As much excitement as the 2018 edition of the Chinese Grand Prix gave us, the underlying narratives of this F1 season are just as fascinating and entertaining as the race itself.
The sight of all three drivers on the podium encapsulates the current state of the driver market, and the pressures that come with having to secure strong results, and it’s worth looking into the top three from Shanghai and what their results mean to them in the hunt for a top 2019 drive.
3rd Place – Kimi Raikkonen
The Iceman looks his mona-emotional self on the rostrum but his race really was a tale of two strategies – both of which prevented him from showing his true pace.
Before the Safety Car period, the Finn’s extended first stint was used as a tool to aid Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel get the better of Valtteri Bottas. By keeping Raikkonen on track 10 laps longer than the pair, and the fact the Bottas leapfrogged Vettel at their stops, meant that Kimi went from contender to pretender and lost 16 seconds in total. After the Safety Car, he was denied the opportunity to pit for fresh tyres like the Red Bulls and was only on the podium thanks to the collision between Vettel and Max Verstappen.
Kimi’s season has been one of promise, especially in terms of how close he’s getting to Vettel in qualifying, but ultimately it’s been undone by decisions on the Ferrari pitwall. There’s a glint of frustration in Kimi’s eyes waiting for the champagne, as even though the possibility of a race win was slim, it was still there for the taking. Raikkonen is now the best number two driver in the business; that’s a role no one, especially The Iceman, aspires to be.
2nd Place – Valtteri Bottas
Was there a driver under as heavy a criticism as Valtteri Bottas was heading into China? His meek attack on Vettel in Bahrain was a talking point that he couldn’t shake; could he have challenged? Should he have challenged more?
Come the chequered flag in China it was, like Raikkonen, a tale of two moments for Bottas. A scintillating out-lap after his pitstop was needed to put him well ahead of Vettel and into a lead that really shouldn’t have been lost at all. And with Raikkonen not stopping and becoming the roadblock Bottas had to hurdle to keep that lead, a decisive overtake was needed to do that, and again, Bottas delivered.
Yet the Safety Car and Red Bull’s reaction to it robbed the Finn of a much-needed victory. Ricciardo’s overtake was more clear-cut, decisive and braver than Bottas’ was on Raikkonen, and if anything, now brings his defensive driving under the spotlight. That’s two races where despite edging World Champion teammate Lewis Hamilton in terms of pace and results, his racecraft is called into question. Bottas’ look on the podium is pensive, and rightly so.
Race Winner – Daniel Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo is pure box-office for this sport: the irresistibly funny joker off-track and its stand-out pass-master on-track.
His move on Lewis Hamilton was reminiscent of his pass on Kimi Raikkonen at last year’s Italian Grand Prix, and his later-than-late lunge on Valtteri Bottas at the same track the year before; perfectly judged, and without unfairly forcing his opponent wide or off. The pass on Bottas in this race was more aggressive – aiming for a shallowing gap – but equally as impressive.
It is one thing to have a tyre advantage, but another to execute manoeuvres clinically and spectacularly. Ricciardo shed the monkey on his – and the team’s – back by winning a grand prix within the first quarter of the season, something they’ve failed to do in the turbo-hybrid era. The grin was there for the world to see, but so was the relief – Red Bull have a win before Mercedes, and Ricciardo has yet another bargaining chip when it comes to crunch contract talks.
Looking at the Finns either side of him in Shanghai, the pick of seats is his, and his alone.