Feature image: sbnation.com
Sitting in the Red Bull garage on a humid Saturday afternoon at the Shanghai International Circuit, Daniel Ricciardo wasn’t sure if he would be starting at the back of the grid or not for the race tomorrow afternoon. In the free practice session earlier that day, his turbo had failed which required a complete rebuild from the mechanics.
The speediness of the Red Bull mechanics and crew is something that has become the norm for them, more recently when they fixed Max Verstappen’s suspension in the minutes before the formation lap at the 2020 Hungarian Grand Prix. With only three minutes left in the first Qualifying session, the #3 Red Bull left the garage to squeeze in a single hot lap.
He scraped through into Q2 after setting the 14th fastest lap and turned his misfortune around to take P6 on the grid for the race. Ferrari locked out the front row for the second consecutive race with the Mercedes taking the second row and Red Bull taking the third. With Sebastian Vettel already victorious in Australia and Bahrain, it was time for someone else to take the spoils.
As Vettel got to an excellent start, his team-mate beside him lost out to Bottas and Verstappen at the first corner. Hamilton lost out as well, putting him in P5 with Ricciardo behind. At the first set of pit stops, the Red Bull crew serviced a double stack in lightning quick fashion which wouldn’t be their only one of the race.
Valtteri Bottas successfully pulled off an undercut on the German who came out behind the Finn on lap 21 and overtook an out of grip Kimi Räikkönen shortly after. Nine laps later, the two Toro Rosso’s clashed at turn 14 and a safety car was brought out to clear debris. At the moment the safety car was called out, Mercedes and Vettel missed chances to bring their drivers in for a pit stop.
Red Bull took the initiative to put fresh rubber on both of their drivers and produced another rapid double stack for Verstappen and Ricciardo. Frustrated about not being able to get a free pit stop under the safety car, Lewis Hamilton radioed to his team, ‘Is it me or have I got a bunch of cars with new tires on behind me?’.
After the safety car crawled back into the pits, Ricciardo got to work. Running in P6, it took two laps for him to take his first victim in Kimi Räikkönen at turn 14. The Australian made it look easy, showing excellent race-craft to out-brake the Iceman.
Now behind his team-mate, Ricciardo watched Verstappen go wide after losing the back end as he attempted to go around the outside of Hamilton at turn 7. Ricciardo easily swooped into P4 and probably saved himself and Verstappen from having a squabble for position anyway. The Australian now had his sights set on a Silver Arrow and a podium position.
Even after closing up on the Mercedes in front of him going into the back straight, it didn’t really look as if Ricciardo would get close enough to try a move at the heavy braking turn 14. In what was up there with the overtake of the season, the honey badger sent his RB14 down the inside of Hamilton’s W09 and got a clean exit into P3.
At this point, Ricciardo looked unstoppable and he made quick work of getting right behind Sebastian Vettel’s gearbox only a few laps later. Again, on that long back straight, Ricciardo tucked into the slipstream and comfortably sent one past the Ferrari into P2. At this point, I’m sure Valtteri Bottas would have been dreading to see the sight of the Red Bull in his mirrors.
Verstappen had managed to get past Hamilton and was attempting to copy what his team-mate had done to the German a few laps earlier. Except instead the young Dutchman turned right into Vettel and they both went for a spin in a move best described by Martin Brundle as ‘a day late and a dollar short’. Verstappen was handed a 10-second penalty for the move and the championship leaders’ race was effectively ruined.
The charging Australian caught up to Bottas on lap 45 and managed to squeeze past him at turn six through a gap which the Finn would have thought he had covered. He took the lead and sped off from the Mercedes, comfortably taking the chequered flag eleven laps later. It was Daniel Ricciardo’s sixth Formula One victory and just like the other five, it came without him starting in the top three.
Since leaving Red Bull at the end of the 2018 season, he has yet to stand on the top step of the podium since. After McLaren’s performance in 2020 which saw them take third place in the constructor’s championship, they are looking to be a dark horse at being race winners in 2021. With Daniel Ricciardo behind the wheel of the MCL35M next season, I’m sure anything can be possible.
[This article was originally written and posted by me to DriveTribe in January 2021]