SHANGHAI, China -- Daniel Ricciardo emerged victorious at a mesmerising Chinese Grand Prix after the lead changed several times and drama unfolded among the top six drivers.
Strategy, controversy and some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing for years combined to create a 56-lap thriller in which Ricciardo jumped from sixth under a Safety Car on lap 35 to the lead of the race in less than ten laps.
Key to Red Bull's first victory of the year was a decision to fit fresh soft tyres on both Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen under the Safety Car to allow them to attack Ferrari and Mercedes, which had traded the lead of the race up to that point. Verstappen was ahead of Ricciardo at the restart, but blew his opportunity with botched overtakes on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel -- the second of which caused both drivers to spin and resulted in a ten-second penalty for the Dutchman.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo exhibited some of the best overtaking in recent years to pick off Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel and finally Valtteri Bottas, who was leading the race when the Safety Car came out. The well-deserved victory comes just at the right time for the Red Bull driver after disappointing results and power unit failures up to now and leaves him fourth in a closely bunched drivers' championship.
Bottas held on for second in the Mercedes despite coming under attack from Raikkonen, who benefitted from the clash between Verstappen and his teammate Vettel. Verstappen finished fourth on the road but after his penalty was applied he dropped to fifth in the final standings.
That promoted Hamilton to fourth while Nico Hulkenberg took sixth after Renault adopted the same strategy as the Red Bulls under the Safety Car. Vettel never recovered from the hit from Verstappen and lost seventh place to McLaren's Fernando Alonso on the penultimate lap before nearly losing eighth to Carlos Sainz on the final lap. Kevin Magnussen took the final point on offer in tenth.
How the race unfolded
The opening laps of the race looked fairly routine as Vettel held the lead from pole position and Bottas slipped ahead of Raikkonen to take second at the first corner. Verstappen made use of softer tyres than the front four on the grid to pass Hamilton at Turn 3 and Raikkonen at Turn 6 to position himself third by the end of the first lap.
Bottas stayed within four seconds of Vettel throughout the opening stint but did not appear to have the pace to seriously challenge the Ferrari. Mercedes took a punt on pitting him first for medium tyres and the decision proved to be pivotal for his race. On fresh rubber Bottas started lighting up the timing screens, and even though Ferrari reacted on the next lap by pitting Vettel, it was too late with the championship leader emerging from his tyre change 1.3s behind the Mercedes.
Raikkonen was still on track and leading the race at that point, albeit without making a stop. Ferrari used the Finn and his worn tyres to hold up Bottas and allow Vettel to close, but it proved costly for the No.7 Ferrari which emerged in sixth place once he made a pit stop of his own on lap 27.
By that point Bottas' lead looked comfortable again but it only lasted for a handful of laps before the two Toro Rossos clashed at Turn 14 while battling for position. Pierre Gasly threw his car up the inside of teammate Brendon Hartley, but if the New Zealander was supposed to get out of the way he didn't receive the message and the resulting collision left debris across the track.
With no way for the marshals to clear the debris safely, the Safety Car was deployed on lap 31, offering strategy opportunity for anyone daring enough to take it. Red Bull didn't need asking twice and immediately pitted both cars from worn medium compound tyres to fresh softs. The decision proved inspired and although Verstappen dropped from third to fourth and Ricciardo from fifth to sixth in the process of pitting, it put both drivers on faster fresher tyres for the 26-lap sprint to the finish.
Verstappen was in the stronger position of the two Red Bull teammates but threw away a potential victory on lap 39 when he tried an over-optimistic move on Hamilton at Turn 7. The Dutchman had got his car alongside Hamilton at Turn 6 but couldn't get the move done there and instead chose to look to the outside at Turn 7. Out on the dirty part of the track, Verstappen lost rear grip and ran wide as Hamilton continued in fourth and Ricciardo slipped past for fifth.
One lap later and Ricciardo showed his younger teammate how it should be done with a bold but clinical overtake on Hamilton at Turn 14. The Red Bull came from so far back that the four-time world champion didn't even try to defend and with it Ricciardo started his late charge for victory.
On lap 42 Verstappen completed a clean pass on Hamilton for fourth at Turn 6 before Ricciardo snatched second from Vettel on the long back straight. With the pace its cars were showing, Red Bull was still on for a one-two finish but Verstappen appeared to lose his cool and made another error while trying to pass Vettel for third.
Once again, the 20-year-old was way too over-optimistic as he lunged to the inside of the Ferrari at Turn 14, only to make contact when Vettel turned in to take the corner. The collision spun both cars and dropped them to fifth and sixth, with Vettel losing another place to Hulkenberg at Turn 1 on the following lap.
By now Ricciardo was right on the tail of Bottas and was using his fresher tyres to close the gap to the lead. At Turn 6 on lap 45 Ricciardo saw his chance, but Bottas was wise to the Australian's reputation for braking late and squeezed the Red Bull to the inside of the corner.
Remarkably Ricciardo remained committed to the move and completed it at the apex with just inches to spare, taking the lead with arguably the best overtake of the race. By the chequered flag he had increased his gap to Bottas to 8.9s, with the Mercedes left to defend second place from Raikkonen in the closing laps.
The result not only proves F1 racing is alive and well, it also shakes up the drivers' standings, with Vettel leading Hamilton by just nine points after three rounds and Bottas by 14. Ricciardo, meanwhile, is fourth and 17 points off Vettel despite a DNF at the second round in Bahrain.