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Collision. Decision. Precision
2018 Shanghai Grand Prix
Text | Richard Kelley
Photos | Thomas Lam
Edit | Henry Lau, Peter Kelly
Design | Franco Au-Yeung

Red Bull’s strategists rolled the dice, giving Daniel Riccardo a critical tyre advantage at the right moment to pull off his “Shanghai Surprise”.


Overview

Daniel Riccardo muscled his way from sixth on the grid to win the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix thanks to his superb overtaking and his tyre advantage drawn from a stop under a safety car period. It was Ricciardo’s first victory of the season and the sixth of his career.

The crucial moment of the Grand Prix arrived as the Race Stewards called for a safety car with 26 laps remaining in the Grand Prix. Pierre Gasly speared team-mate Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso during an ambitious overtaking move for the same four square yards of tarmac in the Turn 14 Hairpin. Their impact spread an extensive layer of razor sharp carbon fibre debris, bargeboard bits and detached rear view mirrors and the SC closed up the cars during the cleanup.

Until then, first Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and then Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes were in charge. Mercedes had sprung an unexpected tire stop on Lap 20 that caught the Ferrari team a bit by surprise, as they incorrectly felt they were safe from a Mercedes undercut. Ferrari pitted on Lap 21, but Vettel emerged with Bottas in the lead; the chase was on.

However, it was the Safety Car call that caught out both the Scuderia and Mercedes and completely changed the competitive order. The Red Bull strategists reacted instantly, bringing in Max Verstappen and Riccardo by once again ‘double-stacking’ their cars during the stop as the switched them from the slower mediums to the stickier softs at just the right moment.

While Verstappen would go on to contest territorial disputes with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, the more careful Riccardo would go from a serious threat to an unstoppable force as he rushed by Verstappen, Raikkonen and Hamilton before surgically slipping past Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes under braking for Turn 6 on Lap 46. After that, it was no contest; he went on to win by 8.8- seconds; Bottas held on for second place. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen had suffered the loss of track position after he was called in to switch tyres to stall Mercedes’ duo but rebounded from the designated defender of teammate Sebastian Vettel to reclaim third place.

The fact that Riccardo even factored in the results was remarkable. A turbo failure during FP3 had Red Bull mechanics flogging to get the Aussie out in Q1 with just three minutes left in the session. His one timed lap was enough to make it to Q2, but when race day arrived, he was a man on a mission. It’s the first time in his career Ricciardo’s won and set the fastest lap in the same race.

And as a result, it’s also the first time in the current turbo hybrid era that Mercedes have gone three races without a win. As much as Ferrari, Red Bull is the reason the Silver Arrows have only won one of the last six Grands Prix.

Conclusions

After three Grands Prix into 2018, Formula 1 is experiencing a level of competitiveness throughout the field that happily threatens to bring back racing fans that have grown tired of the processional races of the last two seasons. While Sebastian Vettel has won two of the three flyaway events, it’s the how and why of those victories as well as the way Daniel Riccardo manhandled the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix that stands out. 

From unexpected strategies, nail-biting pursuits or moments of sublime passes, this season’s racing highlights stem from a return to remarkable team dynamics, hero-level driving skills and a real test of which team reacts to the moment with the correct decision.

Looking ahead, now each Grand Prix promises to offer the unexpected. As the “Shanghai Surprise” suggests, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes have strengths and weaknesses that can be instantly transformed by small factors or perfect (or advantageous) timing. 

Mercedes will rely on power but must deal with a lack of grip and suspension precision outside of normal temperatures or while trailing a red car. Ferrari will continue to take advantage of the SF71, with enough grip, power and balance to complement both Vettel and Raikkonen, no easy task for drivers of such different styles. And, Red Bull will make the best of their relative lack of power with cunning, forcefulness and intelligent gambling, though they need to have the brilliant Mr Verstappen apply a bit more Riccardo cool… While wins will come, full team points are mandatory. 

Qualifying

Sebastian Vettel claimed his 52nd career pole position ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen on his final lap of qualifying. Until then, it looked as though Raikkonen, at 38, had regained the form that had him sitting on the pole for Monaco last year. Instead, Vettel just pipped him by only 0.087 seconds. It was the German’s fourth in China, but Ferrari’s first since Shanghai’s inaugural event in 2004.

