Daniel Ricciardo delivered the best drive of his career to win a riveting Chinese Grand Prix, in the process he pulled off three of the slickest overtake moves, on the Formula 1’s biggest stars to score an unlikely victory in an action-packed race.
The Red Bull driver was followed over the line by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas in second and Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari claiming the final podium spot.
The big smiling Aussie was in sniper mode in a race that came to Red Bull after a safety car period provided them an opportunity to pit their cars and bolt on the yellow band Pirelli soft tyres, while the race leaders at that point stayed out on track.
When the safety car peeled into the pits the blue cars came alive, gobbling up the gaps. Ricciardo’s ambush from 50 metres behind Lewis Hamilton was one of the most memorable overtakes in recent memory, however this is now establisghed as the Red Bull driver’s trademark.
After gulping down a ‘shoey’ Ricciardo said, “I don’t seem to win boring races. That was unexpected. 24 hours ago I thought we may be starting at the back of the grid. Thanks to the boys, today is the real reward for that. The mechanics worked their butts off.”
“I heard Safety Car in Turn 14 and was told to box. It was very quick but very decisive, winning moves from the team. Sometimes you just have to lick the stamp and send it.”
“I enjoyed it very much. I knew on the soft tyres I could get more out of the braking. A lot of the time you get one chance to try so I make the most of every opportunity,” added the Australian.
His attack on Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel to take second place was also ballsy. And and then his threading of the needle to get past Valtteri Bottas to claim the lead had Fans and his crew on their feet.
For sure Ricciardo on the fresher softs were always going to be an advantage, but it took a brilliant performance to get the business done and ignite what, up until the safety car period, had been a mundane race.
Not to be forgotten are the Red Bull crew who rebuilt his car for qualifying and got him out into Q1 with a couple of minutes on the clock. Ricciardo then went on to qualify sixth. Then in the race, they twice double-stacked their cars for lightning fast pitstops.
Also, credit to their pitwall who were on the ball when it mattered while their rivals missed the opportunity presented by the safety car opportunity.
While Ricciardo was undeniably brilliant, in stark contrast his teammate Max Verstappen had a calamitous afternoon as he punted himself off when trying to go around the outside of the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. Then he clattered clumsily into Vettel as the pair battled for the same piece of tar through the hairpin.
For his shenanigans, Verstappen received a ten seconds penalty which dropped him down to fifth, when a podium and even a win were on the cards for him on the day.
The young Dutchman would do himself a great service if he took a hard look at the race replay and watch his teammate and see how it should be done. Two races in two he has collided with rivals and compromised his race and denied himself what should have been strong results.
Credit ot Verstaooen who was contrite when he told reporters, “I could see him struggling on the tyres and tried to brake late into the corner. I locked the rears a bit and hit him. That was of course my fault.
“It’s not what you want and it’s easy to say afterwards I should have waited. That probably would have been the best idea but unfortunately that happened,” he added.
Bottas crossed the line in second eight seconds behind the winner. The Finn had a solid weekend and all-in-all outperformed his world champion teammate Lewis Hamilton.
At one point Bottas looked to be on his way to victory, he chased Vettel throughout the first stint and then took the lead thanks to the undercut after a impressive out lap. But the safety car period played against him and when Ricciardo came calling, with fresh softs bolted to the Red Bull, he had no answer. Second place was his reward.
Bottas reflected, “The race was going pretty well for us and we were looking strong all the way until the guys stopped during the Safety Car. It is disappointing, we were giving everything we had and felt like we deserved the victory. It felt like everything was under control and I had no major drop off so I think I could have held off Sebastian [without the Safety Car]”
Kimi Raikkonen salvaged third place after a race in which his team deliberately compromised him to help Vettel’s cause. When Bottas and Vettel pitted, they kept the veteran Finn out on track, in the lead but on worn tyres.
Soon it was clear why… he was being used to slow Bottas and allow Vettel to catch up. And it worked because Bottas’ lead was cut dramatically thanks to the Ferrari ploy. It also signalled very clearly that Raikkonen is merely the rear-gunner for the Reds.
Raikkonen summed up his afternoon, “We made a good start and then blocked a bit and passed in the first corners. We stayed out very long but had a bit of luck with the Safety Car. In the end we needed the soft tyres to really go for it. I got close to Valtteri but it is so difficult to follow people.”
After the dust had settled it was clear that Mercedes, for a third race in a row, messed up the strategy. Perhaps the timing of the safety car did them no favours with Bottas, but there was no excuse not to pit Hamilton as Red Bull did their cars. The world champion on fresher tyres may have ended higher up than fourth place.
On the other hand, with Raikkonen as the sacrificial pawn had Vettel with victory in sight, but the German also lost out during the safety car period and probably would not have been able to fend off Ricciardo.
However, a podium was on the cards until he was torpedoed by Verstappen, after which the Ferrari limped home in eighth place.
