As Daniel Ricciardo surged down the home stretch to clinch his first win of the season in Shanghai, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Max Verstappen had kept a cool head.
The Red Bull cars charged past the field with fresh tyres, thanks to an opportunistic pit stop under the late Safety Car on lap 31, and they oozed pace and power.
Verstappen had already run wide on Lewis Hamilton as he chased third place, and after passing him three laps later, he closed in on Sebastian Vettel – championship leader and winner of the opening two races.
The Dutchman dove late and hit Vettel, resulting in a ten second penalty – and the Ferrari man subsequently dropped from third place to seventh.
The ‘over-optimistic’ driving robbed Red Bull of the chance for a sensational one-two finish, with Ricciardo’s sublime victory showing just how much pace the team had over its rivals in the closing stages.
Verstappen, who had come into the race answering questions about a clash with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain, was pulled into the spotlight for the second week in a row.
His hit on Vettel raised questions about his maturity on the track and perhaps what he could learn from his older and more experienced teammate.
Although the 20-year-old has had more success – marginally – than Ricciardo in his three seasons in F1, he is yet to really show a run of consistency in the championship.
It is clear Verstappen is the most talented youngster on the grid, but in a 21-race season, to show flashes of class is not enough to win a world championship.
Car reliability may have curtailed his prospects in seven of the races in 2017, but in a more competitive Red Bull car, he has no excuse for inexperience, especially after completing 63 F1 races to date.
If he can’t improve and mature now, when will he?
Verstappen is his own man and time and practice will help his steady improvement as a driver and person.
It can be argued that he is third youngest of the 20 drivers, but the reality is he needs to relax and pick his opportunities at the right time instead of going hell for leather when he eyes a break.
In Shanghai, Red Bull’s brave decision to pit during the safety car was an outstanding and decisive decision – and if Verstappen hadn’t hit Vettel – both drivers could have been on the podium.
The Dutchman had a better track position after the safety car, but Ricciardo made the moves at the right time – each overtake looking better than the next.
The Australian is more successful at clean passes, while Max attempts more and fails to make it stick.
You rarely see Ricciardo make a driving error, which is down to his experience behind the wheel – and his four extra years in the sport.
Both Ricciardo and Verstappen are great drivers, but look at the difference in how they moved through the field in those closing 20 laps.
Ricciardo looked efficient, Verstappen utterly chaotic.
He could have gotten more out of the race if he had kept composed when attacking Vettel in that pivotal moment.
In contrast, Ricciardo’s move on the inside of Bottas to take the lead with 11 laps remaining was utterly sublime – and proved that the Australian has the tools to challenge at the top.
With Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen now in the final year of their respective deals, the Perth native is a front runner to secure one of the Mercedes or Ferrari seats.
He’s a likeable character, drives to perfection and looks primed to be a world champion in the right car.
Eight years his junior, Max has the potential to be a future world champion himself, but needs to minimise silly mistakes that are costing him his reputation among the drivers and his team vital points in the constructors’ championship.
When he leaves China for his base in Monaco this evening, it will cross his mind about what he needs to do to prevent this from recurring for the rest of this season.
He may be young, fearless and talented, but for now, he could and should learn a few lessons from Ricciardo.
Daniel Ricciardo took advantage of a tactical masterstroke by his Red Bull team to win in Shanghai after championship leader Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen dramatically collided during a thrilling Chinese Grand Prix.
Valtteri Bottas appeared on course to claim his victory after a strategy error by Ferrari allowed the Mercedes car to move ahead of Vettel during their one and only round of pit stops.
But the race took a second dramatic twist when the safety car was deployed following a coming-together between the Toro Rosso pair of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly on lap 31.
Unlike their rivals, Ricciardo and Verstappen dived into the pits to take on fresh rubber, and the gamble worked for Ricciardo as he passed Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and finally Bottas for a quite remarkable win.
Here, we take a look at some of the big takeaways from Shanghai.
Starting from P6, the Australian produced a majestic performance for his first win of the season – a week after retiring on the second lap in Bahrain.
The 28-year-old has endured a frustrating campaign to date, with a fourth-place finish in Australia adding to his woes in the Gulf.
But the Perth man looked inspirational in China, going from P6 to first in a matter of laps after benefitting from fresh tyres during the safety car.
He came out of nowhere to overtake Hamilton, and then passed Sebastian Vettel on lap 42. With little space on the inside, he swept past Bottas for the move of the day on lap 45 to inch closer to victory.
With his teammate Max Verstappen finishing fifth, it proved to be a successful weekend for Red Bull.
Hamilton off colour
Not one of those race Sunday’s we are normally accustomed to seeing the Briton light up. He was not in the finest moods and sounded low on the radio all afternoon.
