The 2018 Chinese Grand Prix was yet another brilliant race for Formula 1; and also for Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian, who has been overshadowed in Red Bull Racing thanks to the buzz around Max Verstappen, drove a classic to overtake the faster four cars (Ferrari x 2 + Mercedes x 2) and claim victory. All of this while Verstappen let mindlessness ruin a race that he could have won too. Red Bull Racing used their surprise win to let Ricciardo know why he should still stick around, but I would say that the reverse is more true. Verstappen’s 3/3 errors in the opening rounds indicate that the young prodigy needs his brains to come on par with his talent as Red Bull Racing nurture him as their future World Champion, but in the meanwhile, Ricciardo is definitely the driver that Red Bull Racing need, more than Verstappen, Gasly and Hartley!
It has been a brilliant week of and for Formula 1. After the edge-of-seat action in Bahrain last weekend, China delivered a belter of a Grand Prix this weekend. The racing created positive news – a big thank you to Ferrari and Mercedes for choosing to not react adversely, at least in public, and let the racing make headlines.
Daniel Ricciardo, arguably Formula 1’s ‘happiest’ driver, sprung a surprise by winning the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix. It was the Australian’s sixth career win in Formula 1 and he did so in typical Ricciardo fashion – by performing clean and clinical overtaking moves on anyone and everyone who stood between his cockpit and the top step of the podium. In fact, in a brilliant display of speed and strategy, Ricciardo overtook the four faster cars of Ferrari and Mercedes to claim his win; his move on the inside of Bottas was as good as Hamilton’s triple in Bahrain last Sunday. Ironically, Ricciardo almost didn’t make it to qualifying after his Renault engine blew up in Free Practice 3 needing his mechanics to re-install a new engine in his car in record time; they did so with two minutes to spare.
The 2018 Chinese Grand Prix would have passed off as a boring race up until the half-way point. But courtesy Pierre Gasly’s overambitious ways, we had two Toro Rossos clash with each other at the apex of the Shanghai International Circuit’s famous hairpin. This resulted in carbon fibre debris lying on the racing line, prompting the FIA to dispatch the Safety Car. The jury is out on whether a Safety Car period was needed, or could the FIA have done the clean-up with the Virtual Safety Car. But one wouldn’t be too off the mark for wondering if the Safety Car period was a NASCAR style one – to neutralise the race and bunch the cars up together with the hope that it would liven up the action, and it did.
Now whether you agree with the whacked-out thought about the Safety Car period or not, you have to agree that Red Bull Racing’s decision to perform their second double stacked pit-stop and send their drivers out on soft tyres after the Safety Car was the key moment of the race. It was a typical Red Bull style call of strategy – bold and calculated. Red Bull knew that they weren’t in the running to win the race, unless they tried something radical and this attitude has served them well more often than not. Verstappen and Ricciardo charged through the front runners on the softer rubber, with the young Dutchman spinning and going off-track, while the Australian finding his way to the top.
From the Chinese Grand Prix, there are plenty of stories to narrate and questions to ask. Could Max Verstappen have led a Red Bull 1-2 had he not let his ego get in the way of his fight with Lewis Hamilton? With three errors in the opening three rounds of the 2018 Formula 1 Season, will Red Bull Racing be thinking of a Daniil Kvyat-style demotion for Verstappen? For those who need a memory check, Kvyat’s demotion came after he made two back-to-back mistakes – one including multiple tagging and rear-ending of former Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel. Also, after a masterstroke of strategy in Australia, how did Ferrari get beaten by Mercedes and Valtteri Bottas in a regular round of pit-stops in China? It is too competitive (yet!) for any team to get complacent. But hats off to Mercedes for out-thinking Ferrari and servicing Bottas faster than anyone else in the race – his pit-stop time was fastest at 22 seconds.
In Bahrain, the track temperatures were too hot for Mercedes to manage; in China, they were too cold. Is Mercedes’ 2018 car a diva too? It is the first time since the start of the hybrid turbo era (2014), that Mercedes have gone three races without a win. However, despite not winning any race this season, they sit atop of the Constructors’ Championship (85 points), a point ahead of Ferrari (84 points). Finally, could Kimi Raikkonen, who was aggressively blocked off by Vettel at the start and conveniently forgotten by Ferrari mid-race (they almost didn’t want him to pit!) have won the race? Yes, we’re dreaming, but the 2018 Ferrari car suits Raikkonen more than its predecessor and it is painful to see Ferrari reduce the Iceman to Vettel’s wingman at the first available opportunity.
Prior to China, 17 points separated the top two drivers (Vettel and Hamilton) in the Drivers’ Championship. But the result in China, which saw Vettel (8th) and Hamilton (4th) both finish off the podium, now has the top four drivers separated by 17 points. Vettel leads Hamilton by 9 points, followed by Bottas, Ricciardo and Raikkonen. Max Verstappen is 8th, behind Fernando Alonso (6th, 22 points) and Nico Hulkenberg (7th, 22 points).
Ricciardo’s result in China proved two things. First, Red Bull Racing needs Ricciardo. Their bet on Verstappen may work out in the long term, but in the short term, it is a mix of age, maturity or impatience (or all of it) that is costing them solid results. How long before we stop blaming Verstappen’s repeated mistakes on age? Second, Ricciardo’s stock would have risen; will Ferrari or Mercedes hire him as a replacement for their respective Finnish drivers in 2019? There are just so many narratives developing already for this year’s driver silly season. And before we forget, it is worthy to mention that Bottas out-qualified and finished ahead of Hamilton in Bahrain and China, a feat that should hopefully help his contract discussions with Mercedes. But if you are Mercedes, it would be too difficult to let go of a talent such as Ricciardo, if he is available.
Finally, the mid-field battle saw both Renault drivers, Alonso and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen score points, while Force India scored nought. Again, hats off to Pirelli for choosing tyre compounds that allowed teams to use different strategies in the race. That said, those believing that Formula 1 is back to being healthy and competitive need to think again.Â There are stillÂ three tiers – the top 3 teams followed by the mid-field (Mclaren, Renault, Haas, Force India, Toro Rosso) who are further followed by the bottom teams (Williams and Sauber). For Liberty Media, fixing these tiers from a sporting and commercial perspective would be key to maintain the overall health of the sport and business of Formula 1. However, having six fast cars and a distant by competitive mid-field is a definite treat from the previous years of a single-team domination.
Up next is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, a race that Ricciardo won last year after. The street circuit has often thrown up surprise and exceptions in the past and here’s hoping that it delivers to the hype created by Bahrain and China. With Mercedes’ stronghold on China now broken (they’ve been unbeaten here since 2014), one wonders if their stronghold on the Formula 1 Championships is under threat too. That said, we would still bet on the reigning World Champions to bounce back.
This post was first published on Firstpost