The Chinese Grand Prix re-confirmed that F1 2018 is shaping up to be an absolutely awesome season.
The Ferrari versus Mercedes battle was well and truly on but this time Red Bull were right in the mix as well. This turned into a brilliant battle on the track and in the pits with a hugely popular winner in Daniel Ricciardo in the end.
Throughout Friday and Saturday it was freezing cold and everyone was expecting the Mercedes drivers to be on strong.
In Bahrain, the consensus seemed to be that the hotter temperatures hurt the silver arrows as they were struggling with the rear tyre temperatures. The cooler conditions combined with a less abrasive asphalt, should have helped them and certainly at the start of the weekend, Hamilton looked devastating in the opening practice session.
But as the weekend developed, Ferrari got stronger and stronger. Already in FP2 we could see from the long runs that the top three teams were all going to be evenly matched. Red Bull clearly didn’t have the one lap pace but in the race, they would be right there.
When we woke up to grey skies and 12 degrees air temperature on Saturday, it seemed like the Mercedes drivers were struggling more than the Ferraris to switch the tyres on. The red cars were half a second clear of the pack and when you look at the time deltas, the gap between Ferrari and Red Bull seemed normal, however the Mercedes drivers were less than two tenths ahead of Max Verstappen.
This was an indication of Mercedes going backwards, rather than Ferrari and Red Bull going forward.
Those of you who saw our coverage on Channel 4 would have seen the qualifying lap comparison I did between Vettel and Bottas, who for the second week in a row outqualified his illustrious team-mate.
Bottas lost 0.43 of a second just in the first part of the lap until turn six and actually around the rest of the lap, he only lost another half tenth in the corners and half a tenth on the straight. This, to me, indicates that in the early part of the lap, the Mercedes drivers couldn’t get the tyres switched on, but as the lap went along and the temperature built, the car started to come alive.
Fundamentally, the Mercedes and the Ferrari are actually very evenly matched and I don’t believe for a moment that the Ferrari is half a second faster than the Mercedes.
The tyre temperatures continue to be very tricky to manage and the operating window, particularly of the ultra soft, is very small. This means that getting it right on the day and on the lap when it counts, could be the difference between being on pole position or fourth on the grid.
The Red Bulls opted to use the ultra soft tyres in Q2 in Qualifying, which meant that they had to start the Grand Prix on that tyre. That was a bit of a surprise but frankly the team did an incredible job just to get Daniel Ricciardo’s car in the session after another Renault turbo and engine change after the final free practice session.
I saw the gearbox off the car with 15 minutes to go before the session and it was a monumental effort by the team to deliver the car in time for Qualifying.
The weather on race day was completely different to what we had seen all weekend. Blue skies and a track bathed in sunshine pushed the track temperature to be a full 20 degrees hotter than in Qualifying - a huge amount in F1 terms. This threw in a real curve ball for the teams and would mean that they would have to really think on their feet and react to each others' strategic moves.
Raikkonnen was driving well all weekend and made the best start of the guys at the front, only to be chopped off by Vettel. This allowed Bottas to swoop around the outside and Verstappen to follow through as well. In the early stages, Seb and Valtteri seemed to be in a class of their own and gradually edged away from the pack of Max, Kimi, Lewis and Daniel.
Things remained in status quo until Red Bull pulled in both drivers for a double stop on lap 17 and this set off a chain reaction. Mercedes could see from Verstappen’s mighty outlap that the undercut was working and elected to bring first Lewis and then Valtteri in to jump the Ferraris.
When Ferrari saw Lewis come in, they really should have pre-empted a stop for Bottas and pitted Vettel, but they probably believed that the 3.2 second advantage he had would be enough to cover off the challenge from Bottas. A mighty outlap from Bottas combined with a slightly slower stop by Ferrari (no doubt a bit nervous after the incident in Bahrain) meant that the German lost the net lead of the Grand Prix.
Ferrari opted to have Kimi out for a long first stint, which never really seemed like it was going to work out in these higher temperatures. Once he pitted, the race went into a bit of a lull until the two Toro Rosso’s committed the ultimate sin for team-mates when they collided at the hairpin. This triggered a safety car period and the race came alive!
Red Bull showed some impressive quick thinking by pulling both cars into the pits for new tyres immediately when the safety car was deployed. They only had about 10 seconds from when the safety car came out to when Max was going to cross the pit entry, but in that time they made the right call.
Mercedes, despite having an extra 2.5 seconds to make the decision, did not call the reigning World Champion in and Lewis’ frustration was clear on the radio transmissions that were broadcast.
This set us up for a brilliant final twenty laps with Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton running at the front on used tyres followed by Max, Kimi and Daniel poised to attack on their fresher rubber. I remember saying in the commentary that Max just had to be patient and he could win this race.
A few seconds later, he chose to try and pass Lewis around the outside of the fast left hander at turn seven! That was a move that was never going to work and sure enough he ended up off track and behind Daniel.
Max is a once-in-a-generation talent and the car seems to work very well on Sundays. The Red Bull team are brilliant operationally and if only he was just a bit more patient and made less errors, he would have a lot more points on the board. I’m happy to admit that I’m a fan and think that most people are. He’s young, dynamic and devastatingly fast. Now, he just needs some patience.
I have no doubt that if Max waited a bit, he would have breezed past Lewis further round the lap and then would have been in a great position to pick off Seb and Valtteri. As it turned out, he ended up crashing into Sebastian and in the end left it to his team-mate to demonstrate how to pick them off one by one.
Daniel waited and chose his moments wisely with Lewis and Sebastian with nice and clean moves before executing a bold pass on Valtteri Bottas into turn six. His confidence and feel on the brakes has always been one of his strengths and Daniel made full use of the opportunity presented to him. It was a fantastic reward for his mechanics and the Red Bull team on the whole who have had a tough couple of weeks.
On the whole, I thought that Bottas and Vettel drove superbly this weekend and both deserved more than they got. Hamilton benefitted from Max’s error and leaves China a relieved man after gaining some points on his Ferrari rival.
Off to Baku next where the temperatures are going to be very different to our previous two visits there.
This is going to be another race where the combination of circuit layout, surface and temperatures are going to be different to anything else we’ve seen this year. Think back to last year’s wild race and we can certainly expect the unexpected. Bring it on!