Since 2014 there have been six instances of daylight robbery within Formula 1’s travelling circus. The first such instance occurred at the 2014 Canadian Grand Prix where the suspect, acting under the pseudonym ‘The Honey Badger’, stole the race victory with just two laps of the race remaining.
There were similar instances later that year in Hungary – again, with just two laps to go – and Belgium. Then, in 2016, the victory thief took spoils that were destined for another in Malaysia. And last year, at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he struck again, stealing the victory from a field busy squabbling amongst themselves.
Now it’s happened once more, at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix, where circumstances afforded the Honey Badger an opportunity to snatch victory again.
The suspect? One Daniel Ricciardo of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing.
It only takes one spark to start a fire, and in China that spark came from a calamitous error by Pierre Gasly as he careened into the back of his team-mate Brendon Hartley on lap thirty. Cue the safety car and behind a crash helmet adorned with the Australian flag a nose that smelled an opportunity. And that smile…
The resulting safety car would change the complexion of the race. Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari had by that point already thrown away the lead, stopping a lap later than the pursuing Valtteri Bottas to become the latest victim of the fresh-Pirelli induced ‘undercut’.
Bottas led Vettel and the aggressive starting Max Verstappen, the three running ahead of a subdued Lewis Hamilton and a Kimi Raikkonen you can’t help but feel is already the number one tool in Vettel’s championship assault.
As the rest joined the queue behind the safety car, Red Bull threw the dice; both Verstappen and Ricciardo pitted for fresh, yellow-walled Soft tyres, a strategy call that would change their fortunes and create a modern-day classic grand prix.
Verstappen was in the box seat: fourth and on the freshest tyres. But an over-ambitious, over-exuberant, over-everything move around the outside of Hamilton at the flat-out turn seven saw Verstappen exit stage right and lose out to Ricciardo.
And there started the master class…
SOMETIMES YOU JUST GOTTA LICK THE STAMP AND SEND IT…
As well as pinching race victories from his rivals, Ricciardo has made a habit of embarrassing them with audacious, edge-of-your-seat, how-on-earth-did-he-do-that moves. We’ve seen overtakes from Ricciardo before, at places like Monza, Spa and now Shanghai that make us mere mortals gasp. Hell, his style of late-braking, round-the-outside, down-the-inside moves make other racers gasp!
Ricciardo overtook Hamilton into the turn fourteen hairpin for third from such a distance that he made the reigning, four-time world champion look foolish. The Aussie’s feel under braking is such that he can brake later than any other driver in the field, keep all four wheels rotating and still make the apex of the corner, giving his rivals no opportunity to return serve.
Ricciardo said of the move “sometimes you just gotta lick the stamp and send it.” And send it he did, right down the champion’s throat.
The other weapon in Ricciardo’s armoury, as showcased sublimely in Shanghai, is his ability to strike immediately, whatever the situation or corner he faces once he’s caught his rival. Whether he needs to dive down the inside or sweep around the outside, he is the last of the late-brakers and will get the job done with surgical precision.
On lap forty-five of fifty-six Ricciardo made his move to steal the victory from Valtteri Bottas. On fresher tyres he closed in through the winding turns one, two and three and at the established braking point for turn six Ricciardo dived to the inside, braking beyond that established braking point and sliced through Bottas’s stout, firm but fair defence.
It was a flurry of eye-widening wheel-to-wheel-ness followed by serene calm as once again Ricciardo clipped the apex and escaped the corner with the race lead in hand, leaving Bottas to ponder on what more he could’ve done to resist an attack from the Honey Badger. The answer? Nothing.
None of Ricciardo’s six wins have come from starting within the top three and yet, his victory in this year’s Chinese Grand Prix from sixth on the grid was perhaps his sweetest, owing largely to his disastrous run up the event.
Just one week previous, in Bahrain, Ricciardo was the race’s first retirement. And come Saturday morning in China, the Tag Heuer-branded Renault engine in the back of his Red Bull expired in an explosion of smoke, nuts and bolts.
He only narrowly made it out in qualifying and his victory owes as much to his mechanics’ tireless efforts as it does his incredible overtaking prowess.
Make no mistake; Red Bull will play a key role in the outcome of this world championship. Whether it’s Ricciardo stealing victories or Verstappen’s exuberance getting the better of him and those around…
GIVEN WINGS? EXPECT THE ODD FALL
An example of the latter came on lap forty-three when Verstappen was presented with half an opportunity to overtake Vettel for a spot on the podium. With Vettel’s tyres fading and Verstappen’s still in good shape the former missed the apex of the tight turn fourteen hairpin.
With the door ajar if not entirely open, Verstappen steamed in too hot, locked the rear wheels and he and Vettel performed a synchronised pirouette. Raikkonen sneaked by Hamilton in the melee to claim third while Verstappen recovered to cross the line fourth only for a ten-second penalty to drop him to fifth.
Vettel dropped to eighth and accepted Verstappen’s post-race apology but now leads the championship by just nine points.
The big question to come from this year’s Chinese Grand Prix then: does Verstappen need to change his approach, calm down and exert patience in race-deciding moments? Arguably yes, he does. But wouldn’t that be akin to clipping the wings of one of the sport’s most exciting drivers?
TWO OUT OF THREE AIN’T BAD
2018 got off to a precarious start with a lacklustre race in Australia but Bahrain and China have made up for the false start. Next, Formula 1 heads to Azerbaijan, scene of a Ricciardo wonder-win last year, where Sebastian Vettel will look to regain lost ground and Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport will look to score their first win of the season.
Fernando Alonso will attempt to continue his 100% scoring run while Williams Martini Racing will hope to get off the mark in a mid-field that showed in China to be more competitive than ever.
But more than that, the likes of Vettel, Hamilton, Raikkonen and Bottas need to watch their back for the next Honey Badger attack…