Vettel said afterwards, “I didn’t see him until very late. I left a little bit of room as well. was expecting him to come earlier. I had no intention to resist because it was clear with Daniel as well that there was no point doing so – they were just too quick on the fresh tyres.”
“I didn’t want to compromise my race to the guys behind. But he made a mistake, locked up – it happens with a tailwind down that straight – I guess he misjudged and compromised both our races. He’s not young anymore.”
“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,” concluded Vettel who saw his championship lead cut from 14 points to nine at the end of the day.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso in the McLaren took advantage of the dramatic turmoil ahead to finish sixth and seventh respectively. Alonso again dragging his car by the scruff of the neck into points yet again.
Carlos Sainz, in ninth, made it a double points score for Renault and was followed over the line by the Haas of Kevin Magnussen claiming the final point.
For Toro Rosso it was a case of ‘what a difference a week makes’ as Honda ‘power’ went AWOL in China and Pierre Gasly, who was fourth a week earlier, blotted his copybook by smashing into his teammate Brendon Hartley at the hairpin.
As a result, debris was scattered all over the track and this is what prompted the race deciding safety car deployment, allowing marshalls time to clear the Toro Rosso mess.
When the lights went out Vettel made a slightly slow getaway and as Räikkönen got away well, the German moved right to cover his team-mate. That allowed Bottas to go around the outside of the Finn and steal second place.
Behind them, Verstappen made an excellent start from fifth place and was quickly past Hamilton through Turn 1 as the Briton tried to attack Räikkönen. Verstappen then closed on the Ferrari driver and made a good move past the Finn to take third by the end of the first lap.
The first stint saw Vettel etch out a lead of more than four seconds over Bottas, who in turn built up a five-second gap back to Verstappen, with Räikkönen fourth and comfortably ahead of Hamilton. The race then settled until the first round of pit stops.
Verstappen was the first of the front-runners to stop, arrowing into the pit lane at the end of lap 17 to take a set of medium tyres. Seconds later he was followed by sixth-placed team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who also moved to mediums as Red Bull enacted an impressive double stop on the same lap.
The move was designed to give both drivers an opportunity to attack the Mercedes driver in front of them but when Hamilton pitted he was able to rejoin ahead of Ricciardo. It was a similar story for Verstappen whose stop failed to dent the advantage enjoyed by Bottas, who was able to pit and rejoin ahead of the Dutchman
Vettel was next in and as the German moved to medium tyres Mercedes told Bottas that he had to push as hard as possible. The Finn obliged and Vettel exited the pit lane to see Bottas sweeping past him.
The race was now led by Räikkönen who had yet to pit. As the Finn’s pace ebbed on fading tyres, Ferrari tried to use him as a bulwark, backing Bottas towards Vettel. The Mercedes driver was alive to the threat, however, and attacked, passing Räikkönen on lap 27 in the slow ‘Snail’ section of the circuit.
The complexion of the race changed moments later when the two Toro Rosso drivers collided at the hairpin, with Gasly running into the back of Hartley, scattering debris across the track.
The Safety Car was deployed and Red Bull took the decision to again double stop its drivers, this time for soft tyres. With the other front runners staying sticking with their medium tyres, it proved a decisive move.
Verstappen rejoined in fourth place behind Hamilton and Ricciardo sat in sixth behind Räikkönen, but their tyres soon gave them a pace advantage and on lap 37 Ricciardo muscled his way past Räikkönen to claim fifth. Ahead, Verstappen was pressuring Hamilton and attempted a move. Hamilton was not for moving, however, and the Red Bull driver was forced off track as the Mercedes man tightly held the racing line.
That allowed Ricciardo to move past his team-mate and take up the fight. The Australian was more decisive and dived down the inside of Hamilton into the hairpin to claim third place.
Ricciardo was now in full flight and after dismissing Vettel with relative ease he closed on leader Bottas. The Finn tried to defend as the Red Bull driver again attacked at the hairpin, but despite the gap narrowing, Ricciardo somehow slotted through and then kept control on exit to take the lead.
Behind him Verstappen was also lining up a move at the hairpin to pass Vettel. Again though it didn’t work and the pair collided, with Verstappen dropping to fifth and Vettel to seventh.
The Red Bull driver made it back to fourth past Hamilton but then was handed a 10-second time penalty by stewards for causing a collision.
In the final laps Ricciardo stretched his lead over Bottas to eight seconds, who slowly fell back towards Räikkönen. The Ferrari driver made several attempts to get past but couldn’t find a way and the flag fell with Ricciardo claiming his sixth career win ahead of Bottas and Räikkönen. Hamilton was fourth ahead of Verstappen with Hulkenberg fifth.
Vettel had held seventh until the closing stages but on the penultimate lap he was passed by Alonso in bold move that left the Ferrari driver complaining that the move was illegal.
The stewards, however, ruled the pass to be a fair one. Behind the German the final points positions were taken by Sainz and Magnussen.