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Opinion: Dramatic, Chaotic, Fantastic – the 2nd half of the Chinese GP

Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Media House

The second half of Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix was motorsport at its finest. Drama, unpredictable, incredible overtakes and stories that have lit up the motorsport world. F1 2018 has delivered yet again and it looks like we could be in for a brilliant season.

Where do we start? Well, it has to be with the driver and winner of the day, Daniel Ricciardo. When his turbo decided to call it a day in FP3 on Saturday morning, I think we all thought “here we go again”. This was just 6 days after an electrical issue in Bahrain. But at least it didn’t happen in qualifying or the race. It did put the Red Bull mechanics under serious pressure to get a new power unit in the car which hadn’t even been put together which. It didn’t look good when Q1 started but the car somehow got out onto the track with just 3 minutes remaining in the session. Ricciardo sneaked through in 14th place to progress to the next part of qualifying.

It’s a good thing the turbo decided to blow up when it did because if it happened somewhere in the middle sector then vital time would have been lost to fix the car and Ricciardo told the marshals to push the car towards the pit entry, so the Red Bull crew could pick it up quickly and fix the car as soon as possible. Every minute saved counted towards Ricciardo not starting at the back of the grid.

The Red Bull team deserves just as much credit as Ricciardo. They pitted both of their cars on the same lap, twice. It’s not often we see it in a green flag situation but they made it work for them because if you’re the other teams, and you see Verstappen make a pitstop you wouldn’t expect Ricciardo to pit as well. The key to the victory was the split second decision to pit both of the Red Bulls including Ricciardo as soon as the safety car came out for debris from the Toro Rosso clash. They probably had 5 seconds to make a decision and whoever it was who made the call to pit then Ricciardo probably should buy them a beer!

Why didn’t Hamilton pit though? He and the team had more time to decide whether to make a pitstop and I couldn’t believe that they didn’t see the opportunity of new tyres and having a chance of the win. Hamilton himself didn’t notice until towards the end of the safety car period. It was going to be tight to do a 1 stopper without any safety car intervention anyway so to come in under the safety car 20 laps after the first stop was quite clear to me. It’s decisions like this were you just ignore all of the data and technology and use your common sense and human instincts. Ferrari had the chance to pit Raikkonen as well but having pitted for mediums not too long ago, they chose not to, even though he would have lost no positions and would have been on faster tyres.

Mercedes are no longer dominant and they haven’t been put under pressure when it has come to split second strategy calls since 2013 unlike Red Bull who are always looking to take any advantage they can.

Ricciardo was now in 6th place on new softs but without track position. For once, track position wasn’t king which is good to see. Before I talk about Ricciardo’s stunning overtakes we must look at how it shouldn’t be done.

Valtteri Bottas had been on course to win at the halfway stage. (Credit: Steve Etherington / Mercedes-Benz)

Firstly, Max Verstappen attempted to overtake Hamilton around the outside at turn 7 on the marbles. At first, it looked like it might have been on but with so many marbles off the racing line; it just wasn’t going to happen but it was closer to being pulled off than a lot of people thought and had he done it, it would have been move of the year. Instead, he lost the rear end of the car and Ricciardo narrowly missed colliding with his Dutch teammate as he came back onto the road.

We have to remember that Verstappen had an excellent start as he went around the outside of Raikkonen at turn 6 on the first lap with a brilliant move. It’s just a matter of being risky and causing fear to his rivals for Verstappen but while his psychological racecraft when racing other drivers has paid off, he has made far too many mistakes. Verstappen came back for more and did overtake Hamilton into turn 6 but he when he saw a gap at the hairpin when Sebastien Vettel missed the apex, he went for it but locked the rear brakes and hit Vettel. An utter disaster for both of them.

The 10 second time penalty for Verstappen was probably not harsh enough but Gasly got exactly the same penalty for hitting his teammate at the hairpin so the stewards had to be consistent and award Verstappen the same penalty. I could talk about Max Verstappen in a whole new article but from what we saw this race he could have won the race and been a hero but he was impatient, reckless and overambitious. He needs to look at who he’s racing and not go for a banzai move every single time; he will be a champion but not if he keeps on doing what he’s done this year.

Ricciardo easily swept by Raikkonen and as I said before, he avoided his teammate who came across the track directly in front of him. Then, from quite far back he dived down the inside of Hamilton without locking up with a typical late braking manoeuvre that we now associate with the Australian. He breezed passed Vettel and quickly caught up to the back of Bottas and made a move on him into turn 6. Bottas wasn’t aggressive enough in Bahrain but I think he was about as aggressive he could be in his defence against Ricciardo. It wasn’t enough and Ricciardo squeezed past the Finnish driver.

