No driver, it seems, is going to have an easy ride in Formula One this season but if the rollercoaster of the Chinese Grand Prix is repeated the sport will be all the better for it.
For Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who won the race, it was the climax of an emotional and challenging two weeks. From frustration, unhappiness and even questioning his future in F1 after retirement at the last round in Bahrain, the Australian emerged from a meeting of two halves triumphant and euphoric, having made his mark in the race of the season with emphatic style.
Ricciardo’s overtaking was superlative but behind him there was a different picture, with Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel left licking their wounds after finishing in fourth and eighth respectively.
Hamilton was relieved that rather than dropping points to the German he has narrowed the gap in the title battle from 17 to nine points but the first half of the race proved that his team have been put on the back foot by Ferrari, who have the quicker car. Valtteri Bottas was second for Mercedes but they have much work to do.
Kimi Räikkönen finished in third for Ferrari but they too face questions after their strategy was found wanting. Vettel had led from pole until the pit stops and Mercedes brought Bottas in first while Vettel stayed out. The Finn put in some very quick sectors going for the undercut and a slow stop for the Scuderia cost Vettel and he emerged in second. The win looked to be in Mercedes’s hands, with Hamilton doing his best at damage limitation having started from fourth.
But the real drama was yet to come. The two Toro Rossos clashed at turn 14, leaving debris in their wake, and Red Bull’s reaction to the subsequent safety car was swift and tactically astute. They sent both drivers into the pits and they emerged on new, soft rubber with the pace to hunt down the leaders.
Max Verstappen was the leader of the two but he was overambitious making a move on Hamilton and went off, losing his place to Ricciardo. The Australian, who had been in sixth, needed no further encouragement. Hamilton fell with a superb piece of late braking into the hairpin, Vettel on the back straight and then Bottas with a dive up the inside of turn four that took the breath away. Ricciardo was magnificent and, out of contract at the end of this year, presented a potent reminder of his talent to Ferrari and Mercedes, who both potentially have seats open next season.
Yet it had been so close to another resolution-sapping weekend for the Australian. On Saturday, after an engine problem in practice, he only just made qualifying. The team did superbly to fix it and he made the most of it.
“This sport’s crazy,” he said. “A week ago I was with my head down. Frustrated at the sport, frustrated at all the variables. Sometimes I question why I chose this sport because there’s so many things out of your control and it does get you down a lot – but then when you have a day like this it’s worth fifty of those bad ones.”
Hamilton was forthright that he had been unable to match Ferrari. “I had no pace and was just trying to hold on,” he said. “Yesterday and today was a disaster on my side.”
But the team, too, must consider their part. They opted not to send the British driver to the pits for fresh rubber when Red Bull did and it proved costly. The team principal, Toto Wolff, said they had thought track position was more important. “Looking back, it would have been the right strategy to pit but nobody in the team, including myself, though it was the right thing to do at the time,” he said.
Hamilton was not willing to apportion blame. “I just struggled with the car,” he said. “Rather than blaming strategy, I was uncomfortable in the car this weekend. The lack of pace, I have to take it upon myself to figure out.”
Vettel’s day, serene at the opening, went downhill from the moment he lost the lead. Verstappen, charging once again after his off, was too hot into the hairpin, locked up and collected the German, causing them both to spin. Vettel dropped places and lost balance in the car, leaving him struggling in seventh, a position he lost to Fernando Alonso on the penultimate lap.
Verstappen, facing growing criticism for poor decisions after hitting Hamilton in Bahrain, was penalised and apologised but the damage was done. “In that situation he has to change his style, otherwise it will happen again,” Vettel said. “I said to him afterwards: ‘Look, the race is long and you threw your podium away.’”
The German was left ruing what might have been an extended lead in the title race but F1 was able to revel in a thrilling contest with a more than worthy winner. “Sometimes you have just got to lick the stamp and send it,” Ricciardo said colourfully of his move on Hamilton and in doing so posted notice of his intent to be a player in this year’s title fight.
Verstappen finished in fourth but was classified fifth after his penalty; Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg was in sixth, with his team-mate Carlos Sainz in ninth; Alonso in seventh and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas 10th.