2018 Chinese Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 15th April 2018

Mark Hughes provides his comprehensive take on Ricciardo's Chinese Grand Prix win

Here he comes, the unstoppable force. A safety car, Red Bull’s sharpness and Max Verstappen’s over-eagerness combined to give Daniel Ricciardo all the opportunity he needed – he just had to steal it once it was laid out for him. With out-braking moves on Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas that were extreme even by his standards, that’s exactly what he did. It was all the more remarkable given that for a time on Saturday it looked like he wouldn’t even be making qualifying, an engine change completed with just 45sec to spare after a failure in that morning’s practice.

“I never seem to win boring races,” he said in between bursts of emotion. “Twenty-four hours ago I thought I’d be starting at the back of the grid. So much thanks to the boys for getting my car ready. They worked their butts off to do it in time.”  

Valtteri Bottas could feel robbed. He’d undercut himself ahead of the race-leading Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, apparently getting a race-winning tune from an edgy Mercedes that Lewis Hamilton could do nothing with. But then the safety car to clear up some mess from a Toro Rosso in-team tangle, a throw of the dice from the operationally super-slick Red Bull team that gave it a huge new-tyred grip advantage with 21 laps to go, an adrenaline-blinded passing attempt by Verstappen on Hamilton that was never going to come off – and Ricciardo was on his way, showing his team-mate how it should be done. “I had wicked pace on the softs. Once I was aware we had the pace I wasn’t going to let it slip.”

Verstappen subsequently collided with Vettel, spinning them both around. Fourth across the line, fifth after his penalty, this was an OTT performance, extreme even by his audacious standards.

A firecracker of a race – and the first time in the hybrid era that Mercedes has been beaten three times on the bounce. Partly it was circumstantial, partly a virtuoso drive from Ricciardo. But Mercedes did not have the fastest car this weekend. In fact, it may not even have had the second-fastest. 

Qualifying

Not since 2012 had Ferrari taken two consecutive poles – and even then one of them was in the wet. Not since 2006 had it taken two consecutive front row lock outs. Just as in Bahrain, Vettel snatched it from under Räikkönen’s nose in the dying seconds, but this time Ferrari’s gap over Mercedes was much more convincing; third fastest Valtteri Bottas was a full 0.6sec adrift of Vettel’s 52nd pole.

“The car was fantastic today,” said the delighted championship leader, “it just got better every run I made.” Still a few hundredths behind Räikkönen after the second sector, he more than pulled it back in the final part of the lap, and the speed he was able to carry into the last corner in particular was breathtaking. It left Räikkönen visibly crestfallen. “Nothing particularly wrong with my lap,” he said. “I thought it was going to be good enough.”

Not to take anything away from Ferrari’s achievement, but it came as much from the Mercedes being adversely affected by the very low track temperatures (15deg C) as from the Ferrari being quick. “It’s like last year,” lamented Hamilton, “when the Ferrari was quick pretty much all the time in any conditions and we were a bit more up and down. It’s the same again.”

The day before, when track temperatures had been a crucial 5deg C higher, the two cars had looked very evenly matched. But not on Saturday. “It was night and day, the difference,” said Hamilton. “Just no grip, no balance.” Interestingly, just as in previous races where grip levels were low, Bottas was on Hamilton’s pace – and in this case even shaded him narrowly, as Lewis aborted his final run after running wide at the Turn 14 hairpin. Bottas’ tyre temperatures were that crucial bit higher than his team-mate’s but still not high enough. “It’s partly tyres,” said Valtteri, “but I think it’s also car. They are taking so much time from us through the long turn 1-2.”

Both Ferrari and Mercedes had used softs rather than ultras to get through Q2, so as to give a longer opening race stint. But it was looking slightly marginal for the Mercs – which went out for second runs there, this time with the engines turned up to qualifying mode. Even then they were only on around the same pace as the Ferraris in standard mode and as soon as Ferrari turned their engines up in Q3, the gap reappeared.

