(Photo credit: Drew Bates)
With the block of red becoming a familiar sight at the front of the grid, Mercedes have been provided with an unexpected early season challenge. But how would the Silver Arrows set about hauling in their rivals in the third race of the season? And could the Red Bulls get back into the mix?
Bold start for Bottas
As the red lights went out in China, the two Ferraris got away well but Sebastian Vettel squeezed the gap on his teammate heading into Turn One allowing Valtteri Bottas to dive ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. With the Finn out of position, Max Verstappen also took advantage, taking the perfect line through the opening bends to exit ahead of both Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes at Turn Six.
Early sprint from Stroll
The Renaults of Hulkenberg and Sainz battled for seventh place and almost made contact before settling into position, the German ahead of the Spaniard. Meanwhile, at the back of the grid, Lance Stroll emerged from the opening corners in 12th place having started in 18th.
By Lap 10, Vettel was struggling to shake Bottas who maintained a gap of less than three seconds between himself and the leader. Verstappen, a further five seconds back, had both Raikkonen and Hamilton in his mirrors.
The first cars pitted at the 11 lap mark. However, the leaders stayed out on the track, each waiting for the others to blink first. Raikkonen appeared to be have put his feet up, cruising along behind Verstappen while holding up Hamilton, perhaps for the benefit of his teammate ahead.
Red Bull take initiative
As has been the story this season, there were a range of strategies at play. On Lap 17, both Red Bulls came in for medium compound tyres, executing back-to-back stops, prompting Mercedes to follow suit, bringing in Hamilton on Lap 18 and then Bottas on Lap 19. Verstappen then set a fastest lap, justifying his team’s strategy.
Ferrari slow to react
Ferrari were last to react, eventually boxing Vettel on Lap 21, but their hesitation cost them as the German emerged behind the Mercedes of Bottas. Meanwhile, Raikkonen stayed out on track at the head of the field.
With Raikkonen’s tyres degrading, Bottas closed in and eventually shot past the Finn. In the same manoeuvre, Vettel slipped past his teammate who immediately pitted. Ferrari had kept the Iceman on the track to block Bottas and allow Vettel to close the gap. The tactic worked briefly, but it left the Scuderia with one just horse in the race. Or did it?
Red Bull on the ball again
Meanwhile, further down the order, the Toro Rossos came together leaving debris on the track. With the safety car deployed, Red Bull reacted first, immediately calling both cars into the pits, their team once again proving the most alert of the field.
The safety car also benefitted Raikkonen who had only just stopped and was now on fresher tyres in fifth place. Suddenly, the Finn was back in the reckoning. Magnussen and Alonso also gained an advantage having previously stayed out on deteriorating tyres.
Following the green light, Alonso made an early move on Romain Grosjean while Esteban Ocon nipped past Stoffel Vandoorne. Meanwhile, Pierre Gasly's difficult weekend continued as he was given a ten second penalty for an earlier incident in which he made contact with teammate Brendon Hartley.
Ricciardo makes his move
Red Bull's courage on the pit wall paid off as Daniel Ricciardo worked his way through the field. His first victim was Kimi Raikkonen, who could do little as the Australian shot past. Meanwhile, further up the road Max Verstappen was also trying his best to gain places but predictably made contact with Lewis Hamilton allowing Ricciardo to pass them both.
Max causes mayhem again
Ricciardo was on a charge and pulled off a fantastic move on Vettel to move into second place on Lap 42. On the next lap, Verstappen also decided he could get past the German but there wasn't enough room at the hairpin and the two came together, leaving them facing the wrong way. Both cars continued racing but Vettel was overtaken by Hulkenberg, his chance of victory now gone.
Ricciardo now had the race win in his sights and wasted no time in making Bottas aware of his presence. On Lap 46, he saw his chance and shot up the inside to lead the Grand Prix. Remarkably, Kimi Raikkonen was now Ferrari's best hope of a podium finish. The Finn found himself in third place following the incidents involving Verstappen and was lapping quicker than Bottas. By Lap 54, he was on the tail of the Mercedes but his tyres were fading. Could Kimi claim second place?
After another great drive, Fernando Alonso now had Vettel in his sights and with just one lap to go, he found a way past to take seventh from the German.
Ricciardo takes it for Red Bull
Daniel Ricciardo held on to record an incredible victory for Red Bull. Bottas had Raikkonen covered and defended second place to provide solace for Mercedes. The race was won by a mixture of perfect strategy and some dynamic driving from the Australian who finally got the break he deserved after a rough few weeks.
What was your highlight of the Chinese Grand Prix? Let us know in the comments below.