Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo snatched victory in a thrilling Chinese Grand Prix while early race leader and pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel tangled with Max Verstappen and finished eighth.
It looked to be Ferrari vs Mercedes in a drag-out brawl but a gamble for fresh tyres behind the Safety Car meant Ricciardo executed a series of superb overtakes to come through to pass Valtteri Bottas for the victory.
Vettel led the race in the opening stages but was jumped by Bottas at the first round of pitstops. Neither driver pitted during the safety car.
Kimi Raikkonen’s strong pace over the weekend was resorted to being used as a strategic tool when the Finn, who had yet to stop, was used as a roadblock to hold up Bottas up and push him into the clutches of Vettel. However, the Mercedes driver wasn’t blocked for long, passing Raikkonen down the inside at Turn 3, before Vettel also shot past his teammate.
The race would then be flipped on its head thanks to a collision between Toro Rosso teammates Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly.
The Frenchman dive-bombed Hartley despite there being no gap and with Toro Rosso bodywork spewed all over the track, the Safety Car came out. It later transpired that Hartley had been ordered to move aside to allow his faster teammate through.
As Vettel and Bottas stayed out due to passing the pit entrance, Red Bull rolled the dice by bringing both Verstappen and teammate Ricciardo – who had been running fifth when the Safety Car was called – into the pits immediately, fitting the pair with soft tyres.
The double-pitstop allowed Hamilton to move back up to P3 and Raikkonen to take P5 from Ricciardo, but as all of the other leaders stayed out, the Red Bulls looked in good shape for the restart.
When the race resumed on lap 36, Bottas got a good start ahead of Vettel and Hamilton, however, the advantage was all Red Bull’s with their fresh tyres.
Verstappen tried to pass Hamilton around the outside but instead almost bumped wheels and went off the track. Ricciardo showed him how it is done, coming from absolutely nowhere to cleanly pass Hamilton.
The Aussie’s next target was Vettel. It took him a few laps to close and just a couple of corners to pass as he slipstreamed him down the back straight.
Verstappen also tried to overtake the Ferrari driver but hit him, pitching both into a spin, letting Hamilton and Raikkonen through.
“I don’t think I need to say anything here,” said a disgruntled Vettel. Verstappen was slapped with a 10-second, post-race time penalty for his efforts.
Back at the front Ricciardo raced up to race leader Bottas’ rear wing. The Finn made a mistake with small lock-up soon after Ricciardo was into second, and nose-to-tail with the Mercedes.
With 12 laps to go, Ricciardo made a brave pass on heading into Turn 6, forcing Bottas to yield the position. Red Bull’s risky pit call had paid off and, thanks to fresh rubber, the Australian didn’t look back to win by just under nine seconds.
Bottas was P2 while Raikkonen recovered from his sacrificial first stint to finish P3 ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton on-track. After the penalty for the Vettel collision, the Dutchman was demoted to P5. Nico Hulkenberg had a fairly inconspicuous race to come home P6.
Having damaged his tyres, Vettel’s pace deteriorated in the closing stages, losing P7 to Fernando Alonso on the penultimate lap. Carlos Sainz Jr and Kevin Magnussen completed the points finishers.