The Red Bulls were left breathless here, losing a calculated 0.45sec to engine power alone in qualifying – although they were actually further than that adrift of pole, with fifth-fastest Max Verstappen around 0.8sec shy. “The balance was OK,” he said, “and I don’t think we could’ve done too much more.” Daniel Ricciardo, 0.1sec behind, was thankful to be in qualifying at all, a fiery turbo failure in that morning’s practice leaving the mechanics with a race against time to get the new power unit built up and fitted. He got across the line to start his Q1 lap with 45sec to spare.   

Notably, when the smoke had billowed from the Red Bull’s exhaust on Saturday morning, it headed for the rear wing underside as if magnetised to it. Getting the exhaust flow up there – increasing the pressure differential between the wing’s underside and its upper surface and thereby increasing downforce – has been a key endeavour for most of the teams. Even when off-throttle, the flow can be maintained by spinning up the ERS-H electrically to keep the turbo turning and the exhaust flowing. When you might want to do this will be variable – it costs stored electrical energy – and an extra paddle on the back of Vettel’s steering wheel is believed to be the manual control for this.

Renault was this time leading the ‘best of the rest’ group, with Nico Hülkenberg stringing a great lap together to go seventh, albeit 1.5sec off pole. He continues to show the way to team-mate Carlos Sainz, 0.3sec and two places behind. The yellow cars sandwiched the pink Force India of Sergio Pérez, the VJM11 steadily improving but still not able to get the new front wing working and so staying with the old one. Esteban Ocon was 12th in the sister car.

Romain Grosjean was Haas’ only representative in Q3, 10th fastest with a lap that wasn’t as good as the one he’d recorded in Q2. If he had repeated it, would’ve put him ahead of Hülkenberg. Kevin Magnussen just failed to make the run-off, 0.4sec off in 11th.

McLaren was again the slowest through the speed trap at the end of the long back straight and they even tried to use Stoffel Vandoorne to slipstream Fernando Alonso into Q3, to no avail. They lined up 13th and 14th, Alonso’s tow helping put him ahead of the man who gave him it! The Toro Rosso wasn’t the force it had been in Bahrain, both drivers finding it very adversely affected by the strong cross winds – and, just like Mercedes, it fell out of the tyre temperature window it had been in the day before. Only Brendon Hartley made it through to Q2, Pierre Gasly 0.1sec behind in 17th.

Sergey Sirotkin was making better progress with the difficult Williams FW41 than Lance Stroll but neither made it out of Q1, 16th and 18th respectively. Charles Leclerc might have got his Sauber between the Williams had he not made an error at the last corner, but he did succeed in out-qualifying team-mate Marcus Ericsson for the first time.

Race

Some key plot moments in this psychological thriller with its technical backdrop. On the sunny eve of the race, track temperature around 20keg C higher than anything seen during the practice days, the expectation was this would bring Mercedes back into play, rid them of their under-temperature tyre problems. With the Ferrari and Mercedes teams starting on the soft, they looked strategically favoured over the ultra-shod Red Bulls, which would surely be forced to stop after a dozen laps or so and thereby be forced onto a less than ideally-spaced two-stop. The Ferraris and Mercs, so the conventional thinking went, would have the choice either of an ideally-spaced two-stop or – depending how track position was panning out – maybe even a one-stop. From Ferrari and Mercedes perspectives, the Red Bulls surely needed watching at the start and on the first lap with their grippier ultra-soft traction – but once that moment had passed, Verstappen and Ricciardo would surely only be nibbling at their second cars, while the lead ones made a break. Not how it happened. At all.

Vettel spoiling Räikkönen’s day

Räikkönen got better traction off the line than Vettel, who got more aggressive than seemed polite to a team-mate in keeping him behind by leaning hard right towards him, Kimi as a result having to surrender momentum to avoid contact – making him vulnerable to a clean-starting Bottas.

Bottas: “I think they each realised that whoever came out of turn 1-2 leading had a real chance of winning the race. I went for the outside. It’s risky, because if a car on the inside locks up and runs wide he takes you with him, but I knew the outside was going to be the only opportunity for me. It worked. I got one position [Räikkönen] pretty easily as they bunched together inside.”

