If anyone says to you that they accurately predicted the dominant Mercedes AMG F1 team being winless after the first three races of the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season, then call their bluff. No one could have ever predicted that after the way the team has dominated F1 since 2014 and the form they showed in pre-season testing.
And if anyone you know had predicted Daniel Ricciardo winning the Chinese Grand Prix after a weekend that saw him almost miss qualifying due to a turbo failure in his Red Bull-Tag Heuer RB 14’s Renault engine, then you know they are definitely pulling your leg! No one could have ever predicted what has gone down as one of the most tense, unpredictable and thrilling F1 races ever.
THE GAME CHANGER
Until the 31st out of 56 laps around the 5.451km, 16-turn Shanghai International Circuit the Chinese GP had looked to be a tense tussle between Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The German had been leading from pole-position but he and Ferrari were blindsided during their tyre stop on lap 21 when Bottas managed to produce a fast out-lap after pitting a lap earlier.
The Finnish driver got ahead of Vettel and it looked like the race would boil down to the Ferrari driver saving his tyres for a big push to overtake the Mercedes driver before the end of the race.
But then on lap 31, Toro Rosso-Honda’s Pierre Gasly (the star performer from the previous round in Bahrain) tried an overtaking attempt on teammate Brendon Hartley from too far back at the turn 14 right handed hairpin. It resulted in Gasly punting the right-rear section of his teammate’s car, which resulted in many bits of sharp carbon-fibre being strewn all over that section of the race track.
In order to allow the track marshalls to clean up the debris, the safety car was deployed. And that is where the race turned on its head. With nothing to lose, Red Bull’s pit-wall crew immediately called in their drivers Max Verstappen and Ricciardo in to change their tyres from the harder medium compound Pirellis to the soft compound tyres.
RED BULL GO ON THE HUNT
With faster tyres that were also ten laps fresher than that of the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers that they were chasing and little time lost due to pitting under the safety car period, Verstappen and Ricciardo were suddenly placed with a genuine shot at an unlikely victory.
As the safety car period ended on lap 36, Bottas was able to avoid any attacks from Vettel but all eyes were now on Verstappen in fourth place.
The 20-year-old Dutchman hunted down third placed Lewis Hamilton and on lap 39 made a very risky attempt to pass Hamilton from the outside in a fast, left-handed turn. Verstappen was forced to take evasive action and go off the track as Hamilton took the normal racing line, resulting in him dropping behind Ricciardo who was shadowing the pair looking for an opportunity.
And two laps later he stormed past Hamilton to move up to third place and set his sights on second placed Vettel while Verstappen re-passed Hamilton (he had earlier passed him at the start of the race) and followed Ricciardo to what could have been a 1-2 finish for Red Bull Racing.
A FAMOUS WIN
Ricciardo got past Vettel at turn 14 on lap 42, showing off his supreme skill under braking, and Verstappen tried to follow suit a lap later. However, misjudging the distance between himself and the former four-time world champion led to the two making contact and spinning 180 degrees as Hamilton and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen managed to make it through.
Verstappen was handed a ten-second post-race time penalty but all eyes were on the charging Ricciardo. The ‘honey badger’, as he refers to himself, was relentless in his pursuit of race leader Bottas and on lap 46 he dived down the inside of the number 77 Mercedes at a right-hand turn and assumed the lead of the race.
Ricciardo stormed away, ultimately finishing 8.894 seconds ahead of Bottas but the Finn came under pressure from Raikkonen and Verstappen, both of whom got past Hamilton and got into the fight for second place. Raikkonen took a few good looks but ultimately was just under 0.8 seconds behind Bottas at the finish with Verstappen another 0.8 seconds behind him on the road. Verstappen’s 10-second penalty dropped him behind Hamilton in the classification, however.
Due to the incident between Vettel and Verstappen, Renault F1’s Nico Hulkenberg was sixth, 21.052 seconds behind race winner Ricciardo with McLaren-Renault’s Fernando Alonso a surprise seventh place after Vettel’s Ferrari looked vulnerable following Verstappen’s collision. Alonso forced his way past Vettel on the penultimate lap of the race, even making contact with the German who had to take some evasive action to avoid even more damage.
Vettel finished eighth, just 0.477 seconds ahead of Renault F1’s Carlos Sainz Jr. while Haas-Ferrari’s Kevin Magnussen completed the top ten.
BIG SHIFT IN TITLE BATTLE
The result sees Vettel still in the lead of the driver’s championship but only by nine points over Hamilton, the two tallying 54 and 45 points, respectively, after the first three rounds.
Bottas’ second consecutive second placed finish sees him on 40 points while Ricciardo’s win takes him to fourth place with 37 points.
In the constructors’ championship, Vettel’s miserable race sees Mercedes overtake Ferrari by just one point to tally 85 points to their Italian rival’s 84 points. The 35 points netted by Red Bull in China sees them take third place with 55 points with McLaren fourth on 28 points (22 of those courtesy of Alonso). Renault F1 are just three points behind McLaren with 25 points (22 of those thanks to Hulkenberg).
The next round of the championship will take place on the 27-29 April weekend at the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan.