THE 2018 Chinese Grand Prix may have taken some time to kick off, but once it came alive, it produced one of the most thrilling and memorable races for quite some time.
Ferrari’s front-row lockout in Saturday’s qualifier, some half a second clear of the first Mercedes, set up what seemed like a foregone victory for the Italian team. However, even as dominant as Mercedes have been in the hybrid era Formula 1 remains one, if not the, most unpredictable sport in the world.
Nevertheless, the race got off without too much excitement. Sebastian Vettel cut off teammate Kimi Raikkonen to retain the lead while the Finn dropped behind the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
The opening stint of the race was uneventful with Vettel heading to a third win in as many races. However, it was a dubious day for Ferrari as Mercedes, with Bottas, took over the lead with a sharper strategy call.
Ferrari weren’t done with the astonishing calls though as they decided to leave Kimi Raikkonen out on track to serve as a blocker for teammate Vettel in his quest to get back the lead of the race from Bottas.
Ferrari’s call dropped Raikkonen to sixth after the pitstop. To treat their last world champion in such a manner was nothing less than shameful by Ferrari.
The race kicked off soon after as Pierre Gasly crashed into the side of his Toro Rosso teammate Brendon Hartley. Not only did Gasly incur a 10-second penalty, but the debris strewn across turn 14 prompted the deployment of the safety car.
While Bottas and Vettel missed a chance to dive into the pitlane for fresh tyres both Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo were called in and armed with new soft tyres.
Again, Ferrari was outsmarted on strategy as there was enough time to make the call to switch Raikkonen to new tyres.
Mind you, Mercedes didn’t call in Hamilton either, but they did this as they thought track position would be more important than fresh rubber.
The pace advantage of both Red Bulls was clear immediately in comparison to Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel and Bottas.
But Verstappen proved too impetuous in his overtaking moves as he ran off track when attempting to overtake Hamilton. He regrouped but got it wrong again when he hit Vettel at the turn-14 hairpin.
The Dutchman was given a 10-second penalty and will undoubtedly receive a talking to from his team.
He’ll be well advised to take note of his teammate Daniel Ricciardo who pulled off several stunning moves. First, he came from impossibly far back to take the place off Hamilton at the hairpin and followed it a lap later by easily picking off Vettel at the same spot.
The best of the lot was the audacious move on Bottas to take the lead of the race. Ricciardo scampered off into the distance to secure the sixth win of his career.
Bottas held on to a solid second place by just six tenths of a second. Raikkonen secured third despite being hung out to dry by Ferrari.
Though Verstappen recovered from his collision with Vettel, his fourth on the track turned into fifth with a warranted 10-second penalty for causing a collision. Hamilton trundled home in a desolate fourth in what was an off-colour weekend for the reigning champion.
Nico Hulkenberg brought his Renault home in a solid sixth place ahead of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in seventh. Vettel limped home in eighth with Carlos Sainz and Kevin Magnussen rounding out the top 10.
Ricciardo’s brilliant win in China illustrated a F1 team in perfect synergy. The team was pushed to the limits after needing to change the Australian’s engine on Saturday in time for qualifying.
A job that normally takes three hours to complete was miraculously accomplished in two.
And then there was the genius strategy calls and tremendous work in the pitlane to stop and service both cars back-to-back.
To top it all off, Ricciardo provided the icing on the cake with a sensational driving performance.
Now that is Formula 1 at its best.
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