Räikkönen’s checked momentum encouraged Hamilton to try a pass around the outside too, but as they both ran out wide, so Verstappen on his gripper compound was able to slip inside the Mercedes to sit himself on Räikkönen’s tail and as they exited Turn 2, Kimi was a little over-eager on the throttle and the resultant small tank slapper lost him speed on the straight up to Turn 6, all the encouragement Verstappen needed to hook around the Ferrari’s outside to claim third.

This left Hamilton now snapping at Räikkönen’s tail, Kimi having to go shallow down the inside of nine to block, Ricciardo looking on at them from close quarters. Daniel had gone three-abreast with the Renaults through Turn 3 to prevail for sixth, leaving Hülkenberg leading Sainz, Grosjean, Magnussen (the Haas pair on different tyre strategies and soon instructed to swop), Alonso, the fast-starting (but soon descending) Stroll, Ocon, Pérez, Sirotkin, Vandoorne, Hartley, Leclerc, Gasly and Ericsson.

Vettel eased out an early gap over Bottas and it looked like the Ferrari had the legs of the Merc as Seb just maintained his early 2.5sec gap. His ruthless streak had won him the start, now it seemed the Ferrari’s edge in pace would keep him at the front and he’d be on his way to a hat-trick of season-opening victories. All was high-speed stalemate behind. So far, so routine. But actually, chaos was creeping in around the edges. It was not so obvious initially, but a different story was beginning to unfold.

Red Bull’s wizardry

The RB14 is a beautifully sophisticated car, aerodynamically quite different from everything else on the grid. Even by Red Bull’s high standards, this is a sweet one. But it’s still hampered by a Renault engine. However, that combination of big downforce but lower power can be a boon on a track where tyre degradation is an issue – like it always is here, with its long, long sequences of turns 1-2 and 12-13. As the laps went on, so it became apparent that the car’s kindness to its rubber was beginning to wipe out the supposed tyre strategy disadvantage. At 12 laps – the sort of distance at which its ultrasofts should’ve been surrendering and losing pace to the soft-tyred cars ahead – they were hanging on just fine. Verstappen was lapping within a couple of tenths of Vettel/Bottas whose pace was just beginning to wilt. Ricciardo was stuck at Hamilton’s pace but his tyres were holding up well.

Hamilton was not at any point happy with his car. He’d taken a couple of holes of front wing out after trying an exploratory lap from the pits and finding the increased track temperature, far from returning the W09 into its Friday balance, had given it an edgy oversteer instead. But even with this set-up, it wasn’t giving him the confidence to push. Bottas was happier, to the tune of a regular two or three tenths.

Christian Horner: “On both our cars the ultra was going much further than we’d dared hope – and this was opening a one-stop window for us. We weren’t yet wedded to it, but that option was opening out for us.”

If the Red Bull pair could get to lap 16-17 on the ultras, it opened up much more strategic flexibility – and allowed them to at least be in the same race as the Ferraris and Mercs. The pitwall monitored the spaces their guys could drop into after their 23sec (give or take) time loss in the pits.

There was a complication: Ricciardo was within undercut range of Hamilton. But Räikkönen was at or close to undercut range of Verstappen. If Red Bull pitted Verstappen first to head-off the Räikkönen undercut then waited another lap before pitting Ricciardo, it allowed Mercedes the opportunity to bring Hamilton in before Ricciardo. It seemed they couldn’t prevent one of their cars being disadvantaged. There was a solution: Verstappen and Ricciardo were just far enough apart that they could be brought in on the same lap and with some super-slick pit work – the double-shuffle regularly practiced back at base – that’s what happened on lap 17. They were each fitted with the hard-wearing medium compound tyre.

Horner: “At that point in time we were still open minded with Max about a one stop or a two. With Daniel we decided to go more aggressive and try the two-stop because he was sixth in that group and had the most to gain and nothing really to lose.”

