Victories have been hard to come by in Daniel Ricciardo’s Formula One career, but every one of them have been an action-packed thriller. His Shanghai overtaking masterclass was no exception.
“I never seem to win boring races, they’re all pretty fun” giggled Ricciardo after his sixth win, the adrenalin that powered him to five overtakes in nine laps still coursing through his veins.
It was a sublime example of the skills that place the Australian in the top echelon of grand prix drivers. His feel for the brakes is perhaps second to none, and his seemingly impossible long-range strikes into heavy braking zones — the hairpin at the end of the Shanghai International Circuit back straight a prime example — have become his trademark.
His sixth sense for overtaking opportunities turns this ability into the weapon he used so effectively against his title rivals on Sunday afternoon — and he needed to be firing at full power, too, because Ricciardo was perhaps the least likely winner of the six competitors in victory contention for the Chinese Grand Prix.
Indeed the Red Bull Racing driver was lucky to even qualify for the race after losing most of his Saturday morning practice time to an engine failure.
His mechanics worked overtime to prepare his car in less than three hours, and in what team principal Christian Horner predicted would be a “miracle”, the Australian made it out with three minutes remaining on the clock and qualified sixth.
But he probably would’ve finished where he started had it not been for a lap-31 safety car. Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen were perfectly positioned to pit for a fresh set of the softs, and the race thereafter turned into an overtaking bonanza.
Ricciardo took just two laps to make short work of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari for fifth, and two laps later he was past his teammate, who botched an overtaking attempt on Lewis Hamilton, for fourth. One more lap and the Australian would be past the Briton, too, with a daring trademark lunge into turn 14 for third.
It took only two laps more to steal second place from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel — a textbook slipstream down the back straight — and three laps later Valtteri Bottas’s race lead came under pressure from the relentless Ricciardo, who slid himself into a shrinking gap at turn six to finish the Finn’s hopes of victory in his 100th grand prix.
Now in a winning position, Daniel sprinted off into the distance, setting the fastest lap of the race for good measure.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to lick the stamp and send it,” he said, attempting to sum up his aggressive final stint. “A lot of the time you get one chance to try, so I made the most of every opportunity.”
It was a particularly satisfying win on a day his highly rated teammate, the 20-year-old Verstappen, failed to grasp his own opportunity to snatch victory, erring in his attempted pass on Hamilton and later fumbling his chance against Vettel, crashing into the German and ruining his race.
It’s a comparison sure to figure in Ricciardo’s contract negotiations with Red Bull Racing — the 28-year-old is a free agent at the end of the season and fielding offers for a deal to span the prime of his career.
Formula One left China brimming with optimism for the season ahead. Red Bull Racing has joined the title fight and just 24 points separate the top four drivers in the championship standings.
With Mercedes no longer holding a decisive pace advantage — indeed the Silver Arrows is yet to win in 2018 — the race for the championship appears wide open.