The Chinese GP was an epic race which will live long in the memory for its drama and controversy.
It was also hugely significant.
Both performances and events in Shanghai could have longstanding repercussions and its reverberations may be felt long after the current F1 season reaches its conclusion.
Mercedes, expected to romp to another title in 2018, are now no longer the favourites.
Race victor Daniel Ricciardo may have just made himself the hottest property in the sport; For the first time in his F1 career.
Ricciardo wins thriller in China
Verstappen: Vettel crash my fault
How did Ricciardo win that race?
Max Verstappen cannot expect to be automatically absolved in the court of public opinion; is struggling in the court of public opinion;
And Ferrari’s strategy for Kimi Raikkonen will undoubtedly prove a huge – and potentially difficult – talking point when the dust settles.
The Chinese GP really may have been F1’s most important race in years.
The story of 2018 may be Ferrari and not Mercedes
It was after qualifying when Damon Hill provided his definitive dissection of the shifting balance of power in F1.
“This is the turning point,” Hill told Sky Sports F1. “The tide has turned. It’s like empires rising and falling and maybe Mercedes are on the wane and the new Ferrari era is about to come back.”
In Australia, Mercedes were fastest, only losing out due to a Virtual Safety Car falling into Sebastian Vettel’s lap. In Bahrain, they were beaten by Ferrari, with most explanations pointing to the hot temperatures crippling the W09.
But China was cold and Mercedes still had the chills.
At a circuit where Mercedes had previously claimed six consecutive pole positions, the world champions weren’t just beaten in qualifying, they were soundly thrashed.
Was it due to the tyres? Yes and no. As Bottas put it: “Some part of it can be from the tyres but some of it must come from the car. There’s a little bit in terms of getting the tyres absolutely perfect for the lap but it’s not half a second.”
Sunday’s race, in which Mercedes’ only decisively-superior moment came when they outmanoeuvred Ferrari on strategy around the first round of pit-stops, offered precious few comforts either.
“Ultimately, the reality of today’s pace is that we lacked pace in each phase – Sebastian managed the performance in the opening stint, building a good gap to Valtteri, and the Red Bulls were significantly faster on fresher tyres after the Safety Car” reflected Toto Wolff as the Mercedes chief pulled no punches.
The W09 is very fast car but it is also a flawed car. The suggestion from trackside is that it isn’t easy to drive. “I struggled with the car,” Lewis Hamilton remarked on Sunday night pointedly.
But the explanations – not excuses, because Mercedes are too impressive a team to make excuses and have refused every invitation to make any – are beginning to wear thin.
Simply put, the focus may be misdirected because the story of 2018 is beginning to look like it should start with the Ferrari rather than the Mercedes.
Might it just be that Ferrari have a better all-round package and a faster car?
Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel crash during the Chinese GP.
When will Verstappen learn?
There was the spin in Australia. There was the qualifying crash in Bahrain. There was the race-ending collision with Hamilton a day later. And now this.
Four costly mistakes from Verstappen in just three races.
While Red Bull almost always embrace his exuberant style and the risk-reward nature of his driving, it seems, for the first time in his eventful Formula 1 career, that Max Verstappen is losing in the public court of opinion.
Not only have world champions Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg warned Verstappen about his moves, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner also opting against defending his driver’s error in China, but even the Dutchman himself couldn’t do anything but accept the blame this time.
Unlike his move on Hamilton in Bahrain, there wasn’t even a hint of an opportunity as he approached Vettel at the hairpin – and even if there was – why didn’t Verstappen bide his time and pick the ideal moment, just as Ricciardo did during his overtaking masterclass? There were still 13 laps to go, he was just five laps off race-leader Bottas in a rapid RB14, and a second-place finish, at least, was his for the taking.
Perhaps the Vettel shunt was a result of losing ground to his team-mate, and perhaps these kind of errors are just part of a young F1 driver growing up. But after being heralded as one of the grid’s finest drivers and a future champion, it’s time to expect a little bit more. The pressure is on.
Ricciardo can pick his 2019 drive
Little wonder Bottas and Raikkonen looked so glum sitting alongside a jubilant Ricciardo in the post-race press conference. What team wouldn’t want Ricciardo, currently a free agent for 2018, after that display? Both Raikkonen and Bottas are also out of contract at the end of the year and vulnerable to F1’s smiling assassin.
