2018 Chinese Grand Prix Analysis
“Sometimes you’ve just got to lick the stamp and send it.” Daniel Ricciardo is not known for being shy when it comes to attempting an overtake. It was this trait which allowed him to emphatically convert a strategic roll of the dice from Red Bull into his sixth career victory.
On lap 32 of the 57 lap Chinese Grand Prix a safety car was deployed. Red Bull took the opportunity to change from a one-stop strategy into a two-stop, double-staking Max Verstappen and Ricciardo and switching both cars onto new soft tyres.
Emerging from the pitlane in fourth and sixth respectively, both drivers had lost track position in the process but ahead were drivers on older and harder tyres. Game on.
When Verstappen ran off the track at the high speed left-hander of Turn 7 after ambitiously attempting a heroic overtake around the outside of Lewis Hamilton, a composed Ricciardo became the lead Red Bull.
Simon Rennie, Ricciardo’s race engineer, accurately described his drive to the front as “clinical.” Ricciardo picked off Kimi Raikkonen under braking into the Turn 14 hairpin. Next, he dived to the inside of Hamilton, demoting the reigning champion from a seemingly impossible distance behind before the braking zone. Ricciardo’s audacity and skill caught a four-time world champion knapping.
Passing Sebastian Vettel was easier. With the use of DRS, Ricciardo simply drove around the Ferrari. Ricciardo then had just Valtteri Bottas between him and an unexpected victory. He picked Turn 6, sent his Red Bull to the inside of Bottas and despite a defensive move from the Finn, Ricciardo was unstoppable.
From sixth place to the race lead in 10 laps, Ricciardo was sublime.
“I could tell that we had the advantage coming in at the safety car and having those softs,” said Ricciardo. “I sensed the opportunity. Initially, it was ‘OK, maybe now we can fight for the podium’ and at the rate that we were going through the field, and I could feel the tyres were holding on well, then I was fully set on the win.”
“I had pace over all the guys that I got ahead of but you still don’t want to sit behind for too long. I saw Valtteri defend but I was kind of committed already from Turn 3 that I was going to try.
“It was cool, it was close but I would say close but fair and it’s cool when you go wheel-to-wheel and I think it’s fun for drivers and it’s good TV so I enjoyed it. It makes it a bit sweeter than just maybe cruising past on the straight so that was a lot of fun.”
Ricciardo’s blockbuster performance has ended a frustrating run of races. There was heartache during the Australian Grand Prix weekend when a minor infringement of red flag procedure during a practice session resulted in a three-place grid drop for his home race. Ricciardo recovered to fourth, narrowly missing out on a podium
In Bahrain, unreliability struck when an electronics issue on only the second lap of the race caused his Red Bull to shut down.
“A week ago [in Bahrain] I was with my head down after two laps on Sunday. Frustrated at the sport, frustrated at all the variables that are involved in the sport.
“Sometimes I question why I chose this sport because there are so many other 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 50 of those bad ones.”
It had seemed for a while as though unreliability would again drail Ricciardo’s weekend. A turbo failure during final practice meant that Ricciardo’s session ended in fiery fashion. The team then had just two hours to complete a three-hour job – a complete engine change – in order to get Ricciardo on-track in time for qualifying.
With just three minutes of Q1 remaining, Ricciardo emerged from the garage and scraped through the first part of qualifying. He eventually qualified sixth. It was only the “miraculous” work of his mechanics that saved him from starting last and serving as a reminder of the fine margins by which race weekends are defined.
“A win lost”
For the third consecutive race, Mercedes was left disappointed. Valtteri Bottas may have another 18 points in his pocket but after a perfectly executed strategy and solid race pace, he deserved 25.
Bottas managed to vault ahead of Raikkonen at the start and while Vettel worked to extend the gap in the opening stages, the lead-Mercedes remained in touch with the race-leading Ferrari.
This was crucial when the pit window opened. Bottas dived in on lap 20, switching to the medium compound tyre to commit to a one-stop. A two-second pitstop coupled with a stunning out-lap put Bottas into the undercut window. When Vettel pitted one lap later after a poor in-lap, a 2.8 second stop meant that Bottas had jumped Vettel and seized first place.
The timing of the safety car hampered both drivers, as they had passed safety car line one when it was deployed, meaning that they were unable to pit.
“The race was going pretty well for us and we were looking strong all the way, until the guys, during the safety car, stopped and we were in trouble then with Daniel and nearly with Kimi in the end.
“It is disappointing. We were giving everything we had and it kind of felt like we deserved victory – but not today.”
Less hero, more zero
Flashes of brilliance soured by moments of madness, Verstappen’s desire to win exceeded his almighty talent in China.
The weekend started in promising fashion. His strong pace was evident on Friday, where he recorded the second fastest long-run pace – only beaten by Vettel – based on average lap times. His 1m39.07s eclipsed the Mercedes duo by a tenth.
In the race, Verstappen delivered a sensational opening lap. He dispatched Hamilton at Turn 2 and proceeded to drive around the outside of Raikkonen at Turn 6, making the 20-time race winner look like a rookie.
When Red Bull pitted under the safety car, Verstappen emerged in fourth and with track position over his team-mate. He had time on his side, with 21 laps in which to make three overtakes. Instead of delivering decisive moves at the right times, Verstappen fluffed his lines.
His attempted pass around the outside of Hamilton at Turn 7 was unprecedented for a reason – it is an impossible spot to pull off an overtake, particularly at that point of the race when the circuit is at its dirtiest off-line. The run-off area spared Verstappen’s blushes on that occasion.
When he eventually made a clean move on Hamilton under-braking into Turn 6, he chased down Vettel for third. Again, Verstappen rushed his opportunity when he reached Vettel’s gearbox, diving late to the inside of the championship leader and pitching them both into a spin after locking his rear-brakes and clattering into the Ferrari’s sidepod.
“I could see he [Vettel] was struggling on the tyres and tried to brake late in the corners,” Verstappen said. “I locked the rears and hit him. It was, of course, my fault. Not what I want.
“It is easy to say after that I should have waited, and that probably would have been the best idea, but unfortunately it happened.”
A 10-second time penalty was justified for an incident that was clearly attributable to Verstappen’s over-ambition. A fourth career win and what would have most likely been part of a 1-2 finish for the Red Bull pair slipped away, but the 20-year-old will have learnt valuable lessons.