Mercedes pitted Hamilton on the 18th lap – just to keep him ahead of the fresh-tyred Ricciardo – and fitted him with mediums on which he could get to the end. Then the next race-changing thing happened.      

Ferrari’s undercut miscalculation

Ferrari had under-estimated just how powerful the undercut effect would be around a track with such high degradation. As the race entered the first pitstop window they really needed to have guided Vettel into having a significantly bigger lead than the 3.4sec he held over Bottas at the end of lap 18.

Bottas’ in-lap pace on lap 19 was strong, Mercedes completed one of its fastest ever stops, the car stationary for just 1.8sec as the mediums were fitted – and Ferrari instructed Vettel to box in response. Too late. His old softs were around 2sec slower than Bottas’ fresh mediums, Valtteri nailing the crucial out-lap as hard as he dared. Vettel also ran a little wide coming into the pit entry road.

One week on from Ferrari’s nasty pits mishap in Bahrain, it was understandably cautious this weekend. Vettel’s stop was a full 1sec slower than Bottas’. Added to the undercut effect, it lost Vettel position to Bottas. There was nothing to suggest the Mercedes was faster than the Ferrari; the Scuderia had lost the lead through a simple misjudgement.  

Vettel: “We need to look at what happened. We were quite sure we’d come out in front – but we didn’t.” The undercut effect was massively bigger here than in the first two races because of the much higher tyre deg. Mercedes had got its head around this with greater precision than Ferrari.

It was a sweet moment for Bottas as he surged past the red car as it exited the pits. The Merc hadn’t been an easy car this weekend but he’d got the most from it, placed himself perfectly and nailed the important laps. There was no reason to think he wasn’t now going to record his first win of the season.

Bottas: “Sebastian was on the same tyre, there was no big pace difference between the cars, so in theory it would have been manageable until the end.”

And Red Bull? Verstappen was around 7sec behind Vettel. Hamilton was next, with Ricciardo 5sec adrift but catching. If they could hang on to their tyre performance longer – as the first stint had suggested was possible – they could maybe be looking at picking up a place or two late in the race. But they almost certainly weren’t going to win. They were fast, maybe even the fastest, but not by enough to overcome their qualifying-defined track position. Damn that lack of Renault qualifying modes! Or so they thought.

Räikkönen? True to form, Ferrari was compromising Räikkönen’s race to help Vettel’s. Staying out long – leading but with ever-worsening tyre grip – ensured he was set to fall to the back of the six-car lead group rather than in the fourth place he’d run before the stops. As Bottas and Vettel gained on him at 2sec per lap thanks to their fresh tyres, it became obvious what the plan was. It was Räikkönen’s job to run interference with Bottas so as to create a possible opportunity for Vettel.

Bottas: “When I was closing in on Kimi I could see what they were planning. In their position we would have done the same, and I think he was definitely trying to slow me down.”

They screamed past the pits as a single three-car blur at the end of the 26th lap. Räikkönen’s tyres were too worn for him to offer much resistance as Bottas dealt clinically with the situation, going wheel-to-wheel around his outside again at turn 1-2, muscling ahead on the inside of three, the tight left-hander. Räikkönen slipstreamed up the following straight and through the kink and dummied a retaliatory move before then pulling aside for Vettel, who could find no opening in Bottas’ defence. Only then did Räikkönen pit for his mediums – seven laps after Vettel – and rejoined sixth, 12sec behind Ricciardo, who was now vying with his team-mate as the fastest man on track, each around 0.5sec faster than Bottas/Vettel. The longer the stint went on, the better the Red Bulls looked. But the fastest cars remained out of position, third and fifth.     

 Timing of the Toro Rosso-induced safety car

The Toro Rossos of Hartley and Gasly had gone for opposing tyre strategies from near the back, with the former starting on ultras, the latter mediums. The ultras had degraded very quickly and under instruction Hartley had moved aside for Gasly. Hartley’s earlier stop undercut him back ahead – but again he was struggling for pace and so was instructed to let Gasly through again on the 29th lap.