More importantly, the Mercedes of Bottas and Hamilton struggled to get their ultra soft tyres to work with their chassis on the relatively cooler and smooth Shanghai Circuit. They trailed the Scuderia by a half-second, with Bottas outqualifying Hamilton for the second consecutive race. Further, Ferrari has finally secured back-to-back pole positions for the first time since 2013, taking consecutive front-row lockouts for the first time since 2006.

While Mercedes is eyeing the races later on in late Spring and Summer, with their warmer ambient track temperatures, there are a large number of points between then and now. It’s a problem that needs a solution before Barcelona.

As mentioned above, it took all of Red Bull’s organisational expertise to get Daniel Ricciardo into Q1 following his engine’s turbo failure in FP3; they made it with just three minutes to spare in the session. The Aussie managed to put in one flyer, but it was enough to get through to Q2, two places above the drop zone. From there, Verstappen and Ricciardo locked out the third row for Red Bull in Q3.

Behind them where Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg in seventh place, ahead of a miraculously-improving Force India of Sergio Perez and Renault team-mate Carlos Sainz. Romain Grosjean finished a strong tenth giving Haas their third straight Q3 session of the young season.

Grand Prix

At the start, Vettel and Raikkonen looked to make it one-two into the first turn, but Bottas stayed on the outside of the turn, allowing him to slot behind Vettel going into Turn 2. Verstappen went under Hamilton in Turn 2 and then pulled even and then ahead of Raikkonen to take third place.

Vettel looked “Bahrain-strong”, keeping the gap to Bottas and Verstappen consistent. Since starting on softer tyres, Red Bull pitted first, but unexpectedly “double stacked” their cars (Riccardo following Verstappen a few seconds apart on the same lap to present a more significant threat to the Mercs and Ferrari). Mercedes brought in Hamilton the next lap and Bottas the following lap. 

Ferrari felt they had Mercedes covered when Vettel pitted from the lead a lap later, yet the German returned to find Bottas now leading. Raikkonen, who hadn’t stopped was then forced to stay out and work to slow Bottas to allow Vettel to get into DRS range. Bottas wouldn’t have any of that and despatched Raikkonen to take the lead. Vettel was then let through to challenge Bottas.

The tide had turned thanks to Bottas’ ultra strong pit out lap that closed and eclipsed Ferrari’s believed gap back to the Finn. Now he was holding off Vettel and sensing he might get even for his loss to the German and his miraculous tyres a week ago in Bahrain.

Ahead at Turn 14, the Toro Rosso team was setting the stage for a surprise. Pierre Gasly misread Brandon Hartley and went for a non-gap. They collided, and the debris field brought out the Safety Car, closing the pack, except for Red Bull. Verstappen, third at the time and Ricciardo hit the pit lane as the Safety Car emerged, taking on the faster soft tyres again back to back. When they re-entered the keys to victory were theirs if they could channel their passes correctly.

 

When the Safety Car came in, Bottas set out to increase the gap to hold off DRS activation; three cars behind, the Red Bull duo prepared to attack. Unfortunately, Verstappen took the idea a bit too literal. While Ricciardo passed Raikkonen for fifth, Verstappen had a run in with Hamilton (a near replay of their Bahrain meeting). Verstappen took an evasive route this time, giving Ricciardo a position 

Ricciardo then did what he does best; “think brake and then count to three”. From seemingly two hundred yards back, the Aussie dipped inside the four-time champion approaching Turn 14 and passed Hamilton. In a moment, Ricciardo was on Vettel and out-braked the German, again at Turn 14. He then set out the catch and deftly pass Bottas, with mission accomplished at Turn 6 this time. Over the final ten laps, Ricciardo poured on the speed, taking the flag with 8.8-seconds to spare.

All was not the same for Verstappen. He had rallied to pass Hamilton, but Vettel proved elusive. When the Dutchman finally pulled the trigger, he misjudged everything and both he and Vettel touched. Vettel was the first to recover, but spun his rear tyres to the skins; he faded to eighth at the end. Verstappen received a ten-second penalty that dropped him behind Hamilton for fifth. Renault’s Hulkenberg took seventh followed by Alonso, Vettel, Sainz and Keven Magnussen’ Haas.

In two weeks, the Grand Prix circus moves to long straights and tight city streets of Baku for Azerbaijan Grand Prix. What surprises are in store there?