Ricciardo, who has delayed contract talks with Red Bull until April, may have earned his choice of seat for next season as he sliced through the field in Shanghai.
That would be harsh on Bottas, who was driving to victory in Shanghai prior to the Safety Car restart. But the contrast between Ricciardo’s inch-perfect passes on the two Mercedes cars in the closing stages in China and Bottas’ apparent hesitation at the conclusion in Bahrain a week ago felt stark.
Mercedes have another factor to consider. Despite expectations a contract extension would prove a formality, Hamilton still hasn’t signed a new deal for next year. The Silver Arrows, as it stands, have not one but two vacancies to fill for next year. Can they, like Bottas, afford to hesitate?
Ricciardo and Bottas are title contenders
But it’s not just a seat at Mercedes for next season which Ricciardo and Bottas may be contesting at the end of the year.
Neither driver is the figurehead at their respective current employers but both are working their way into championship contention: Bottas is now within five points of Hamilton while Ricciardo has twice as many points as team-mate Verstappen after his victory in China.
“Just give me a chance to be in a title hunt and I really believe I’ll take it,” Ricciardo told Sky F1 afterwards. “I feel I can capitalise on opportunities and today was a good example.”
Ricciardo may not have the outright pace of Verstappen, as evidenced by the Dutchman’s advantage in qualifying last year, but Daniel nevertheless out-scored Max by 200 points to 168 in 2017. If Red Bull do enter the championship equation then Ricciardo’s all-round qualities may make him the better bet in 2018 as well.
Hamilton is off form
Easily missed in the hoo-ha that followed Mercedes’ defeat in qualifying was that Bottas has outqualified Hamilton on successive weekends and now leads that particular contest 2-1 at Mercedes. Hamilton is not in a slump, far from it, but he was off form in China and lagged behind Bottas on performance again on race day.
“I was in no man’s land today,” Hamilton accepted. “I had no pace so was just trying to hold on for whatever I had.
“We’ve been underperforming and yesterday and today have been a disaster on my side. I need to try and rectify that and get myself back into normal performance or otherwise more valuable points will be lost.”
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What’s unclear is why Hamilton has suddenly lost performance less than a month after producing one of the laps of his career to land pole position in the season-opening Australian GP. Has something changed on the W09 that doesn’t suit his driving style? Has he been distracted by the ongoing contract negotiations? “Maybe he was not in the best place this weekend,” said Wolff. “He’s the best driver in my opinion, but also the best ones have days when it’s not 100 per cent.”
How can Ferrari explain Raikkonen strategy?
He may have made an impressive start to F1 2018 and he may have finished the Chinese GP with his second podium of the season – but make no mistake, Kimi Raikkonen is still very much Ferrari’s number two.
Ferrari, in an attempt to help Vettel catch the then race-leader Bottas, essentially used Raikkonen, an F1 title-winner and the sport’s elder statesman, as a road block.
Let’s paint the picture. Raikkonen was fourth, three seconds ahead of Ricciardo in sixth, before Red Bull made their first double pit-stop on Lap 18. He was also ahead of Hamilton before Mercedes pulled the trigger a lap later. But while those around him were brought into the pits, including his team-mate who had just lost the lead to Bottas, Raikkonen was kept out until the Mercedes and Ferrari behind him had caught up.
A cunning move from Bottas into Turn One meant the strategy didn’t even make a positional difference, with Kimi letting Vettel past soon after, but it could have had a huge impact on the Iceman’s race.
He emerged from his Lap 28 pit-stop in a distant sixth, some 13 seconds behind Ricciardo. That means he lost 16 seconds through following Ferrari’s orders. It was only due to collisions and a Safety Car, which fortunately meant Raikkonen finished the race on fresher tyres than most, that he salvaged third place and some decent points.
“The interesting thing was how badly they used Raikkonen to help Vettel,” concluded Nico Rosberg on Sky F1. “They completely ruined his race just to give Vettel a little bit of a chance to overtake Bottas.”
Raikkonen had a pace advantage over Vettel for much of the weekend and was only out-qualified by 0.088s, but if his standing within the Scuderia wasn’t completely clear before this weekend – it is now.
“It was a painful race and not an enjoyable one,” admitted the Finn.
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