Hartley: “It was a miscommunication. The team asked us to swap positions because we were on completely different strategies, so I was going to let him by on the exit of Turn 14 like I did at the start of the race.” Instead, Gasly assumed his team-mate was leaving the door open for him at the entry to the turn – and in he steamed, just as Hartley was turning in. Bits of Toro Rosso carbon-fibre everywhere as they hit, spun and continued.

For a couple of laps the race carried on as normal. On the 31st lap, eighth placed Sainz, still running just behind team-mate Hülkenberg, suggested over the radio that the debris was bad enough that there should be a safety car. Race control responded – just as Bottas and Vettel had already passed the pit entry road.

Red Bull was onto it. Horner: “As soon as there was damage there we prepared ourselves. Max was just coming out of Turn 14 when they threw the safety car – so it was a very late call, but we were ready for it.” With both cars again. In they came for brand new soft tyres – which were bound to be significantly faster than the 10-lap old mediums on the Mercs and Ferraris – Verstappen completing a grassy pass on the limping Gasly in the pit entry road.

Stopping is obviously far less costly with the rest of the field crawling at safety car delta times, so the Red Bulls got to have their cake… Mercedes could have brought Hamilton in at the same time, just as Ferrari could’ve done with Räikkönen. They didn’t – for different reasons.

At Mercedes they figured they would be surrendering position to Ricciardo (who they figured might not pit if Hamilton did) and possibly Räikkönen too, without any evidence that passing would be possible even with faster tyres. They preferred the track position to the promise of greater pace. At Ferrari they would have had nothing to lose by bringing Räikkönen in and putting him on the new set of softs that were in his garage – except… it could conceivably have led to the awkward situation of him arriving on Vettel’s tail on much faster tyres and insisting he be allowed past to attack the old-tyred race-leading Bottas! He remained out there.

With Ricciardo rumoured to have signed an option with Ferrari but Horner more than keen to retain him at Red Bull, he was making some political capital when he observed, “If you look at Kimi’s race, I didn’t understand that strategy at all. Daniel’s happy in his environment here and if we can provide a car like today why would he want to be anywhere else?”

The safety car stayed out until the 35th lap – and with 21 laps to go lined up tight behind it were Bottas (16-lap old mediums), Vettel (15-lap old mediums), Hamilton (17-lap old mediums), Verstappen (brand new softs), Räikkönen (8-lap old mediums) and Ricciardo (brand new softs). This was surely going to be spectacular.

In the race behind the top three teams, the timing of the safety car had worked against the one-stoppers (the McLarens and Haas’) and in favour of the two-stoppers (the Renaults and Ocon) who got their second stops almost free.

Verstappen and Ricciardo: compare and contrast

The Red Bulls were on the move! They had masses more grip. Ricciardo was upon Räikkönen and after trying around his outside at Turn 6, did the move into the Turn 14 hairpin to put himself directly behind team-mate Verstappen who was all over Hamilton (who’d been dismayed to note that the cars behind him in the safety car queue were on fresh rubber).

There’s an ongoing niggle between Hamilton and Verstappen which seemed to start at last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix when the young charger had ambushed the championship-chasing Hamilton and Lewis had to resist the urge to fight. It continued last week in Bahrain. They shook hands at the start of this weekend, but here they were again – and the situation seemed to cloud Max’s judgement. He got much better drive out of Turn 6 on the 39th lap and was gaining fast as they approached the fast left-handed kink of Turn 7. Did Lewis hint at a little invitation around his outside? Knowing Max wouldn’t be able to resist? “I didn’t even see him,” claimed Hamilton. Had he ever known of anyone being passed around the outside there? “Erm, certainly not any top driver,” he replied with mischief and plausible deniability in his eyes. Verstappen hung on around the outside, onto the marbles – as Hamilton eased across and the Red Bull was forced to veer onto the grass.

