part of qualifying, then retired after a collision with Hamilton’s Mercedes that saw him collect a puncture. While in China he twice mounted unrealistic overtaking moves on drivers that ultimately cost him a podium at last and potentially the victory as well.
While many have argued that it is still incredibly young, Verstappen does have more race starts to his name than five-time Drivers World Champion Juan-Manuel Fangio. To his credit, he did come out after the race and admit he was at fault for his accident with Vettel.
“I am disappointed with myself that this is the outcome of the race.” Verstappen admitted. The team executed everything perfectly today, we had a great strategy and the car was behaving well so it is a real shame. It isn’t going my way at the minute so I’ll go away and analyse this and hopefully come back stronger.”
The Renault of Nico Hulkenberg finished an impressive sixth for the team ahead of the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, who had a battel in the final few laps with Vettel over seventh position. However the Spaniard admitted after, that the pass was not a fair reflection of what the car was capable of. Especially as the Ferrari had floor damabe thanks to his clash with Verstappen.
“It was good. Obviously it was not a fair fight because Sebastian had damage on his car and I was a little bit quicker on the corners,” said Alonso. “I was surprised when I saw a Ferrari not going too fast at the end. I asked what was the problem and apparently he had damage on his car so he was struggling a little bit on the corners.”
Vettel came home a disappointing eight as he held off Carlos Sainz in ninth place. While the Haas of Kevin Magnussen was the last of the points finishing racers after an interesting race for the Danish driver.
However, it was the safety car that triggered the dramatic end to the race, thanks to the Toro Rosso drivers clashing. Once again it seems the Toro Rosso drivers forgot the golden rule of racing, don’t hit your team mate. Pierre Gasly made an ill-fated move on Brendon Hartley. Sending debris across the track and both drivers into a spin. Gasly would receive a ten second time penalty from the Stewards. While Hartley was forced to become the only retirement of the afternoon.
Chinese GP race result
1) Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull:
2) Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes: +8.894
3) Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: +9.637
4) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes: +16.985
5) Max Verstappen, Red Bull: +20.436
6) Nico Hulkenberg, Renault: +21.052
7) Fernando Alonso, McLaren: +30.639
8) Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: +35.286
9) Carlos Sainz, Renault: +35.763
10) Kevin Magnussen, Haas: +39.594
11) Esteban Ocon, Force India: + 44.050
12) Sergio Perez, Force India: + 44.725
13) Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren: + 49.373
14) Lance Stroll, Williams: + 55.490
15) Sergey Sirotkin, Williams: + 58.241
16) Marcus Ericsson, Sauber: + 62.604
17) Romain Grosjean, Haas: + 65.296
18) Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso: + 66.330
19) Charles Leclerc, Sauber: +82.575
20) Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso : DNF