My previews so far have suggested certain performances from certain teams and drivers. They have been pretty much useless. Case in point, Shanghai, China. This one was a slow burner, but ended as a classic.
Qualifying produced a second consecutive Ferrari front row lockout. Kimi Raikkonen was close but Sebastian Vettel was able to snatch pole right at the death. Meanwhile, Red Bull mechanics did a remarkable job of patching up Daniel Ricciardo’s car following an engine failure – they got him out just in time for one lap in Q1, which eventually led to sixth on the grid, right behind his teammate Max Verstappen. In between the Ferraris and the Red Bulls were the underperforming Mercedes, with Valtteri Bottas outqualifying Lewis Hamilton for the second race in a row.
For McLaren their struggles in qualifying continued. 13th for Fernando Alonso and 14th for Stoffel Vandoorne seemed to reveal the chasm between the designs of Red Bull and McLaren, with Renault power working better for Red Bull, whilst Renault themselves saw Nico Hulkenberg start seventh and Carlos Sainz ninth. There was yet more disappointment for Williams, with neither Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll escaping Q1. There was also disappointment for Pierre Gasly, who had finished fourth for Toro Rosso in Bahrain, only to qualify a meagre 17th.
Come race day, the stage was set for Ferrari. Raikkonen made a better getaway from the line but Vettel squeezed him a little and forced Raikkonen to back off. As a result, Bottas was able to slip ahead of Raikkonen, whilst in the ensuing machinations Verstappen was able to get ahead of Hamilton. For several laps Vettel slowly extended his lead and then controlled it, holding at around 2.5 seconds, creeping up to around three seconds. Raikkonen held position without threatening Bottas, whilst Verstappen was keeping ahead of Hamilton, making full use of the ultrasoft tyre, as compared to the soft compound on the Mercedes. Ricciardo was sitting in sixth, also on the ultrasofts, with everyone just biding their time.
It was Red Bull who pitted first, carrying off a remarkable and well-timed double-stack to put both their drivers on medium tyres on lap 18. Things could have gone badly wrong, but the team pulled off the move superbly and both Verstappen and Ricciardo started pumping in quick lap times, forcing a reaction from both Ferrari and Mercedes. Hamilton pitted a lap later and was able to emerge from the pits ahead of Ricciardo, going on a charge of his own. Bottas followed suit and also started to put in quick laps. Ferrari had to respond and they did, with Vettel pitting, but they hadn’t reacted quickly enough – Bottas successfully completed the undercut, gaining the lead.
For reasons known only to them, Ferrari didn’t pit Raikkonen, instead preferring to keep him out. It wasn’t long before Bottas was catching Raikkonen, who attempted to hold up Bottas for a bit, seemingly to help Vettel catch up and get involved – it didn’t take Bottas too long to get by Raikkonen, who almost immediately let Vettel through. However Bottas was cool under pressure, holding off Vettel as behind, Verstappen headed Hamilton and Ricciardo. When Raikkonen finally pitted, he emerged down in sixth. Then came a moment that turned the race on its head.
The Toro Rosso pair of Gasly and Brandon Hartley collected each other into the hairpin of turn 14, with Gasly judged the culprit for making a rash move. The debris triggered a safety car, under which both Red Bulls once again pitted, being able to get in and out again before the pack caught up. Neither Ferrari nor Mercedes were able to react, but Red Bull’s move saw them put on the soft tyre, which, combined with the strength of the car through the winding, bendy sector 2, would give Red Bull a tremendous opportunity. When the safety car withdrew, Verstappen was catching Raikkonen and swiftly dispatching him, setting off after Hamilton whilst Ricciardo lined up his own move on Raikkonen. Verstappen would then challenge Hamilton around the sweeping, fast complex of turn 7. Hamilton wasn’t about to yield and Verstappen ran wide, losing out to Ricciardo and Raikkonen. It wasn’t long before he was getting back by Raikkonen.
Ricciardo was in the meantime making one of the moves of the race. From seemingly too far back, he launched one of his classic late braking moves on Hamilton at turn 14, before easily getting by Vettel and then pulling off another brave move up the inside of turn 4 on Bottas. This was arguably the move of the race, with Bottas squeezing hard but leaving just barely enough room, room that Ricciardo wsa bold enough to push through. Further back, Verstappen would try to mimic his teammate with a strong move on Vettel into turn 14, but this would not work out the way he hoped.
Verstappen’s move was clumsier, less assured than Ricciardo’s, with the Red Bull and Ferrari colliding. Both spun and Raikkonen (who at some point had gotten by Hamilton) and Hamilton himself went by, whilst Verstappen was able to right himself before Vettel did and both went off on their way. For Vettel, his rear tyres were weakened, making him a sitting duck for the Renault of Hulkenberg, whilst Verstappen would get by Hamilton but receive a ten-second time penalty for causing a collision. Whilst Verstappen would clear Hulkenberg he wouldn’t get ten seconds clear of Hamilton, whilst Vettel’s misery was compounded by being caught and passed late on by Alonso’s McLaren (Vettel wasn’t too pleased with that move either).
Ricciardo would streak away to claim win six of his career and his first of 2018. After a difficult start to the season, he came alive today, as did Red Bull. It’s not a certainty that the team will be competitive all season, but this was a display of race pace that was very impressive. It was also a reminder that Ricciardo’s experience and race craft is sharper than Verstappen’s. To give Verstappen credit, he apologised to Vettel for his error, but if he is to truly realise his potential, he needs to learn to pick his moment.
For Vettel, eighth place was massively disappointing, leaving his championship lead at nine points from Hamilton, who was pretty anonymous today. For Mercedes there was the positive of Bottas landing on the podium, holding Raikkonen at bay, but the Silver Arrows haven’t won any of the races so far in 2018, a pretty unusual set of circumstances. Nonetheless, they are resourceful and are hardly out of the battle.
After three races, Vettel still leads the title race with 54 points, with Hamilton second on 45 points, Bottas third with 40 and Ricciardo fourth on 37. This could yet be a three-team battle.