It was a typically exciting but incredibly naïve move by Verstappen. He had so much more grip he could have picked a place where he wasn’t putting himself at Hamilton’s mercy. But gung-ho, adrenaline and huge confidence overruled reason. As he clattered over the grass, having just lost himself the race, Ricciardo passed by.

Ricciardo: “I could see it coming from a few corners before. I saw Max was close to Lewis. I wasn’t close enough to be involved so I was just watching. I positioned myself to be prepared if there was contact. I could see them both drift wide and I could see that one car probably wasn’t going to make it, so the difficult thing was then when Max went off track I wasn’t sure if he was going to slide back across, but I held the line. In the heat of battle it’s quite hard to pick the right moves because things happen so fast.”

A lap later and Ricciardo picked the right move – from seemingly impossibly far back on Hamilton into the Turn 14 hairpin. It was a stunning, classic Ricciardo, manoeuvre. Sure, he had plenty more grip – but the judgement and precision was breathtaking. “Next target Vettel. Let’s get him,” said Simon Rennie over the radio. That happened at the hairpin two laps later. Earlier that lap, Verstappen had found a way by Hamilton into Turn 6 and was soon chasing down Vettel as Ricciardo homed in on his final prey – Bottas.

Verstappen’s entry onto the back straight on lap 43 was a little scrappy and so even though he got DRS on Vettel he wasn’t quite up with him as they reached the hairpin’s braking zone. Nonetheless, as Vettel braked and a puff of smoke came up from the Ferrari’s front tyre, Verstappen sensed the Ferrari was surely about to run wide – and he launched himself into the apex in anticipation of Vettel missing it. But Seb had almost instantly come off the brakes and got his car turned in just fine – which meant Verstappen had no way of avoiding it. They touched and spun in formation on the exit – Hamilton passing one side, Räikkönen the other. They got going again, Vettel with a seriously damaged floor that saw him passed immediately by Hülkenberg and subsequently – in robust fashion – by Alonso. Two major errors in four laps from Verstappen, he was penalised 10sec for the incident with Vettel. He made a point of immediately going to apologise to the championship leader at the end of the race. “I’m disappointed with myself,” he summarised later.

Ricciardo was now locked onto the heady prospect of a victory ambushed out of almost nothing – just like all his wins have been so far. It was as if the driving was automatic as he got a slingshot out of turn three-four onto the short straight, through the kink of five and into the braking area for six. Bottas saw him coming, moved right to defend, leaving just a tunnel of space barely as wide as a car, but went no further – as he could see Ricciardo could not have avoided contact if he’d blocked him completely. It was another stunning move that in combination with Verstappen illustrated the grassblade width between hero and zero. His pace as he left the field far behind in the remaining nine laps made it clear to both Mercedes and Ferrari that neither of them had the fastest car on the day. “We could not have done those times, regardless of tyre,” said a Mercedes man.

Räikkönen on his fresher tyres cut into Bottas’ second place but once he was upon him didn’t have the extra grip required to make a pass. Nonetheless, a podium was some sort of reward for Räikkönen on a day where he was clearly allocated a support role. Hamilton was passed again by Verstappen at Turn 6 – but he’d given him easy passage this time, in the knowledge that Verstappen had that 10sec to add onto his time. But it had been a very low-key weekend for Hamilton, as even Toto Wolff admitted: “He was, like the car, maybe not in the best place this weekend. He is the best driver in my opinion. But also the best ones have days where it is just not 100 per cent and if underneath you have a car that is not performing as expected and tyres not doing what you think they should and the strategy goes against you, then everything just goes in the wrong direction.”

Hülkenberg won division two with seventh place, Alonso barged the limping Vettel aside at turns 1-2 for eighth and Sainz was almost upon the Ferrari by the end, and ahead of final points scorer Magnussen.

“This sport is just crazy,” said Ricciardo. “In Bahrain I was so frustrated by it. All the variables that are out of your control. Sometimes I question why I chose this sport. It gets you down a lot – but when you have a day like this it’s worth 50 of those bad ones.”

 

View the full result on the Database

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