A collision, a safety car and a Red Bull gamble. Those three ingredients delivered the most exciting Grand Prix in recent memory. Sebastian Vettel led. Then Valtteri Bottas led. But it was Daniel Ricciardo who came out on top when it mattered the most.
The opening stint of the Chinese Grand Prix was largely free of drama, with Vettel on course for his third win in as many races this season. But it exploded into life when Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly went from hero to zero.
He committed F1’s cardinal sin by crashing into team mate Brendon Hartley at the hairpin on Lap 30 of the 56, scattering debris across the track.
The safety car was called into action and Red Bull responded, pulling both Max Verstappen and Ricciardo into the pits from third and fifth respectively and fitting them with soft tyres.
They may have lost a place apiece, but when the safety car was recalled, their pace advantage over the Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen and Mercedes’ Bottas and Lewis Hamilton became clear.
Verstappen, ahead on the road, was best-placed to make the most of the turn of events, but he ran off track when trying an unrealistic move on Hamilton and then got it all wrong when he hit Vettel at the hairpin while trying to recover.
His team mate Ricciardo made no mistake, however, showing him how it was done. He launched one of his trademark attacks from way back, to dive down the inside of Hamilton at the hairpin. He then picked of Vettel easily and then seized the lead from Bottas with a similarly bold move.
The Australian than powered off into the distance to secure his first victory since last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, with Bottas second for the second successive race.
It was still an impressive performance by Bottas, who made up for a lack of attack in Bahrain with a decisive move on Raikkonen for the lead. Had the safety car not been called, or had Bottas pitted at the same time as the Red Bulls, he would have likely have won.
Raikkonen took third – a reward for a strong opening phase, which actually resulted in him falling back, and seemingly being hung out to dry by Ferrari as they appeared to try and use him to help bring Vettel back into play.
Verstappen crossed the line fourth, but that turned into fifth as the stewards handed him a 10-second penalty for hitting Vettel. Hamilton, who has been off colour all weekend, salvaged fifth.
Nico Hulkenberg was a superb sixth for Renault, with Fernando Alonso getting his elbows out and squeezing Vettel, who was struggling with his tyres, off track in the opening sequence for seventh.
Renault’s Carlos Sainz and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen completed the top 10 in a race that will live very long in the memory.
The result tightens up the drivers’ championship, with Vettel’s lead narrowed to nine points over Hamilton, 54 to 45, with Bottas just five back on 40 and Ricciardo – who also set the fastest lap and picked up the Driver of the Day Award – leaping up to fourth on 37.
In the constructors’ stakes, Mercedes now have a one-point advantage over Ferrari, 85 to 84, with Red Bull moving into a clear third place on 55.
The F1 circus heads to Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time.