Quick across FP1 and FP2, the Briton was out-qualified by the two Ferraris and his teammate Valtteri Bottas, resulting in P4 on the grid.
But from the opening lap, the 33-year-old struggled to fire and despite pushing Kimi Raikkonen for brief spells, he failed to challenge for a podium place.
And with Mercedes’ poor decision-making on not pitting during the safety car, Hamilton had no grip to defend Verstappen and Ricciardo, and subsequently finished fourth.
The four-time world champion now trails Vettel by nine points in the championship race and needs to up his display in Baku to prevent the German from gaining more ground in the title race.
The Dutchman is clearly one of the most talented drivers on the gird, but based on recent performances, he is just too error strewn.
After retiring on the first lap in Bahrain, the 19-year-old looked to have returned to his blistering form of old when surging into fourth place on lap 39.
However, a failed attempt to overtake Hamilton resulted in him losing time and then his death-defying hit on Vettel ensued in a 10-second penalty.
Although he secured fifth place, he could have achieved a podium if not for his incosistencies.
Bottas steps up
After the criticism of his lack of killer instinct on the final laps in Bahrain last week when he failed to challenge Vettel, the Finn responded to show his class in China with a second place finish.
He held second on lap 21 when benefiting from Vettel’s slow pitstop, and seized the lead briefly on lap 26 when overtaking Kimi Raikkonen.
With 11 laps remaining, Ricciardo snatched victory from Bottas on his fresher tyres.
Although he may be disappointed not to taste a win, he did extremely well to defend from Vettel and Raikonnen for long spells of the race.
Red Bull thinking ahead of the game
Red Bull’s pitwall and tacticians are levels above any other team on the grid and this was highlighted in the late call to pit when the safety car was deployed on lap 31.
To have fresher tyres available to push to the end of the race was instrumental in helping Ricciardo’s remarkable push to victory and Verstappen’s fifth place.
After their disappointments in Australia and Bahrain, two top-five finishes this weekend will boost serious confidence ahead of the next race in Baku on April 29.
Hero to zero in seven days
After milking the plaudits for his virtuous fourth place in Bahrain, Pierre Gasly finished 17th and was the cause of a crash with his teammate Brendon Hartley on lap 31.
And after an investigation from the FAI, the Rouen native received a 10-second penalty for causing the collision in the hairpin turn.
The 22-year-old Frenchman is clearly a talented driver and with it being his first full season in F1, it’s easy to cut him some slack for some immaturity behind the wheel.
Hamilton dominated practice here yesterday, but the Mercedes cars had no answer to Ferrari in qualifying with Sebastian Vettel leading a front-row lockout ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the second weekend in succession.
Vettel, who already holds a 17-point lead over Hamilton following victories at the opening two races, saw off the challenge from Raikkonen to edge out the Finn with a dramatic last lap.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas lines up in third.
Mercedes have dominated in China in recent years. Indeed, you have to go back seven years for the last time a silver-coloured car failed to line up on the front spot.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 14, 2018
But here, Hamilton struggled for pace on Saturday, spinning during the morning practice session, before qualifying behind Bottas for the second time in as many races.
Hamilton was the best part of half-a-second down on Vettel, who will be the favourite to convert his pole into a third victory and extend his championship lead.
“I was happy with the whole lap,” said Vettel who finished just 0.087 seconds clear of Raikkonen. “The car was amazing and just kept getting better.
“I lost the rear of the car on my first lap so I was a bit beaten up, but I know if I get a tidy lap and have a bit of magic I could push it.”
Daniel Ricciardo faced a race against time to be ready for qualifying after his engine blew up in dramatic fashion in final practice. But following frantic work by his Red Bull crew, the Australian emerged from his garage with only minutes of Q1 remaining.
Ricciardo, whose Bahrain Grand Prix lasted less than two laps last Sunday following an electrical shutdown on his car, posted a lap just good enough to squeeze through to the next phase.
The Australian then qualified sixth which will come as a relief to both Ricciardo and his Red Bull team following their under-performing start to the new season. Max Verstappen will start one place ahead of his team-mate.
INITIAL CLASSIFICATION (Q3)
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 14, 2018
On the topic of Formula One’s under-performers, it proved to be yet another qualifying to forget for McLaren, with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne again 13th and 14th.
The British team expected to be challenging Red Bull following their switch to Renault power, but they have failed to make progress over the winter and on the basis of their early-season form are only seventh of the 10 teams in F1’s pecking order.
The race in Bahrain marked McLaren’s 100th appearance without a victory and they appear further away from winning than ever before.
The failure of Britain’s biggest F1 teams has become a depressing theme this season with the two Williams cars again falling at the first hurdle. Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll qualified 16th and 18th.