Having qualified for the race in fifth and sixth place, Red Bull were hoping to improve upon their positions through strategy. At the first pit-stop, the gap between Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo was big enough so that both cars could stop on the same lap. However, double-stacking the cars is a high-risk strategy, as if the first pit-stop goes awry the second will be impacted and the race could be over for both cars.
The first stop was completed successfully and it forced Mercedes to pit Lewis Hamilton, and Valtteri Bottas one lap later, as a reaction to prevent the undercut from working. Ferrari did not react to the pit-stops and when race leader Sebastian Vettel went for his stop, he returned behind Bottas. As a result, Ferrari decided not to pit Bottas’ compatriot Kimi Räikkönen so that the duo would close up behind the Finn and force Bottas to be in the dirty air of the Ferraris.
When the safety car was called out, Red Bull reacted once again and double-stacked both cars as soon as possible. This ensured that, even though the duo were behind on track position, they would be at an advantage due to their fresher rubber. Consequently, when the restart came the Red Bulls came charging through with Ricciardo pulling off some great overtakes on Hamilton and Bottas to claim victory.
This season has seen mixed luck for the Red Bull drivers with a double retirement in Bahrain but it is how the cars retired that has been the difference. Ricciardo had an electrical issue and his car shutdown without warning, while Verstappen touched Hamilton and caused himself a puncture, which in turn ruined some of the bodywork.
The Chinese Grand Prix was similar as the duo had the chance to be on the podium together but after the safety car restart, Verstappen tangled with Vettel causing both cars to spin. The Dutchman then received a 10-second penalty which would be added on at the end of the race. Verstappen crossed the line in fourth place but was demoted to fifth, once the penalty had been applied.
On the other hand, Ricciardo took his chance on fresh tyres and pulled off some daring moves without colliding with any other drivers. The move on Bottas in particular was spectacular, coming from so far back and lunging down the inside. Both drivers having the respect and nous to know where one another was so as not to cause a crash.
When Ricciardo has won a Grand Prix, he does so from outside of the top three drivers on the starting grid. The Australian produces many overtakes on a Sunday afternoon but manages to not be overtly aggressive and he successfully takes his opportunities – unlike his team-mate. It was an afternoon where the drivers, who are so similar in style, looked worlds apart.
Hamilton’s woes continue
The four-time World Champions has not had the best start to the year. In Australia, rival Vettel emerged in front of him after a pit-stop under the virtual safety car. In Bahrain, the Brit had a gearbox penalty which meant he started the race in ninth and although he battled to finish on the podium, Vettel won that Grand Prix too.
China has been a place where Hamilton has found success and in the practice sessions on Friday, the Brit was at the top of the leaderboard albeit with Räikkönen breathing down his neck. However, on Saturday the Mercedes man could not find his best set-up and seemed to struggle in both practice and qualifying. Hamilton could only manage fourth, 0.050 seconds behind his team-mate and just over one tenth in front of Verstappen.
The poor form exhibited on Saturday followed Hamilton into Sunday, as he struggled with grip throughout the race. This was not helped by Red Bull pitting during the safety-car period with both cars sailing past the Brit. Nevertheless, it was not all bad news as Hamilton benefitted from the spinning duo of Vettel and Verstappen and the Brit moved up to fourth once the Dutchman’s penalty was applied.
Although, this was not the race Hamilton would have wanted to kick-start his world championship campaign. The Mercedes driver scored more points than Vettel and has reduced the deficit to nine points, which considering he is yet to win a race bodes well.
The event which meant that the safety car was called into action was the Toro Rosso duo of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley coming together at turn 14. Running different strategies, Hartley had been instructed to let his team-mate through, so as to not compromise either driver’s race. However, the pair had different ideas about where the overtake would happen.
Hartley planned to let his team-mate through after the hairpin at turn 14 but Gasly thought it would be before the corner. As a result, they came together and debris was left all over the corner – made worse by the larger pieces being broken into smaller bits by other cars. When the debris proved too much, the safety car was released and Ricciardo’s victory was on the cards.
Gasly had recorded his best ever F1 result the weekend before in Bahrain but he could only finish 18th, while team-mate Hartley retired with a gearbox issue.
Another Grand Prix weekend, another top ten finish for Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. This season, the German has qualified in eighth position at the Australian and Bahrain Grand Prix and he took seventh place last weekend at the Chinese Grand Prix. Whereas, Alonso’s McLaren does not perform well in the one-lap test on Saturday as he has not made it into the final qualifying session yet this season.
Nonetheless on Sunday, the former World Champion manages to find something extra and has drastically improved his positions finishing fifth, seventh and seventh. Hulkenberg has also improved his starting position in each race to finish in seventh, seventh and sixth respectively. In the constructors’ championship, the duo are level on points and each driver will be vital to where their team finish at the end of the season. Renault, as the engine provider to McLaren, will aim to finish ahead of the Woking-based team.
As we head towards the European leg of the calendar, next up is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix which takes place on the weekend of 27th-29th April.
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