Daniel Ricciardo grabbed an unexpected victory at the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix thanks to an opportunistic pitstop and some excellent overtaking moves.
The only interest from the start was Bottas squeezing ahead of Raikonnen to grab second, behind Vettel, and Verstappen getting the jump on Hamilton to grab fourth from the reigning champion.
With nonone of the front runners even hinting that they might try an overtake, let alone pull one off, those viewers who sacrficed their Sunday lay-in were forced to wait until the scheduled pitstops for their next dose of excitement. That came at Ferrari’s expense, with Bottas pitting on lap 19 from second place and Vettel pitting from the lead one lap later, but somehow losing a 3.5 second lead and coming out behind the Mercedes.
Still on old tyres, Raikonnen was around seven seconds ahead, and Ferrari evidently decided that they would destroy his chances in the race in the hope that he would be able to block Bottas and give Vettel an advantage. Kimi must have been quietly fumin as he watched Bottas and Vettel catch and pass him, with Vettel gaining only the briefest benefits, before he too was allowed to pit for new tyres, rejoining in 6th place, getting on for 30 seconds behind the leaders.
That was the end of the ‘racing’ until Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Brendon Harley collided with each other at the hairpin, littering the track with debris. There was an unexplained delay before track officials introduced a safety car to allow the debris to be cleared. Bottas and Vettel had already gone past the pit entrance when the safety car was announced, but the two Red Bulls were able to dive in and change for new tyres, both taking on fresh soft tyres. Slow to respond, or perhaps not seeing an advantage, Mercedes left Hamilton out on his older, slower, medium tyres as the field reassembled behind the pit car.
From the restart, Verstappen was the leading Red Bull and set about overtaking Hamilton, who was temporarily in third place. From sixth place, Ricciardo quickly overtook Raikonnen under braking and closed up on his teammate Verstappen. Perhaps seeing his teammate arrive, Verstappen tried to get past Hamilton with an optimistic move around the outside of Turn Seven but couldn’t make it stick, running off the track. Before he could recover, Hamilton had escaped and he’d lost a place to Ricciardo.
With his fresher, softer tyres, Ricciardo had a performance advantage that none of the cars in front of him could defend against, and he swept past Hamilton, Vettel and then Bottas, to take the lead 10 laps from the end.
‘Gifted’ or ‘stupid’?
Behind him, Verstappen finally managed to pass Hamilton and quickly caught up with third-placed Vettel. Knowing his tyres wouldn’t allow him to defend his position, Vettel had already decided not to defend his place when Verstappen caught up. Unfortunately, Verstappen was in a bit of a hurry and got his timing wrong. Making a late attempt to overtake Vettel at the hairpin, he slid into Vettel’s side and the two cars span, fortunately without damage.
Yet again, Verstappen’s driving reopened the ‘stupid’ or ‘gifted’ debate. Someone should tell him the ‘young’ excuse is starting to wear a little thin.
Luckily, Raikonnen and Hamilton both avoided the incident, moving up to third and fourth before the two Germans could get moving again. Seemingly lacking in grip initially, Vettel lost a further position to Hulkenberg’s Renault.
On Lap 46, Ricciardo passed Bottas to take the lead, and Verstappen was given a 10-second penalty for causing the accident with Vettel.
Verstappen eventually gots past Hamilton and set off to catch Raikonnen in third, and that was the end of the race at the front. With the Ferraris and Mercedes unable to overtake each other on the track, Bottas was safe in second place, despite Kimi closing behind him. Verstappen wasn’t able to catch and pass Raikonnen, and Hamilton stayed close enough to Verstappen to ensure he was less than 10 seconds behind.
Meanwhile, doubtless spitting blood, Vettel was caught and passed by Alonso in his McLaren, consigning him to eigth place at the end of a race he’d seemed certain to win.
So, Ricciardo won, followed home by Bottas and Raikonnen. With Vettel coming home in eigth place and Hamilton in fourth, Vettel ended the day only 9 points ahead of his main rival, instead of the 32 points difference that had looked likely just an hour earlier.
Reporting after the race largely focussed on Ricciardo’s overtaking, Vettel’s anger and Verstappen’s continued poor decision making skills, which is totally understandable, but totally missing the real point.
Until the tyre changes this was shaping up to be one of the most boring ‘races’ I’d ever seen. With car aerodynamics preventing cars of a similar performance from following each other closely, let alone overtaking, Formula One has become a car parade in which positions can only be changed when there is a huge performance differential between two cars, or artificially through pitstops.
Look at the Australian GP. Hamilton had changed his tyres, as had Raikonnen. Vettel was scheduld to change his, and would have rejoined the track in third place, 25-30 seconds behind the race leader. Instead, a VSC period was announced and Vettel happened to be in the right place at the right time to jump in and change his tyre, gaining at least a 20 second advantage from the VSC period, which was created to stop drivers gaining an advantage…. Tell me what that has to do with racing.
Now in China, Red Bull are able to make opportunistic stops for both their cars – the two leaders were not – and so gain such a tyre advantage that their slightly slower cars are able to blast past everybody else.
Nobody wants to take anything away from Ricciardo for what was a very good drive, but the Chinese GP wasn’t a race with a spectacular result achieved by spectacular overtaking skills; it was a lottery in which cars were unable to overtake naturally, which included a display of good overtaking skills by a driver whose tyres were considerably better than those of the drivers he was able to jump past.
Formula One is on its knees. Astronomical costs mean that smaller teams have no chance of winning and few manufacturers are interested in joining. What F1 calls ‘racing’ is an exercise in engine management and tyre management for the top 2 or maybe 3 teams, and praying that they get to the end of the race for the rest. Only two engines are reliable, with Renault and Honda demonstrating how the rules protect established manufacturers and stop them from catching up quickly. Renault and Honda are quite likely to walk away from the sport again at some point. What happens next?
The rule on limiting development and testing time guarantees nobody will catch the guys out in front. While Ferrari receive millions more than any team from the F1 kitty than any other team, simply because they are Ferrari, rules that stop teams improving their cars on test tracks hand them and the other leading teams a huge boost.
F1 stopped being a genuine motor-racing sport some time ago and shows no sign of being brought back to life. It seems to be dead on its feet, relying on random pitstops and driver stupidity to generate interest.
Yesterday’s Chinese GP was a “spectacular race”?