A great show from a great driver who did some great overtakes. It was just great! The reason I only gave him an 8.5 in my driver ratings for the race was because younger, softer tyres with what I believe was the quickest race car on Sunday isn’t anything special. Other drivers would have done exactly the same. Verstappen proved that is wasn’t really easy and that you still have to execute but with the correct strategy, Ricciardo should have won the race (which he did of course). The team deserves a 10/10 for the excellent strategy call and to get a new power unit into the car but Ricciardo has put in better performances than he did on Sunday, in my opinion.

Max Verstappen’s antics cost him a chance at Victory that teammate Daniel Ricciardo benefitted from. (Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Media House)

The outpouring of emotion for Ricciardo put a smile on my face and he just thrived every single moment after the race. His “shoey” probably tasted just as sweet as his victory. Red Bull’s pace was not just excellent on the last 20 laps of the race but they somehow managed to get 18 laps out of the ultrasoft tyres in the first stint with a pretty good pace. Ricciardo himself was within 2 seconds of Hamilton ahead of him for much of that stint when Hamilton and the other Mercedes and Ferrari were on the soft tyre which was by far and away the best race tyre. Helmut Marko has said that, “we can drive faster than the other teams, and with older tyres our traction advantage gets even bigger.” For Red Bull to be this good early season is a good sign to me; not because I’m a Red Bull fan but they should now challenge Mercedes and Ferrari consistently from now on, at least in race trim. We genuinely got a 6 car fight on Sunday and we should get more of the same.

But what went wrong with Lewis Hamilton in China. He made errors in the free practice sessions, got outqualified by his teammate for the second week in succession and didn’t show the kind of pace that Bottas did either. Every sportsman and sportswoman goes through bad phases and I believe that this is one of those phases for Hamilton. He still managed to avoid trouble and pick up a decent amount of points which was key. If you make your bad days as good as possible then you will be in a good state come October/November. This sums up the weekend for Hamilton:

Saturday and Sunday were a disaster on my side

The main problem with Mercedes is the tyres. Not only do they look to have a much smaller tyre operating window than Ferrari and Red Bull but the time they gain as each compound gets softer is probably the lowest in the whole field. This is a problem and it’s why the softer side of the tyre range hurts Mercedes. They gain less and less time as the compounds get softer. The 0.4 of a second gap to Ferrari last Saturday was very telling because the temperatures, the circuit and the tyres in theory should have meant an easy Mercedes front row lockout. It seems like their engine advantage has been wiped out (to Ferrari at least) and they can be matched in the corners as well. All dominance comes to an end and it looks like it’s the beginning of that for the Brackley-based team.

While not entirely his fault, Vettel’s Chinese GP saw his lead cut to 9 points over Hamilton (Credit: Ferrari S.p.A.)

Before this article does get too long I do want to talk about the state of F1 2018.

1. Sebastien Vettel 54

2. Lewis Hamilton 45

3. Valtteri Bottas 40

4. Daniel Ricciardo 37

5. Kimi Raikkonen 30

The standings you see above is how the drivers’ championship looks at the moment. I’m incredibly happy to see this after thinking that we might get another year of Mercedes dominance a couple of months ago when I previewed the 2018 F1 season. We have five drivers from 3 different teams all within one win of each other at the top of the table and this is encouraging. Verstappen did help this when he turned Vettel around otherwise the German would have had a much bigger lead. That said, Vettel himself had some luck in Australia so I think it’s evened out in terms of luck. Raikkonen and Ricciardo both scored zero points in Bahrain which has hurt them but they’re still in the hunt. Ferrari have made it quite clear that Vettel is their priority with the ridiculous strategy they gave to Raikkonen on Sunday. This could help Vettel a lot and will play a pivotal role in how this championship goes.

The major difference this year is that Red Bull will be there to influence races and take make the points losses even greater. To put simply, if Hamilton had a bad day last year, he would probably finish 3rd or 4th; but now he will probably finish 6th. The pendulum will swing even more which will hopefully make things more dramatic and exciting for the neutral viewers, including myself.

Since it was another mega race, there’s a lot more to discuss so stay tuned for that! 

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Talking to…Stuart Everard

What else did we learn from the Chinese GP?